When Indonesia took 23 foreign fishing vessels out of commission this week for illegally operating in its waters, it didn’t do so quietly. Instead it blew them up simultaneously in an event live-streamed to the ministry of maritime affairs and fisheries, with the local media present and feeds coming in from the boats’ seven locations. Rather than the offending vessels being destroyed one by one on separate days, they were saved for the synchronized sinking on April 5.
That follows the dramatic sinking of nearly 40 such boats on Independence Day last August, and of a similar number for National Awakening Day three months earlier. And, despite environmental concerns, there have been many other examples in recent years of the government blowing up illegal fishing vessels in an undeniably entertaining fashion—even if officials downplay the entertainment aspect.
“It is actually not fun blowing up ships, but we have to create a deterrent and uphold our constitution,” Susi Pudjiastuti told the Straits Times this week. Pudjiastuti is the archipelago nation’s popular, feisty minister of maritime affairs and fisheries. A former entrepreneur, she’s brought focus and energy to Indonesia’s efforts to attack illegal fishing and make itself a maritime power.
Most of the boats that go down are foreign vessels. In this week’s mass sinking, 13 of the 23 vessels were from Vietnam, 10 from Malaysia. Only four of the 38 boats downed for last year’s Independence Day event were local. Almost all the others came from neighboring countries.
In some cases a downed boat has a more global than regional track record. Last month Indonesia blew up a highly detested ship wanted by over a dozen nations, which it sunk half-body outside a tourist area as a monument against illegal fishing.
Indonesia has even taken down a ship from China, despite the Asian powerhouse’s aggressive backing of its own distant-water fleet with force and political pressure. And “if there is an illegal fishing boat from America, we will also sink it,” Pudjiastuti said in the Wall Street Journal (paywall).
When president Joko Widodo came to power in 2014, he ordered the sinking of illegal foreign fishing boats as what he called “shock therapy,” the idea being that ships from no country would feel immune from Indonesia’s crackdown. He noted at the time (paywall) that of the approximately 5,400 fishing vessels operating in the nation’s waters on any given day, 90% of them were illegal; meanwhile, Indonesia loses billions of dollars every year to illegal fishing.