A few weeks ago, Indonesia sank forty-one fishing vessels after catching their crews fishing illegally in its waters. The event was an important first. A market and biosphere that has been barely regulated — where regulations often were poorly enforced and few incentives existed to play by the rules — saw a huge penalty for illegal behavior.
But perhaps more importantly, the move, which targeted vessels from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and China, was referred not to be “a show of force. This is just merely enforcing our laws,” Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti told the Jakarta Post).
International targeting is good reason for hope. Previously, vessels could sail away from their own shores and exploit fisheries far away with impunity. The sinking of a Chinese ship shows Indonesia’s particular boldness to preserve a crucial resource for their own economy and the world: fisheries and marine ecosystems.
The move might seem as destructive and provocative to some — yet, it is essential. Globally, 87 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or overly exploited. We are pulling fish out of the sea faster than they can naturally restore their populations. There are many drivers for this insidious problem, which makes food scarcer even as global food demand is set to grow. The oceans suffer from a classical “Tragedy of the Commons” situation, in addition to poor regulation structures, lack of governance on the high seas, and poor enforcement of the shoddy regulatory frameworks that do exist. But the tide is beginning to change.
In the past years, hundreds of thousands of square miles have been set aside as Marine Protected Area , forbidding fishing and mining within their boundaries. President Obama’s expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument represents the largest nature reserve created on land or sea in history. And as MPAs have grown, so too has the world’s resolve to target Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing. Earlier in the year, Google, Skytruth, and Oceana, launched the Global Fishing Watch, a system to monitor global fishing and pinpoint locations of illegal fishing in real time.
The ability to monitor large expanses of sea greatly facilitates enforcement of the important rules that can restore health to our marine ecosystems and ensure food supply for years to come. Yet, monitoring would be virtually meaningless without enforcement and punishment. That’s why sinking boats give me real hope.
In the time since Indonesia’s boat sinking, Palau has followed suit, burning and sinking Vietnamese fishing vessels that were caught in their waters. The act sends a strong message: sacking shared fishery resources will not be tolerated — even by small nations with little power projection.
These moves are the first to provide a truly strong disincentive for disobeying the rules of the sea. Furthermore, the sunken ships will serve a new, much more productive function as artificial reefs. They will provide shelter and vibrant habitat for the fish they previously threatened. New MPAs and sinking illegal ships will keep marine ecosystems afloat, and we should be glad of it.
Sebastian Nicholls is a rising senior in the School of Foreign Service. Forward Footprint appears every other Thursday.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.