Indonesian fishing boat found with banned trawl sheds light on law enforcement challenges

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  • A vessel seized for fishing in a prohibited area in Indonesia may also have used a type of trawl that was banned due to its destructive impact on fish stocks.
  • The KM Sinar Samudra was seized off the Natuna Islands on February 18 and subsequent inspection revealed a banned cantrang trawl on board.
  • The captain of the boat denied that the net had ever been used for fishing and the police chose not to press charges for using illegal fishing gear.
  • Fisheries watchers say the case highlights the challenge of controlling the type of gear fishermen use in one of the biggest fishing nations in the world.

NATUNA, Indonesia – A fishing boat seized by Indonesian authorities for a zoning violation was doing more than just fishing out of bounds, local fishermen say: it may have used a type of destructive net that is banned across the country .

Local marine police seized the Indonesian-flagged KM Sinar Samudra on February 18 after finding it fishing less than 13 nautical miles (24 kilometers) off the coast of the Natuna Islands. At 130 gross tons (GT), the ship should have been sailing at least 30 nautical miles (56 km) offshore, under a fisheries law provision for vessels over 30 GT.

An inspection of the vessel revealed two types of fishing gear on board, one of which appeared to be a cantrang, a trawl initially banned in 2015 for being destructive; a 2010 study watch that nearly 50% of cantrang catches were bycatch and discards.

The KM Sinar Samudra. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.
Inspectors check a net aboard the KM Sinar Samudra after it was seized for fishing in a prohibited area. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

The ban on cantrang was provisionally lifted shortly after it came into force, to grant an exemption to fishermen on the north coast of the island of Java, and was revoked entirely in November 2020. In July 2021, the ministry of Fisheries reimposed the nationwide ban on cantrang and other destructive fishing gear to protect the country’s precious marine resources.

The KM Sinar Samudra was part of the fleet of fishing vessels off the North Java Coast that were enlisted as an unofficial navy by the Indonesian government to fish with their cantrang nets in the waters around the Natuna Islands between Sumatra and Borneo in late 2019 and early 2020. The move aimed to establish a strong Indonesian presence there to counter incursions into the region by Chinese fishing boats; while China has not explicitly claimed the waters of Natuna, its controversial “nine-dash line” includes the area, which is recognized by the rest of the world as Indonesian waters.

For KM Sinar Samudra, that means he would have been allowed to use a cantrang net until last July. Marine investigators searching the vessel after the zoning violation seizure discovered it had a cantrang on board, and although the captain confirmed the type of net, he said it had never been deployed for the sin. The police chose not to press charges for the use of illegal fishing gear.

“As long as the equipment was not used and it was for repair purposes, it’s not a problem,” Sandy Pratama Putra, Natuna’s marine police chief, told Mongabay- Indonesia on February 25. He added that the matter had been handed over to the fisheries ministry for further investigation.

But local fishermen on the Natuna Islands, who have been clashing with the better-equipped Java fishermen since the latter arrived in the area, say the KM Sinar Samudra was probably using her cantrang to catch fish. Hendri, the president of the Natuna Fishers Alliance, pointed out that the other net found aboard the ship, with a square mesh rather than the diamond-shaped mesh of a cantrang, “looks clean as new”, although the KM Sinar Samudra caught 10 tons of fish.

Hendri joined an inspection of the vessel on February 22, where he observed the fishing gear on board.

“Police wouldn’t use the cantrang as evidence because the captain of the boat claimed it was never used, but would a thief confess to the crime?” Hendri said.

“They would show [port inspectors] the other net but would actually use the cantrang at sea,” he added.

Maritime authorities and local fishermen carry out an inspection on board the KM Sinar Samudra. One of the nets found on the vessel was a square mesh bottom trawl, known as a tarik berkantong net, which is the approved replacement for the banned cantrang trawl. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.
One of the two nets found aboard the KM Sinar Samudra. The diamond-shaped mesh distinguishes it as a cantrang trawl, which is banned nationwide. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Fisheries watchers have called on the ministry to take the KM Sinar Samudra case as a wake-up call to strengthen monitoring of fishing gear in ports and at sea. They say the ministry must conduct an independent scientific study on the real impacts of the square mesh grid tarik berkantong nets that have been approved to replace cantrang.

“The Tarik berkantong nets are very similar to the cantrang that the government has banned,” said Mohammad Abdi Suhufan, national coordinator of the NGO Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia. “Cantrang fishermen can be quite skilled.”

Abdi also called on all fishermen to participate in surveillance at sea, noting that Indonesia lacks marine inspectors.

Natuna fisherman Hendri has called for a temporary ban on tarik berkantong nets until its impacts on fish stocks and the environment are better understood. “We hope the tarik berkantong nets will be canceled or put on a moratorium until we know exactly what it is,” he said.

This story was reported by the Indonesian Mongabay team and first published here and here on our indonesian site March 2 and 5, 2022.

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