An explosive approach to recovering global fisheries

Indonesia sank 318 illegal fishing boats, banned foreign fishing and regulated transfers of fish at sea. Are those policies effective?

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by Reniel B. Cabral* and Michaela Clemence*

Sustainable Fisheries Group, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and Marine Science Institute, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB)


Our paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution is available here [1] and an interactive visualization of our results can be found here.

As we sat in the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta waiting to meet with the Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF), the honorable Susi Pudjiastuti, we didn’t know what to expect from the woman infamous for her unorthodox approach of blowing up foreign vessels to combat illegal fishing or how this meeting would inspire our research.

Christopher Costello’s bioeconomic models evaluating the potential upside of global fisheries reform [2] had caught Minister Susi’s attention at the 2015 World Ocean Summit, and she was interested in replicating a similar analysis for Indonesia. Our team from UCSB had traveled to Jakarta for the South-East Asia and Pacific Regional Fisheries Summit to present some of this preliminary work and to meet with Minister Susi and a team of Indonesian collaborators. Minister Susi had appointed Dr. Sonny Koeshendarajana from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF) (on far right in the photo below) to assemble a team of academic and government researchers to collaborate on sustainable fisheries research in Indonesia with the generous support of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Meeting with Minister Susi at the South-East Asia and Pacific Regional Fisheries Summit (From left to right: Michaela Clemence, Christopher Costello, Minister Susi, Reniel Cabral, Sonny Koeshendarajana)

One of Minister Susi’s staff came to usher us into the hotel suite where she was hosting meetings for the day. The honorable Ibu Susi was wearing a bright orange Indonesian batik and greeted us with enthusiasm before kicking off her shoes, settling into an armchair and launching into conservation. Within a few minutes, it was clear that the most pressing issue on her mind was illegal fishing by foreign fleet and understanding the effectiveness of her policies. Shortly after taking office, Ibu Susi vowed to ban foreign fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and threatened to confiscate and sink foreign vessels fishing within Indonesia’s EEZ. She delivered on her promise and at the time we had met with her, it was rumored that she had sank over 200 foreign vessels engaged in illegal fishing activities. As we spoke with this pioneering Minister, it became clear to us that we wanted to take our research beyond developing models on what could happen if Indonesia reformed their fisheries and conduct an empirical analysis on the progress that has already been made in Indonesia as a result of Minister Susi’s strict anti-illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing policies. A range of questions swam in our heads as we left the meeting with Minister Susi – how many vessels have been sunk? (see table below) How much has fishing effort been reduced as a result of these policies? Is the decrease in fishing effort sufficient to kick-start fishery recovery in Indonesia?

Number of IUU boats per flag state sunk by the Indonesian government (see Supplementary Fig. 3 of our paper)

Country 2014 (Oct-Dec) 2015 2016 2017 (Jan-Mar) Total
Vietnam 3 36 59 46 144
Philippines 1 35 22 18 76
Malaysia 12 27 11 50
Indonesia 10 5 7 22
Thailand 2 19 21
Papua New Guinea 2 2
China 1 1
Nigeria 1 1
Belize 1 1
Total 8 113 115 82 318

A potential alternative pathway to sustainable fisheries

One of the most exciting aspects of this research is that countries can kick-start fishery recovery without the usual short term cost of reform, particularly in countries that can’t afford to have any additional costs. Many countries depend on the ocean directly to provide food and livelihoods to support coastal communities. Therefore, while the long term sustainability of these resources is important, so are the short term value and sustenance that fisheries provide. Fisheries reform can provide countries with more fish and more income in the long term, but can require decreases in effort, catch and profit in the short term. For many countries, reducing fishing effort is not a feasible option given the direct dependence on fisheries for food and primary income.

Most fishers in Southeast Asia survive day to day based on their catch. Advising fishers to temporarily stop fishing to allow fish to recover is a challenge as fishers don’t often have alternative livelihood options. In our research, we demonstrate that Indonesia and The Gambia’s anti-IUU fishing policies provided these countries the opportunity to advance fishery recovery without the usual cost of reform because illegal fishing by foreign fleet constituted a significant portion of the catch within their EEZs. By addressing IUU fishing by foreign fleets, domestic fishers may continue to fish at their given effort, while providing stocks the opportunity to recover due to effort alleviation from foreign fleets. We think that this approach could be applicable in other countries afflicted with high-level of IUU fishing. You can explore where countries are fishing using an interactive visualization tool Juan Mayorga, a co-author, developed here.

However, even in countries with high levels of IUU fishing by foreign fleets, addressing IUU fishing is not a panacea. IUU fishing can come in many forms, and IUU fishing by distant-water fleets is only one form of it. One important message that our paper conveys is that for Indonesia, or any country, to continually enjoy the fisheries benefits from their anti-IUU fishing policies, they need to manage their domestic fishing effort at the same time. If domestic fisheries remain unregulated, the benefits they gain by eliminating IUU fishing could be easily eroded in a short time.

A stellar international collaboration

We would not have been able to conduct our analyses without the rich collaboration and expertise of the Indonesian team that Dr. Sonny Koeshendarajana assembled. We worked closely with Dr. Umi Muawanah, Duto Nugroho, and Mira from MMAF to synthesize and interpret proprietary data. Dr. Sonny also pulled in academic experts, Drs. Zuzy Anna, Abdul Ghofar and Nimmi Zulbainarni from top universities to advise on the analyses. We collaborated with John Lynham from the University of Hawaii, who led the analysis of the night-light images, and also surprised our Indonesian colleagues by speaking fluent Bahasa Indonesia. We are also grateful to our partner, the Global Fishing Watch, for supporting our study.

Our team’s collaboration started over early morning and late night formal video conferences. As we got to know each other better, we shared many excellent Indonesian meals during workshops and meetings, as well as jokes and laughs. We hosted some of the team members at UCSB, and even received an Indonesian cooking lesson from Dr. Umi when she was visiting Santa Barbara. We are grateful to work with such an amazing team, and our complementary expertise were paramount to the success of this paper.

Dr. Umi Muawanah from Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries visits UCSB

Looking ahead

We hope that our research and our partnership with MMAF will help validate the effectiveness of Indonesia’s IUU policies. Minister Susi and MMAF have taken an unprecedented approach to combatting IUU fishing and promoting sustainable fisheries, and we found that these efforts have decreased fishing effort in Indonesia’s EEZ by at least 25%. While this is a great step towards promoting sustainable fisheries in Indonesia, it is important that researchers and policy makers continue collaborating to develop sound policies and management to protect the progress made thus far. Domestic fishing effort must be managed effectively to ensure that Indonesia can continue to support thriving fisheries and coastal communities. We believe that our partnership and this research have paved the way for sustainable fisheries management in Indonesia, and hope to continue our work to inform future sustainable fisheries policy.

We are also excited to continue exploring how addressing IUU fishing globally can serve as an alternative pathway to fisheries reform, where long term gains can be achieved without short term losses. IUU fishing accounts for 20% of global fish catch, representing a huge loss to legal and sustainable fishing operations. If countries can capitalize on the opportunity to combat IUU fishing to expedite their transition to sustainable fisheries management, it could improve the social, economic and biological condition of the oceans and coastal communities in both the short and long term.


[1] Cabral, R.B., Mayorga, J., Clemence, M., Lynham, J., Koeshendrajana, S., Muawanah, U., Nugroho, D., Anna, Z., Mira, Ghofar, A., Zulbainarni, N., Gaines, S.D., Costello, C., 2018. Rapid and lasting gains from solving illegal fishing. Nature Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0499-1.

[2] Costello, C., Ovando, D., Clavelle, T., Strauss, C.K., Hilborn, R., Melnychuk, M.C., Branch, T.A., Gaines, S.D., Szuwalski, C.S., Cabral, R.B. and Rader, D.N., 2016. Global fishery prospects under contrasting management regimes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 113(18),  pp. 5125-5129.

Reniel Cabral

Postdoctoral Researcher, University of California Santa Barbara