Fishing Rights as a Source of Conflict

Updated On: Jan 06, 2006

While the focus of late has been on mineral rights as an issue of contention between Southeast Asian states, very little has been focused on fishing rights thus far.


Clashes over fishing rights seem to be more characteristic of Northeast Asia than Southeast Asia. The clash between Indonesia and Thailand seem to be changing all these. The two states have been embroiled in an increasingly political issue. Out of the 120 illegal fishing boats seized by the Indonesian Navy in 2005, half of them were from Thailand. In one single week of December alone, the Indonesian Navy caught eight Thai trawlers manned by 87 crew members in the waters of Mapur, Bintan, Natuna and Karimun of the Riau archipelago. The Thais caught are then detained in the Indonesian Navy's outpost in Batam Island, just south of Singapore.


The Indonesian Navy, especially its Western Fleet Security Task Force Command, has been increasing its surveillance and detaining Thai trawlers that have been “aggressively” fishing around the Riau Islands. These Thai trawlers are built for massed catching techniques known as deep-sea bottom trawls to capture highly sought-after and highly priced lobsters, Napoleon fishes and tunas. This fishing technique is banned in Indonesia. The Thai trawlers are also hi-tech, armed with Global Positioning System equipment to track large concentration of fishes in the waters. With such hi-tech equipment, the Thais are able to obtain up to 3 tons of fishes, including lobster, Napoleon fish and tuna, in a single trip to the archipelago and reap 15,000 baht (Rp 3,600,000) for a single one-week trip. While this translates into profits for the Thais, the Indonesians face hundreds of billions of rupiah of losses annually as a consequence. In addition, the Thais also cause serious environmental damage to the Riau islands, including its irreplaceable coral reefs.


The temperature has been increased with a Fleet Admiral accusing the Thais of being a ‘thief’ in their territory and having little regard for the Indonesian Navy. The one-star rear admiral stressed that if the Thais continued their practice of fishing in Indonesian waters, the Navy would ‘sink their boats’ and ‘shoot them on the spot according to standard procedures’. The Thais seemed to be forced by circumstances in some way. The hike in oil prices of late has increased the hardship on the fishermen forcing them to venture further for larger catches or for higher-priced items. Many of the fishermen caught were merely acting out their orders from big fishing bosses who are pressed to squeeze more profits from the shrinking fish shoals in their own country.