In May, the port city of Labuan Bajo hosted the 42nd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, under the theme “ASEAN Affairs: A Growth Hub”. However, the theme of growth contrasts sharply with the reality that Southeast Asia still has many unresolved maritime security issues.
As a result, the high-level regional meeting reached an agreement to support the protection of migrant workers, prevent human trafficking and address the high levels of illegal fishing across ASEAN countries.
The importance of addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing was also highlighted by delegates at the recent fourth meeting of the FAO Port State Measures Agreement in Bali on 8 May. The meeting highlighted that IUU fishing is a global concern and poses a threat to the conservation and sustainability of marine resources and ecosystems, as more than 600 million people worldwide depend on the sector for their livelihoods. These fears of economic damage are especially relevant in waters off Southeast Asia, where hundreds of thousands of fishermen depend on the sea for their livelihoods.
In 2019, economic losses from illegal fishing in ASEAN totaled a staggering $6 billion. To give a more pointed example, economic losses from IUU fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands alone amounted to US$198 million in 2016. However, there are marked differences between countries. First, each ASEAN government has a different approach to calculating the financial impact of illegal fishing. Secondly, the size of the exclusive economic zones of ASEAN countries is different, which makes the potential loss of Indonesia, which has a larger territorial waters, much greater. These differences are two reasons why it is difficult for ASEAN countries to develop compatible datasets on the impact of IUU fishing. This in turn makes it harder to create effective solutions to common problems.
Furthermore, the potential toll could be much greater than these figures suggest, given that IUU fishing also has serious social impacts related to upstream and downstream illegal recruitment and employment practices, as well as enormous environmental damage and marine pollution .
Upstream practices often involve the illegal recruitment and registration of fishers. Incomplete or incorrect registration with agencies or agencies that do not provide the correct licenses can result in fishers becoming potential victims of abuse once their fishing boats come ashore.
Fishing crews working on fishing vessels without work permits or on illegal vessels are not eligible for worker protections. For example, many unreported Indonesian fishing crews traveled to other countries as tourists, but then boarded illegal fishing vessels from the destination country to work in international waters. To prevent this outcome, the recent ASEAN summit agreed on measures to protect migrant workers and their families in crisis situations. By eliminating the crime of human trafficking, especially facilitated by digital technology, ASEAN hopes to help provide greater protection for migrant workers employed on fishing vessels.
Meanwhile, downstream, employment agents seek out candidates from impoverished backgrounds who are in dire need of employment. Agents often lure workers by promising high salaries on modern fishing vessels. This is often in stark contrast to reality: low-paying jobs in harsh environments that lack adequate safety standards.
ASEAN works to prevent illegal fishing and criminal activities associated with IUU fishing. For example, in 2015 the European Union introduced guidelines to prevent fish and fishery products from IUU fishing from entering the world seafood supply chain. However, agreements and commitments at the ASEAN level have in many cases failed to translate into proper implementation by countries. Regional agreements can be ineffective, especially when they conflict with the national interests of different ASEAN members.
Data from the Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries shows that between 2015 and 2021, 789 illegal fishing boats were caught entering Indonesian waters. Illegal fishing remains a significant problem in the country, although the number caught has declined by about 24 percent annually during this period.
A lack of commitment among ASEAN members has slowed progress in combating IUU fishing. Southeast Asian governments agreed to address the issue, but without the associated financial obligations needed to make the joint program successful. Therefore, each ASEAN member state tends to prioritize its national interests. Therefore, the EU needs a concrete action plan, including the establishment of a joint fund for the development of regional work programs to combat illegal fishing. Funding for each ASEAN member state will depend on the size of their respective sea areas and each country’s fishing needs.
If ASEAN demands a level of accountability without requiring a similar level of financial commitment from each member state, eliminating illegal fishing will only become an ongoing battle.
This article is a contribution to the Blue Security project led by La Trobe Asia, the University of Western Australia’s Defense and Security Institute, the Griffith Institute for Asian Studies, the University of New South Wales in Canberra and the Asia Pacific Dialogue on Development, Diplomacy and Defense (AP4D). part. The views expressed are those of their authors and do not necessarily represent those of The Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government or any partner country governments.