How Indonesia is using data to protect its oceans

Fishing boats in Bancar, Indonesia. Photo by: Adam Cohn / CC BY-NC-ND

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia is dependent on its oceans in a way few countries are. The densely populated archipelago nation of over 10,000 islands is home to some of the world’s most productive and threatened fisheries, providing about 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and an even larger portion of jobs. The fishing economy is a key component of livelihoods, particularly outside major cities, making oceans a mainstream economic and food security issue. Overfishing, slavery at sea, plastic pollution, and the use of modern fishing gear by illegal foreign vessels are just a few of the challenges plaguing Indonesia’s vast territorial waters.

Yet times are changing. In the past few years, under the leadership of Minister for Marine Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia's most popular cabinet member, the country has made remarkable progress in tackling this problem head-on, using the power of data and innovative technology. A report released earlier this year in Nature Ecology and Evolution summarizes the stunning impact: Between 2014-2017, there has been a more than 80 percent drop in foreign vessels fishing in Indonesia's waters and there is evidence that Indonesian fishermen are seeing higher catch and greater income.

“Minister [Susi] has taken very high-profile positions to eliminate illegal foreign fishing through some traditional government measures to stop new licensing of foreign vessels, to ban transshipment, which is often hard to monitor, and to punish violators by sinking their vessels in the hundreds,” said Michele Kuruc, vice president of ocean policy at the World Wildlife Fund.

Initially, the policy to destroy illegal fishing vessels — criticized as being just for show — was been proven to be effective. The Nature study also found that total commercial fishing shrunk by 25 percent in Indonesia — nearly all of which can be connected to rampant illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

“The transparency revolution for the ocean is an enormous change in how we manage marine resources.”

— David Kroodsma, research director at Global Fishing Watch

While the ship destruction made headlines, Indonesia was doing plenty more behind the scenes. The real X-factor for the dramatic changes taking place has been the country’s embrace of open data and technology to drive action that happened when the ministry partnered with Global Fishing Watch, an independent platform founded by SkyTruth and Oceana. GFW aims to connect data, civil society, and governments to analyze information on fisheries globally, using this data to drive the development of actionable solutions.

“The transparency revolution for the ocean is an enormous change in how we manage marine resources,” said David Kroodsma, research director at GFW.

Globally, understanding how illegal fishing is happening and who is responsible is a huge challenge due mainly to the sheer size of the oceans. Boats are rarely tracked, often use flags of convenience, and offboard catch at distant ports. The little bit of data that does exist is often unreliable or disorganized.

GFW aims to change that and has found a willing partner in Indonesia and minister Susi. Indonesia, in fact, became the first country in the world to release Vessel Monitoring System, known as VMS, data to the GFW platform last year.

“Almost every country has this system, and usually it’s totally top secret,” Kroodsma said. “Indonesia has decided to give all that data to GFW to publish for free.”

In Indonesia, integrating Automatic Identification System data gathered by satellites and VMS data through the GFW platform has created a data boom. The ministry and outside observers can better allocate limited resources and understand in more depth where illegal and legal fishing is taking place, and how to better monitor and protect Indonesia’s vast fisheries.

Illegal seafood can include anything, from that caught by slave labor to seafood netted through unsustainable fishing practices, such as the use of explosives or nets with high levels of bycatch of other species such as dolphins, turtles, and even birds. Moreover, as recent exposes from the Associated Press show, slavery at sea, in which workers are forced to toil on boats for months on end, often with no pay, is far too common.

GFW is not the only technology-driven effort to better manage fisheries. Another project, run by the nonprofit startup Provenance, is using blockchain technology to track tuna catch. Its goal is to stem the problematic growth of the presence of illegally caught or produced seafood in global supply chains. Because seafood is often mixed at the point of sale, it can be impossible for end consumers to tell what comes from ethical sources, and what does not.

Provenance partnered with the Pole and Line Foundation, which has many projects in Southeast Asia. The results are allowing them to begin to build partnerships with governments too.

“At the time, knowledge of blockchain tech was low and there wasn't a huge amount of interest until about a year after the pilot, when understanding of the tech and impact became more common,” said Jessi Baker, founder of Provenance. Provenance is planning to expand their work in the region soon, hoping to bring blockchain traceability to more species and fisheries products.

While progress is remarkable, Indonesia, even as the world’s largest archipelago nation, remains a single country. The oceans are largely unregulated, as vast swathes lie outside each country’s exclusive economic zone, constituting the global commons. GFW data highlights how many fishing boats station just outside these boundaries — boundaries that many migratory fish, such as tuna, do not follow.

Transshipment of illegal catch has also been identified as a major problem. Improving fisheries, reducing pollution, and eliminating slavery at sea will require cooperation across borders — and for others to follow Indonesia’s transparency model.

“We are trying to get more neighboring countries to also share the VMS data,” Baihaki said. “I would like to start with ASEAN countries, or Japan and China, who have a lot of fleets in international waters.”

This might be happening. Indonesia’s success, so far, has caught the attention of other coastal nations. Peru plans to become the second country to release VMS data to GFW, and there is real hope that other Latin America or Asian nations might soon follow.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is gearing up to tackle other ocean-related challenges. In March, Susi banned plastic bottles at her ministry. They have moved forward on an action plan to reduce plastic pollution, and are creating a certification mechanism to hold firms linked to slave labor accountable. A big opportunity for Indonesia to step up and become a global leader will come this October when the country will host the fifth Our Ocean Conference, a global gathering of NGOs, policymakers, governments, and other stakeholders.

“Because the ministry feels that the Indonesian waters are safer, they can concentrate on other efforts, for example, fish farming, or giving more development aid to fisherman, which were not really a focus for some time,” said Aki Baihaki, Indonesia program manager for GFW.

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About the author

  • Journalist nithin

    Nithin Coca

    Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia.