In Indonesia, honesty has been a good catch

A president’s success in tackling one major theft of public resources – illegal fishing – is a model for his campaign against corruption and for a global fight against fish poaching.

Indonesian Navy blows up an illegal fishing vessel off West Java in 2016.

Soon after becoming president of Indonesia more than four years ago, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo asked people in the world’s fourth most populous nation to undergo a “mental revolution,” aimed mainly at curbing corruption. To make his point, he targeted one of the largest abuses of public resources: fish theft.

On many counts, Jokowi has landed his revolution.

Fish stocks in Indonesian waters have more than doubled since 2013. Recently, one of its tuna fisheries became the first in the country to win an internationally recognized award for sustainable fishing. Indonesia’s progress is a model for “long-lasting fisheries gains in many regions of the world,” according to the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The giant archipelago nation, whose total sea area is far greater than its land area, is the world’s second largest seafood producer. When he took office, Jokowi estimated 90 percent of the fishing boats in Indonesia’s waters were illegal, most of them foreign interlopers. By comparison, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s fish are caught illegally.

The Southeast Asian nation, whose 263 million people are spread across more than 13,000 islands, was losing an estimated $4 billion in income. Meanwhile, corruption in fishing ports was rampant. One big result: Many of the country’s 2.6 million fishermen were poor.

If the government could bring transparency and accountability to this large and corrupt industry, it could spur prosperity and perhaps set an example for tackling corruption in other parts of Indonesian life.

The government sent a strong message to foreign poachers. It has sunk hundreds of illegal vessels after arresting their crews. It began to collect data on fish catches and put observers on boats. It struck agreements with many of its neighboring nations to prevent poaching.

It became the first country in the world to publicly share the positions of its fishing fleets online. It has beefed up patrols of its maritime space and upgraded ports with efficient management. “We pay serious attention to fish theft in our waters,” the president said last August.

If numbers could begin to track a mental revolution, it would be these: Foreign fishing in Indonesia has dropped by more than 90 percent since 2014; and total fishing has fallen by 25 percent, helping to rebuild stocks for domestic fishermen. Honesty has been a good catch.

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