Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Fishing in Australian Waters

Published: Sep 30, 2007

In the past decade, 140 Indonesian fishermen drowned in Australian waters, a further 400 were imprisoned. JILL ELLIOTT reports that policies dealing with the issue are costly, ineffective and have tragic consequences. She suggests better alternatives.

Jill Elliot

For at least three centuries fishermen from what is now Indonesia have sailed to Australia's northern shores in search of trepang, shark fin, green snail, trochus shell and other marine products. Evidence of early contact is found in Aboriginal art, language, song, and oral history. Today their descendants still make the hazardous journey, but they are no longer welcome. They now run the added risk of apprehension, confiscation of vessels and equipment, and for some, imprisonment.

Since 1906

The process of denying Indonesian fishermen access to their traditional fishing grounds began in 1906 when they were prohibited from taking trepang in Australian waters. It continued with the gradual expansion of the Australian Fishing Zone (AFZ), and culminated in 1981 (after negotiations between the Australian and Indonesian governments) with the establishment of an Australian 200 mile (320 km) Fisheries Surveillance and Enforcement Line.

This bilateral agreement effectively granted Australia sovereignty over as much as 80 percent of the sea area between our northern shores and Indonesia's southernmost islands. The Indonesian government received generous aid promises in return. The losers were the Indonesian fishing communities living near the AFZ, who were denied unconditional access to their traditional fishing grounds without compensation. Only limited concessions were made in a 1975 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), allowing them to fish 'traditionally' in certain 'allowed' areas within the AFZ. Gradually even their access to these areas is being eroded as much is converted to marine national parks.


Australian policies towards Indonesian fishermen are authoritarian and rely totally on deterrent measures. They are reminiscent of a colonial past. They are costly but ineffective, and have a serious impact on the lives of the fishermen and their families. A closer look at the facts will suggest cheaper and more humane ways of dealing with the problem.

There are two quite separate situations. The first concerns the villagers of Papela and the island of Rote, the second the fishermen who travel here from three small island communities in the southeast of Sulawesi. Both groups share traditional fishing links with the reefs and seabed in Australia's north. But the Papela people live only about 80 kilometres beyond the AFZ, and thus have the stronger relationship.


The village of Papela lies on the island of Rote, a small island off the southwest tip of Timor, less than 500 km from Australia. Since 1988, an estimated 140 fishermen from Papela have drowned in our northern waters during cyclones or strong winds. All were fishing legally, their deaths a consequence of MOU regulations that prohibit the use of motors and modern communication and navigation equipment. Almost more alarming than the tragedies themselves has been the lack of concern shown by either government. There are no search and rescue operations for these men. Usually their families learn their fate only because they fail to return.

The definition of 'traditional' applied to Indonesian fishermen is both inflexible and anachronistic. Inflexible because it makes no allowances for safety, and anachronistic because it expects sail power and traditional navigation methods to provide enough precision to locate the boundaries of modern fishing zones. This point was highlighted recently when five sail powered vessels from Papela were apprehended by an Australian navy patrol boat near Browse Island. The fishermen claimed they had drifted into Australian waters after the wind dropped. They had no intention of violating Australian regulations, but could not tell their exact position.


The loss of life and confiscation of vessels greatly affects the people of Papela. Most try to obey Australian regulations. But they regard the current arrangement as unfair - particularly because the loss of their fishing grounds was negotiated without consulting them. While fully aware they are powerless to lobby, they have asked the Australian government to consider two proposals. First, that they be allowed to carry small motors for emergency use to prevent further loss of life. Second, that Australia place beacons or buoys to identify areas off limits within the MOU.

The fact that fishermen from Papela have been careful to obey Australia's fishing regulations is reflected in the small number convicted in recent years. Among them were several who adamantly denied the charges, but were unable to negotiate an alien legal process hostile towards them. In the recent case where they claimed to have drifted into Australian waters, they initially pleaded not guilty. But when told they would be remanded in detention for three months, they despaired and changed their plea to guilty. They were quickly convicted and placed on good behaviour bonds. Their vessels, equipment and catch were confiscated. Coincidentally, one captain had witnessed his entire crew drowned during a cyclone off the northwest coast of Australia four years earlier. He had been fishing legally at the time. But having only recently recovered from this trauma he had no intention of putting himself or his crew at risk this time.


Australian society provides for the families of those detained awaiting court, but not so in Indonesia. These fishermen were forced to trade their right to justice for the sake of a quick return home to provide for their families. This is just one of many anomalies in the legal process dealing with Indonesian fishermen. Another, also relevant to this case, is the decision by the Immigration Department to repatriate the crews before the case was heard. If this did not preempt the outcome, how did they imagine the captains would sail their vessels home without a crew should they have been found guilty?

The community of Papela believes it is in its interest to obey Australia's fishing regulations. When fishermen are unambiguously convicted in Australia, a 12 month fishing ban is enforced on them by the local government when they return. This does not happen elsewhere in Indonesia, and shows a willingness to comply with Australia's laws and protect the few rights the Papela people still have. If the Australian government was to consider offering restricted licences to these fishermen, there is no doubt they would work to comply with any conditions. It would also be in their interest to discourage illegal operators, and thus they would help police our northern waters.

The Papela fishermen have been more disadvantaged by the expansion of the AFZ than any other group. Australia has an obligation to acknowledge the prior rights of these fishermen, and consider a more equitable way of compensating them. Their economic livelihood has been traded off with scant regard for their welfare. Australia's strict enforcement of MOU regulations only exacerbates their poverty. The confiscation of vessels denies them an income, leaving them unable to pay off debts over the loss of their vessels. The unnecessary loss of life has an impact on the whole village. It leaves wives and children dependent on the limited charity of other poor villagers.


Muna-speaking fishermen from the Southeast Sulawesi islands of Maginti, Masaloka and Kadatua make up the second group. These three tiny communities share one culture. But the strong maritime tradition that draws them together is becoming unsustainable. The smallest island, Maginti, is only a kilometre long and 400 metres wide. Such a size denies them a viable land-based economy. These fishermen are so economically deprived and bereft of choices that they are forced to take the enormous risk of contravening Australia's fishing regulations to feed their families.

Since 1988, more than 400 fishermen from these islands have been imprisoned in Broome. Since this excludes juveniles, adults of diminished responsibility and first offenders, the total detained at Broome could exceed 2,000. With each island supporting a population of approximately 2,000 people, this represents a large proportion of the male population.

It is therefore surprising that since 1988 no government representative has discussed the problem with these men, either here or in Indonesia. Some years ago a delegation of Aboriginal people led by Western Australian MLA Mr. Ernie Bridge visited Papela. Apart from that, Australian officials have preferred to meet Indonesian officials in Jakarta, rather than travel to these remote communities. Suggestions are sometimes heard of senior Indonesian officials with business interests linked indirectly to illegal fishing in Australia. Indonesia's apparent inability to stem the flow somewhat supports the suggestion. The fishermen say their officials tend to 'turn a blind eye' because these are considered 'economic' transgressions.


Fishermen who voyage to our northwest waters come from one very small region of Indonesia. Per capita income in this province is among the lowest in Indonesia. Large foreign fishing ventures, over-population, and rising expectations as people move from a subsistence to a monetary economy all conspire to deplete their own marine resources. Transmigrants coming from more populated islands add pressure on resources at the expense of the locals.

Australia's policies have a devastating effect on these fishermen and their families. They are often imprisoned for long periods. Their families are left unsupported and forced to borrow from moneylenders for their daily needs - beyond debts incurred by the loss of the vessels and in financing their unsuccessful voyage. The longer they remain in prison, the greater their debt and the greater the pressure on them to repay when they return home. When released, their prison wages are garnished against the cost of their repatriation. They are flown to Bali and left penniless to begin the greater part of their journey home.

When imprisoned fishermen receive news of the death or serious illness of a family member it adds another cruel dimension to their punishment. Whether Australia should take responsibility for at least some of these tragedies is not certain. But imprisonment certainly distresses the families of fishermen and greatly increases their deprivation.


Thus there are two critical aspects to the illegal fishing problem in Western Australia. First, the illegal fishermen come from one very small region of Indonesia, motivated by a unique set of circumstances. Second, harsher penalties actually increase the chance of them returning to Australia, to recoup their losses.

Present procedures for apprehending and detaining Indonesian fishermen are costly both to the Australian taxpayer and to the fishermen themselves. Why has the Australian government not contemplated a strategy of assistance rather than punishment? A small part of the same money could be used to initiate projects that help them develop a more sustainable economic base. Australian expertise in aquaculture could ideally help the fishermen restock and manage their own reefs.

There has been an initiative to help the people in one of these island communities, but not by any government body. On Kadatua a man from the Pilbara region of Western Australia has devoted much of his time and money in setting up and maintaining small community projects. These help the people manage their resources in a more sustainable way. Since beginning this project several years ago, not one fisherman from Kadatua has been apprehended in Australian waters. This example puts the scale of the problem in its true perspective, and highlights the inability of the government to fully address the issue.

Fishermen from the island of Masaloka have also stopped making these risky voyages. It is now more than two years since a vessel from this island has been apprehended. This was achieved through a local initiative. Some wealthier people in the community helped finance small cooperative trading ventures.


The fishermen from Maginti, smallest of the islands, continue to occupy cells in Broome Prison. However, during their incarceration this time, a group of them have formulated a strategy to take back to their community that they hope will end illegal fishing. This also involves a village cooperative and small trading enterprises. Unfortunately, there are no wealthy villagers in Maginti, and assistance will come from a small group of interested people in Broome.

These solutions sound remarkably simple. But the fishermen have trouble contemplating an enterprise that does not use their seafaring skills. Instinctively, they look to the sea for their resources. When these become depleted, they merely travel further afield. When they voyage into Australian waters they are aware they are contravening Australia's laws. But they do so only because their traditional values deny any ownership of the oceans or its contents. They do not consider their actions criminal. Australia calls them criminals and imprisons them for up to two years. But ironically crime is nonexistent in their own communities, and communal and religious values remain strong despite the deprivation.

Makassan trepang fishermen

In the middle of 1994, some Makassan trepang fishing vessels were apprehended at Hibernia Reef, about 300 km northwest of the Australian coastline and just inside the AFZ boundary. The fishermen had purchased maps from Indonesian officials in the West Timorese town of Kupang, which showed Hibernia Reef in Indonesian territorial waters. Because of this, and because they had not intended to fish in Australian waters, all pleaded not guilty. Nevertheless, all were found guilty, and their catch and equipment were confiscated. Those able to produce the faulty maps were allowed to return to Indonesia with their vessels, but those without, whatever their stated good intentions, lost their vessels.

Some saw this influx of trepang fishermen from the Sulawesi mainland as a new wave in Australia's illegal fishing problem. The West Australian newspaper went further, running a headline story that suggested a large number of Makassan vessels were waiting in the West Timor town of Kupang, ready to descend on Australian waters early in 1995. The informant used by the newspapers claimed to have spent time in Broome Prison. But he is unknown to Australian authorities or other Indonesian fishermen incarcerated at Broome. Not only had the newspaper not verified its story, it failed to report that there has been no such raid into Australian waters to date.


Stories such as these give the Australian public the feeling that the illegal fishing problem is much more threatening than it actually is. Furthermore, were it not for these stories, and for the determination of our naval, customs and fisheries officers to bring before our courts a regular supply of destitute Indonesian fishermen, it is unlikely the budgets for surveillance and protection of our northern waters would have increased at the rate they have in the past decade.

Indonesian fishermen might well provide the justification for increased budgets, but there is also a danger that those policing our northern shores will lose sight of the real threats. This may have been the case in the Northern Territory in 1994, when a shipment of illegal drugs almost entered Darwin's port undetected because authorities were preoccupied with monitoring movements of a vessel carrying Asian refugees.

Australians should question the motives behind the hysteria which is drummed up over issues such as Indonesian fishermen and Asian refugees. There are far more humane solutions to these problems. But they will only be found by putting the issues into their proper perspective, and by taking a less imperialistic stance when relating to our Asian neighbours.     ii

Jill Elliott lives in Broome and is a member of the Kimberley Indonesian Friendship Association.

At the invitation of the people of Maginti, the Association is raising funds to send a member to Maginti to assist in setting up a village cooperative (KUD) and associated projects. Anyone wishing to support this project can send a donation to the Association: c/- PO Box 1186, Broome WA 6725.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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