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Indonesia Declares War on Illegal Foreign Fishing Vessels

Two foreign-flagged fishing boats registered in Papua New Guinea are destroyed by the Indonesian Navy after they were seized earlier for supposedly illegal fishing off the coast of Ambon, Maluku, Dec. 21, 2014.

New Indonesian President Joko Widodo is utilizing the country's military to capture and destroy foreign vessels that do not have permission to be in the country's exclusive economic zone, and the actions are raising the stakes in waters already fraught with friction.

Detained vessels, so far, have been cleared of their crews before being fired upon and sunk. But there are worries future encounters could turn deadly.

Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, in a news conference earlier this month, detailed the new “shock therapy” for foreign fishermen - as the president has termed it.

Pudjiastuti said she has sent a formal protest to China's ambassador about the activities of Chinese vessels poaching in Indonesian waters. Such illegal fishing practices, she explained, are an unfriendly act and violate a country's sovereignty.

Chinese vessels seized

Indonesia, has recently seized about two dozen Chinese vessels but has not destroyed any of them - an act that few expect Beijing would tolerate.

China's foreign ministry has asked that Indonesia “ensure the safety and legal rights of Chinese crews and address this issue properly.”

So far, the dozens of ships seized and sunk by Indonesia have been primarily from nearby countries such as Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam.

Those countries, along with China, the Philippines and Thailand, are the primary sources of illegal fishing boats in Indonesian waters.

In an interview with VOA's Indonesian service, Widodo said he instructed the maritime ministry and his military commander that illegal fishing vessels would no longer be tolerated and he gave orders to “sink them.”

Earlier this month, Vietnam requested that Jakarta deal with the issue “in accordance with international laws, based on humane spirit and on the relations between Indonesia and other countries.”

Aggressive crackdown

Taiwan, which has hundreds of fishing boats in the waters of Southeast Asia, has also been warned by Indonesia after several of its vessels were spotted inside the exclusive economic zone.

Taiwan's government said it has informed its ships that they need to strictly comply with Indonesian maritime laws following the presidential command.

However, William Hsu, the first secretary of Taiwan's representative office in Jakarta, said the Indonesian crackdown on poaching appears extreme.

“The government of Taiwan, we don’t burn or sink the fishing boats. We just fine and punish and detain, we don’t burn down the fishing boats aggressively like Indonesia," Hsu said.

Indonesia justified its crackdown by declaring drastic action is needed to repel the thousands of illegal boats fishing daily in its waters. These boats deprive the domestic industry of more than $20 billion a year of maritime resources, it said.

Indonesian officials have complained that foreign boats are aggressive to the point of chasing away domestic fishing vessels.

Indonesia's military said it does not have adequate equipment to combat the poachers, who employ sophisticated radar and have boats that can outrace Indonesia's military vessels.

Officers complained their ships lack adequate fuel for patrolling a zone extending 320 kilometers from the expansive coastlines.

The Indonesian air force has also been called upon in the war on poachers. While the military said the jets will not fire on illegal boats, the navy is authorized to sink them on the spot.

Additional reporting from Jakarta by Andy Lala of VOA's Indonesian Service.