Vietnam’s fishing fleet unaware of newly agreed Indonesian economic zone

The alleged incursions put pressure on Hanoi and Jakarta to disclose details of the deal.
By RFA Staff
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Vietnam’s fishing fleet unaware of newly agreed Indonesian economic zone Indonesian coast guard members detaining a Vietnamese fishing vessel near Indonesia's Natuna islands on July 26, 2020.
Handout/Indonesian Coast Guard/AFP Vietnamese fishermen

Vietnamese boats continue fishing in the waters claimed by Indonesia as its exclusive economic zone even after the two countries reached an agreement on boundaries, an Indonesian think tank alleges, highlighting the need to disclose the long-awaited document.

After 12 years of negotiation Hanoi and Jakarta signed a deal on economic zone demarcation on Dec. 22, 2022, but so far no details have been revealed.

An EEZ gives a state exclusive access to the natural resources in the waters and in the seabed.

The think tank Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI) said data obtained via tracking of automatic identification system signals show that hundreds of Vietnamese fishing vessels were still operating in Indonesia’s claimed EEZ each month.

"On Dec. 27, 2022, an Indonesian fisherman recorded on his mobile phone the sighting of six Vietnamese fishing boats just 20 nautical miles (37 kilometers) from Pulau Laut, the outermost island in Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea," said Imam Prakoso, a senior analyst at IOJC.

The 155 Vietnamese fishing vessels spotted in Indonesia’s unilaterally claimed economic zone, Feb. 2023. Credit: Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative

IOJC also said since the beginning of February, 155 Vietnamese fishing vessels were spotted inside the EEZ claimed by Indonesia.

Vietnam’s management body, the Directorate of Fisheries, was not available for comment but in the past, Hanoi authorities claimed that Vietnamese fishing boats generally only operated in the water between the two countries that overlap and are under negotiation.

Andreas Aditya Salim, IOJI Senior Advisor, said that since the negotiation has already concluded, “it is very important to disseminate the content of the agreement as soon as possible so that both sides, including the general public, understand clearly where the boundary is.”

Different views on delineation

Vietnam and Indonesia have been embroiled in disputes over overlapping EEZ claims in the waters surrounding the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea for years.

Law enforcement agencies of the two countries have clashed over Vietnamese fishermen’s activities in the area, with Indonesia detaining and destroying dozens of Vietnamese boats accused of unlawful encroachment and illegal fishing.

The two countries agreed on a continental shelf, or seabed, limit in 2003 and since 2010, have engaged in more than a dozen rounds of talks on EEZ delineation.

“According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the boundary of a state’s continental shelf generally lies outside of the EEZ’s boundary,” said Vu Thanh Ca, a Vietnamese maritime law expert.

Simply speaking, the continental shelf forms a larger area than the EEZ which stretches 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from a state’s shores.

“Indonesia however maintained a different measurement system, according to which its EEZ extends beyond the continental shelf,” explained Ca, former Director of the Vietnam Institute for Sea and Island Research.

This creates an overlapping, and therefore disputed, area between the two countries’ EEZs.

Vietnamese fishermen.jpg
Vietnamese fishermen detained by Indonesian authority for illegal fishing in Batam, Kepulauan Riau on Mar 4, 2020. Credit: Teguh Prihatna/AFP

The newly reached agreement would help combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in this area, analysts say, urging that the implementation be carried out as soon as possible.

“We should respect the legislative process in both countries following the EEZ boundary agreement,” said IOJI’s Andreas Aditya Salim.

“Nonetheless, such a legislative process does not bar a prompt execution of the agreement to create stability in the area,” he said, adding that it is “also important to strengthen the cooperation between Indonesia and Vietnam to patrol the area."

Vietnam’s ‘yellow card’

In 2017, the European Commission issued a “yellow card” warning against Vietnam’s fishing violations.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh ordered local governments to stamp out IUU fishing by the end of 2021 but the target was not achieved. Officials acknowledged the need to reinforce monitoring and control over their fishermen who in turn complain about the declining fish stock and harassment by foreign ships at sea. 

Vietnam operates a fishing fleet of around 9,000 vessels in the South China Sea, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Chinese think tank.

It said that in January 2023, a total of 7,322 Vietnamese fishing vessels were recorded by the automatic identification system in the whole sea.

China, however, is still ahead of other countries in terms of IUU fishing. A Global Illegal Fishing Index created by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime in 2019 ranked China the worst offender.

With up to 800,000 vessels, China’s fishing fleet is by far the largest in the world and fishery is one of the reasons China’s entangled in disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea, experts said.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have all complained about Chinese fishing vessels encroaching on their waters.

The South China Sea is being claimed by six parties – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. Each party has its own set of maritime boundaries but Beijing’s claims are the most expansive.


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