ROTI FIN FISHERS CAUGHT IN LEGAL LOOP © Duncan Graham 2005
The Australian government has been trying to persuade the Indonesian government to take action against shark-fin fishers poaching in northern Australian waters. This has become a big issue in Australia with claims that waves of boats are illegally plundering the seas. Duncan Graham reports:
They shuffle into the Perth Magistrate’s Court, stand calmly to hear the charges read, then sit to hear the evidence. This is given in English but interpreted into Rotinese.
Crewmembers are usually prosecuted for fishing illegally in Australian waters. Captains are also charged with commercial fishing without a licence.
They wear tracksuits and other warm clothes donated by Australian government agencies, for this summer the Western Australian capital has been unseasonably chilly. They’re apprehensive and worried about their families but the legal process has been explained and they know jail is almost certain.
Some are better informed – they’ve been through the system before. This seems to undermine Australian government claims that sentences are a deterrent.
“About a quarter to a third are repeat offenders,” lawyer David McKenzie told The Jakarta Post.
“As their defence counsel I hear their stories and take their instructions. So far all have pleaded guilty.
“I argue before the magistrate that it’s inappropriate to impose a large fine on poor people who just can’t pay. Although they can’t be sentenced to jail if they are first offenders, they get imprisoned nonetheless because they can’t pay the fines. These vary from AUD$ 3,000 to AUD 6,000 (Rp 22 million to Rp 44 million).
“So they have to cut out the fines at the rate of AUD $150 (Rp 1.1 million) for every day in detention. Sometimes the days spent in custody before the court hearings are taken into account.
“Those with medical problems get treated. After a few days or weeks in jail they’re flown back to Indonesia by the Australian government. The Indonesian consulate isn’t involved.”
Since July McKenzie has represented 120 Indonesian fishermen in Perth courts. He’s been the only lawyer defending the poachers and works for Legal Aid, an organisation funded by the Australian and Western Australian governments. The service is free.
“I tell the court that my clients are all poor and motivated by the necessity to live,” he said. “Most have large families to support – one man had 16 children.
“Fishing is the only industry in Roti and other small islands. Indonesian waters have been fished out. So the men are tempted to stray into Australian waters which in the past have been their traditional fishing grounds.”
Allegations of 8,000 sightings of Indonesian fishing boats in one year in Australian waters have infuriated a public already hardened against its neighbour because of terrorist attacks in Bali and Jakarta. So have claims that the waters will become a marine desert if the plunder continues.
A poll by The West Australian newspaper found most respondents wanted poachers to get longer jail terms. More than half believed Australia should reduce foreign aid if Indonesia didn’t do more to stop illegal fishers. Politicians have rejected this idea.
Stories that the fishers are landing animals and plants on Australian shores in defiance of quarantine laws, and that the men could be a terrorism risk have not been proved.
The catch is confiscated and the boats and gear are burned or sunk. However these were usually owned by companies in Indonesia and not by the crews, McKenzie said.
Despite the big number of sightings only 240 foreign vessels have been caught this year for fishing illegally.
The rest escape back to Indonesian waters when they spot an Australian patrol craft. The Opposition Labor Party and Australian fishing organisations have called for more patrol boats to be deployed.
Western Australian Fisheries minister Jon Ford reportedly claimed up to 25,000 tonnes of shark is being taken every year. The fins are popular as a Chinese banquet soup. The surge in demand has been linked to growing prosperity in China.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has announced an AUD $ 300,000 (Rp 2,200 million) campaign to alert the fishers to the impact and consequences of their actions.
McKenzie said not all poachers were prosecuted. Men under 18 were flown straight back to Indonesia accompanied by an adult crewmember. Some poachers caught further east have been charged in Darwin.
“If all were charged and convicted there wouldn’t be enough room in the State’s jails,” he said. “This is a sad situation. Rather than just being prosecutorial some assistance should be given to create work projects in Indonesia. (The Indonesian consul in Perth, Dr Aloysius Madja has been in Roti to investigate alternative industries
“There has to be a better way. We must have rules but they are not addressing the cause of the problem: Poverty.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 December 2005)