By detaining the Papua Five for a minor border infringement, Indonesia is sending a clear message to Fisheries Minister Tony Burke: stop treating our fishermen as criminals and burning their boats.

Actually it is a message to the rest of us too. We have all have sat and watched “authorities” burning boats on the evening news in passive agreement for years. We accept that vessels that have fished the same waters for hundreds of years are suddenly a threat to sharks, turtles … all the charismatic species we like to watch on TV but that other people rely on for food.

As the Brisbane Times’ Tom Allard reports, “last financial year 1232 illegal fishermen were caught in Australian waters, held in detention centres here, and had their boats destroyed.”

So who knows how many — up to 1232 — Indonesian families are now waiting for the return of their loved ones. And it’s more than just the detentions. The destruction of the boats, often the only assets of entire fishing communities, is not even always legal or justified.

“The three men (fishermen)were put on trial and had their boat destroyed after Australian authorities claimed they caught them fishing illegally for trepang in April this year.
“But there was no trepang on board and last week a Supreme Court ordered a jury to acquit them because of lack of evidence.”

Australia’s northern waters were extended from three to 200 nautical miles or more after 1989 — effectively stealing traditional fishing grounds of tens of thousands of fisherfolk — claiming fishing grounds Australia has never fished historically and is still barely fishing today.

Without a significant population or market, Australia’s northern waters have miniscule fisheries by Asian standards with the lowest commercial catch rates at 17.0 kg per square kilometre per annum according to researcher Walter Starck who also states:

“Elsewhere, over a wide range of Pacific reefs, the annual harvest averages some 7,700 kg/km2, (Fig. 2) and these reefs are generally considered by fisheries biol­ogists to be sustainably harvested (Adams et al., 1996). Because in actual practice this level of catch is ongoing, expert opinion in this instance is consistent with observ­able fact.”

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) has grown to a massive bureaucracy and set up a trade in “future rights in the catch specific volumes of fish” — better known as quotas. By making fish “private property” to catch fish without a quota or licence becomes theft.

The cost of protecting these “Australian Fish” is high, many of times the value of the Australian northern waters catch. The Ocean Viking — a floating prison — is leased and a major portion of customs and navy work in northern waters is directed to illegal fishing. Then there are costs of private prison companies for detention, the costs for courts and the costs of AFMA’s enforcement role.

The abhorrent treatment of Indonesian fishermen has been an issue for more than a decade with articles in Inside Indonesia by Jill Elliot highlighting the issue in 1996:

“In the past decade, 140 Indonesian fishermen drowned in Australian waters, a further 400 were imprisoned. Many drown still because they have to fish in zones without the benefit of motors, GPS or any equipment more modern than the mid-nineteenth century — a sadistic attempt to limit fishing.”

Hopefully Tony Burke and the rest of the Australian community will listen now that Indonesia has made an obvious example of Australians who created a similar minor territorial infringement. At least Indonesia is allowing the five Australians to go home and did not burn their plane.