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Enmeshed: Australia and South-East Asia’s fisheries

By Meryl Williams and Malcolm Cook - posted Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Distressing and perhaps threatening stories, depending on your perspective, of Indonesian fishing vessels apprehended in Australia’s northern waters have become common. We explore what is driving this phenomena and what can Australia do about it.

The Indonesian fishing transgressions are but one relatively minor, though significant manifestation of what is happening in fisheries in the South-East Asian region, and indeed globally. The history of fishing shows that fish stocks that are not properly managed end up threatened with survival. This lesson is stark for Australia and its neighbours in South-East Asia who are enmeshed through connections over fish - connections that become problematic when they threaten the basis of good fisheries management and are explored in more depth in a recent Lowy Institute paper.

Australia manages and protects its fish stocks better than most. The Commonwealth, State and Territory governments share the burden of responsibility. They use scientific, economic and environmental advice and consult with fishers and the public. The main management goals are sustaining the fisheries resources and their environment, supporting economically viable commercial fishing industries and vibrant recreational fishing.


To our north, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are now in the top 12 fish producing countries in the world. Nearly 100 million people are directly dependent on the fishing industries and their related service sectors and nearly all South-East Asians eat fish.

Australia’s connections with South-East Asia are important for Australia’s own fisheries management. The key connections are, first, fish trade. Australia imports more than half its fish because its own fish catch is small, though high value. Three times as much will be imported by 2050. South-East Asia supplies almost half Australian fish imports. Thailand and Vietnam are number one and three fish suppliers, respectively. Yet, South-East Asian large marine fish resources face big problems.

The second key connection is illegal cross-border fishing, especially by vessels from Indonesia, a world fishing giant. Even a small fraction of its huge fishing fleet presents a threat to Australian fish resources. Illegal cross-border fishing is an unwelcome connection between countries throughout South-East Asia, and not an Australian problem alone.

The third connection is the challenge of managing shared fish stocks such as sharks and snappers. These stocks can be overfished if over fishing is happening on just one side of the border.

The fourth connection concerns tuna stocks that Australia cares about. Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines feature prominently in southern bluefin, Pacific and Indian ocean tuna fishing and trade.

These fish connections are underlaid by regional problems that cause international tensions. The three most serious underlying problems are, first, uncontrolled fishing allowing too many fishing vessels and treating fish resources as a source of unlimited commercial return. Second, regional fisheries regulatory bodies are overlapping but incomplete. Third, much basic data to guide action is not available, such as up to date stock status, accurate fish catch composition, what stocks are shared and basic information on the human dimensions of fishing and fish marketing.


Australia has two options for handling the challenges of fisheries connections.

One option is “business as usual”. Australia already has major and respected bilateral and multilateral fisheries engagements with South-East Asia. But, alternatively, a second option is a more holistic re-examination, leading to a deeper and more strategic engagement - the comprehensive engagement option.

The justification for the comprehensive approach is that business as usual may be too reactive for the future and its costs and co-ordination needs are mounting. Australia needs to work closely with South-East Asian countries to help them seriously address the underlying causes - overcapacity, limited stocks, inadequate regional management and poor data.

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About the Authors

Dr Meryl Williams is a fisheries specialist with experience in Australian and international fisheries research and policy, especially in Asia and the Pacific region. From 1994-2004 she was Director General of the WorldFish Center in the Philippines and Malaysia. She currently holds a number of non-executive positions, including member of the Governing Board of the International Crop Research Center for the Semi Arid Tropics and is an Honorary Life Member of the Asian Fisheries Society.

Dr Malcolm Cook is the Program Director Asia & the Pacific at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Meryl Williams
All articles by Malcolm Cook

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