5,000 to 7,000 Mindanawon fisherfolk languishing in Indonesian jails

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/24 August) — An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 fisherfolk from this city and other parts of Mindanao are reportedly still languishing in various jails in Indonesia allegedly due to illegal fishing, Councilor Ronnel Rivera said.

Rivera said they received reports from various sources that a significant number of fisherfolk and crew members of tuna fishing boats from the area have been jailed by Indonesian courts while others are presently facing pending cases for alleged illegal fishing and encroachment on its territorial waters.

He said the detained Mindanawons, mostly engaged in handline tuna fishing, were arrested by Indonesian naval authorities following the expiration of the bilateral fishing agreement between the Philippines and Indonesia in 2006.

“It’s a difficult situation for our tuna fishermen right now. They’re well aware of these fishing restrictions but they were forced to (take the risk) because of the dwindling tuna resources within our traditional fishing grounds,” he said.

Rivera, vice president of the city’s biggest homegrown tuna firm, RD Group of Companies, said his office and that of fellow city council member Dante Vicente are currently coordinating with Indonesian officials regarding the cases of the detained fishers, especially those from this city.

He said they are working with officials of the Philippine Consulate in Manado for the immediate release and repatriation of those detained.

Last Friday, at least 16 crew members of a handline fishing boat from this city that was earlier held in Bitung, Indonesia for alleged illegal fishing, were able to return home due to the initiative of Rivera’s office and the Philippine Consul General’s office in Manado.

Rivera’s newly-established socio-civic initiative, RCR (Ronnel C. Rivera) Foundation Inc., provided basic assistance and offered job placements for the repatriated fisherfolk.

“We’re well-coordinated. We have staff members currently working with concerned Indonesian agencies and officials specifically for this purpose,” he said.

Rivera, a member of the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries Inc., said their evaluation showed that the problem was mainly caused by the lack of available tuna fishing grounds for local fishers.

Aside from the expiration of the country’s bilateral fishing agreement with Indonesia, local tuna fishing companies were banned from fishing in the tuna-rich Western and Central Pacific Ocean due to a restriction imposed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

The ban, imposed beginning January 1 this year, is intended to allow the highly migratory yellowfin and bigeye tuna recover from reported overfishing.

Rivera said the fishing federation has been reminding local tuna industry players regarding the risks of fishing within Indonesian territorial waters and the restricted fishing grounds but stressed that they cannot force local fishers, especially those engaged in handline fishing, to strictly comply with them due to livelihood concerns.

To help address these problems, Rivera initially made representations with concerned government agencies to push for more bilateral fishing agreements with Indonesia and other neighboring countries.

Rivera has been coordinating with national government officials to pursue negotiations with the WCPFC, which the country joined several years ago, for the possible early lifting of the two-year tuna fishing ban in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean for local fishing fleets.

Rivera said he has been closely working with Councilor Vicente to assist the cases of the detained fishers in Indonesia and press for the accountability of their employers.

“We really have to take care of our fishermen who were held there (in Indonesia) because they might be slapped with long jail sentences and again face the prospects of getting stalled there once they are released if they have no means to return home,” he added. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)