Yogi Eka Sahputra, Batam, Indonesia – Indonesian authorities have called on their counterparts in neighboring Singapore to crack down the illegal lobster larvae trade, given that the city-state is a key hub for the regional trade of the crustaceans.
Indonesia has since June 2021 banned exports of lobster seed in an effort to conserve declining wild stocks and tackle the illegal lobster market. But smuggling of the in-demand shellfish remains rampant, particularly via the country's Riau Islands, less than an hour's boat ride to Singapore. For its part, Singapore still permits the import of lobster larvae, not only to meet domestic demands but also to forward them to Vietnam and China, where the larvae are raised to maturity in fish farms and tanks and sold at much higher prices.
Smugglers' most frequent tactic is to "escape from our authority by entering Singapore's territorial waters," Adin Nurawaluddin, director-general of marine and fisheries resources surveillance at the Indonesian fisheries ministry, said in a statement published Aug. 7.
The most recent case was reported in early July, when customs officers in Batam, the largest city in the Riau Islands, seized a shipment of nearly 50,000 lobster larvae, of the species Panulirus ornatus and P. homarus, bound for Singapore. The value of the shipment was estimated at 5.55 billion rupiah ($363,000). It was unclear where the larvae had come from, but authorities said they released them into the waters off Batam.
In August 2022, authorities seized lobster larvae worth 30 billion rupiah ($1.96 million) on a boat headed from the Riau Islands to Singapore. Another foiled shipment, worth 3.9 billion rupiah ($255,000), was impounded at Jakarta's international airport in September, also destined for Singapore.
Former fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti in 2019 also criticized Singapore for allowing imports of lobster larvae from Indonesia without the valid permits. Her comments came after an Indonesian court sentenced two Singapore nationals to three years in jail for smuggling lobster larvae from Jambi province, on the island of Sumatra, to Singapore and Vietnam.
Sisprian Subiaksono, the customs chief in Batam, said his office was in discussions with their Singapore counterparts to urge the latter to clamp down on imports of lobster larvae from Indonesia and enforce a ban on smugglers using its waters. The fisheries ministry is looking to partner with the Singapore Police Coast Guard (SPCG) on tackling the problem together.
"One of the main takeaways is that Singapore's coast guard understands the urgency from the ministry's surveillance office in doing hot pursuits all the way into Singaporean territorial waters," Adin said.
Daniel Seah, the deputy commander of the SPCG, said his office is ready to embark on a partnership with the Indonesian fisheries ministry in beefing up security against illegal distribution of lobster larvae between the two countries. Seah also suggested the ministry initiate an agreement with Singapore's Food Agency to issue a regulation requiring permits and certificates for every Indonesian fishery commodity that enters Singaporean territory. He said it would grant Singaporean officers more authority to enforce laws against illegal lobster larvae.
"Boats that don't have these documents or forge them will not be able to enter Singapore's waters and the fisheries ministry's surveillance directorate can make arrests immediately," Seah said in the official statement.
Fisheries observers say they welcome any bilateral moves to boost security in the two countries' maritime border region, not just to crack down on lobster larvae smuggling, but also tackle other forms of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
However, they also say Singapore should have been doing more from the get-go, given that it's well-known that lobster larvae exports from Indonesia are illegal.
"How can they still claim [imports into Singapore] as legal when our law says it's prohibited?" Abdul Halim, executive director of the NGO Maritime Research Center, told Mongabay Indonesia on Aug. 9.
Lobsters are among Indonesia's top fisheries commodities, but the illegal export of larvae and baby lobsters cost the country 900 billion rupiah ($64 million) in lost revenue in 2019 alone, according to the PPATK, the national money-laundering watchdog. Exports of lobster larvae were first banned in 2016 by then-fisheries minister Susi in an effort to conserve the declining wild population and tackle the illegal lobster market. Susi's successor, Edhy Prabowo, lifted the ban in May 2020, but was later jailed for taking bribes in exchange for awarding export licenses to companies controlled by his cronies.
In reinstating the export ban in 2021, the new fisheries minister, Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, also laid out plans to develop the domestic lobster-farming industry to be more competitive with Vietnam's. The ministry said it would advance aquaculture technology at lobster farms in several districts to improve the survival and productivity rates of the lobsters.
On the monitoring front, the fisheries ministry has also beefed up security at the country's international airports and at sea. In March, it deployed four speedboats to patrol the waters between the Riau Islands and Singapore, where several smuggling attempts have been foiled. Sakti said his office would continue to raise awareness among fishers to discourage them from exporting lobster larvae. If convicted, violators face up to 16 years in prison and fines of up to 3.5 billion rupiah ($229,000).
Conservationists and policymakers consider illegal exports of lobster larvae a major threat to wild populations. The fisheries ministry puts the latest estimate of potential wild lobster stock in Indonesian waters at 27 billion. But the National Commission for Fisheries Resources Research (Komnas Kajiskan) reported in 2016 that lobsters in six out of 11 officially sanctioned fishing zones were overfished, while the rest were being harvested at maximum capacity.
– Translated by Basten Gokkon