An increasing number of Indonesian fishermen are becoming people smugglers following a drop in shark fin prices, according to villagers on Indonesia’s island of Rote.
Under a special 40-year agreement, villagers from the remote island are allowed to fish in an area of Australia’s Timor Sea if they use “traditional” fishing methods.
But Captain Tobi Nasrudin Ginang, from the village of Pepela, says a severe drop in shark fin prices is forcing many to take their skills elsewhere.
He says fishermen who could once earn several hundred dollars a month are now bringing home only 40 or 50 dollars.
“Since then people smuggling has really become a solution for many of the fishermen,” says Captain Tobi Nasrudin Ginang.
Vanessa Jaiteh is a marine biologist researching shark fishing across Indonesia, interviewing many fishermen from the island of Rote.
“I’d say that 80 per cent of my respondents have said that they’ve thought about taking asylum seekers to Australia,” she says.
“The risks of those jobs are the same. But bringing immigrants pays more than shark fishing.
“A people smuggler will get about $2500 per trip if he’s the skipper, a crew member will get around $1000 to $1500.”
One of the restrictions placed on fishermen scouring the area of the Timor Sea known is they have to use “traditional methods”, such as using wooden sailing boats with no motors.
A spokesman for Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry says the rules are designed to prevent over-fishing, and limit access to only those with a historical connection to these waters.
But Pepela fishers say this rule can be the difference between life and death.
“Last year, two boats were lost. There were four people on board, including two of my sons,” Captain Ginang says.
“If they had had a motor maybe they wouldn’t have died. They could have reached land before the storm came.”
If fishermen are caught breaking the rules they can be fined, and as they can rarely pay, they are imprisoned in Australia, paying back the fine through jail time.
“I’ve been caught nine times,” says fisherman Rahman Djalilan.
“In 2001, I got caught and jailed in Darwin. The third time, I was jailed in Perth. The fourth was in Baxter; the fifth was in Darwin also.
“The last time, I was in jail for one year and two months.”
Their boats can also be destroyed.
But most Pepela fishermen don’t own their boats or fishing equipment, meaning any loss becomes a debt to a local “boss”, which in turn encourages more people to take bold measures to make money.
“Bringing immigrants is illegal. I didn’t want to do it. But the economy is so low. So I was forced to try it – whatever the risks,” says Mr Djalilan.
Marine biologist Vanessa Jaiteh admits finding a solution is difficult.
“Basically, a solution has to be economically equal or better than shark fishing,” she says.
“In these remote areas, where the access to markets is very difficult, tourism is not really an option.”