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Sex and the sea slugs. Indonesian boat-people invasion is more about sea cucumbers

by Duncan Graham | Jan 24, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

Australians ended 2023 to shock-horror reports of “the largest cohort of foreign fishers to be detained in over a decade.” The Return of the Living Dread? Not quite – just 30 Indonesian ‘trepangers’ – sea cucumber fishermen. Duncan Graham with the story.

On December 30, the Australian Border Force (ABF) announced that they’d put “illegal fishers on notice after vessels were destroyed, crews detained.” It apprehended 30 illegal fishermen and destroyed three fishing vessels in a joint operation with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. The crews were “safely conveyed to shore and placed in immigration detention.”

That’s the story as told by the ABF and the managed media. MWM‘s Duncan Graham went to Sulawesi to investigate.

The allure of sea cucumbers

Patahudin Sijaya finds Australians hard to understand, though not for want of trying.

The 49-year-old Indonesian skipper of a hefty 25-metre timber fishing boat is a friendly guy hampered by a lack of English. Despite our self-awarded reputation for mateship, the ABF crews he’s encountered aren’t friendly, waving their neighbours away as their bobbing craft come close in disputed waters.

That puzzles the ‘Captain’ as he’s known in his home port of Palalakkang near Makassar on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.  He told us what he wanted to yell across the waves:

“Hey, what’s the matter with you Australians?  You’ve got so many fish why don’t you let us stay for a few days, then we can leave with a full hold?  If you don’t like that idea get going and catch them yourselves. You treat them like pets.”

Only weirdos could find trepang, aka sea cucumbers, cuddly. They’re not fish but tropical reef and ocean-floor scavengers classified as echinoderms, Greek for ‘hedgehog skin’.

That explains why predators retreat, though not humans. Plain thinkers see an anal discharge, but imagineers reckon they look phallic, so it must be an aphrodisiac.

Although no evidence upholds this illogicality, limp men are keen to pay more than $300 a kilo.

The commerce predates Captain James Cook by three centuries, maybe more. Unlike the British settler fleets, the all-bloke crews were and are sail-ins and sail-outs. That’s still the situation. Indonesians cheerfully admit to ‘rindu kampung halaman’ – homesickness.

Trepang - sea cucumbers

Sea cucumbers. Cure for homesickness. Photo by Erlinawati Graham.

Abundance of slugs

In a high-wall yard in the village of Galesong is a sight to raise joy in the impotent. Hundreds of trays of gutted trepang drying in the sun. Some weigh more than a kilo; others are small and black, like shrivelled snakes.

“They’re brought here to be processed and then sent to East Java for export.  I don’t know their origins,” said village leader Muhammad Ikhsan. “So many varieties, no shortage.”

When Australia became a Federation it brought the omnipresent fear of the Asian Invasion that persists still. The first laws against “poachers” were passed in 1906 because the foreigners were said to be “too industrious”.

In 1974 the Whitlam Government started trying to get serious about Asia. A new sea boundary was set, telling fishers what boats they could use. Sails OK, motors no.

Commented two legal researchers: “The prohibition against the use of technology has contributed to the deaths of numerous fishermen during cyclones.”

Instead of acting as a deterrent against fishing, (this) has simply increased the suffering of an already impoverished population.

Fishers are penned into 50,000 square kilometres of the Timor Sea through a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’, tagged by pedestrian bureaucrats as the MoU Box. Another error – it’s shaped like a jigsaw piece.

The deals are one-sided. Though the ‘box’ is 200 nautical miles north of Broome, it’s only 60NM south of Indonesia’s Rote Island.

Canberra’s sea grab surged ahead. In 1981 the Australian Fishing Zone was pushed out to 320 km. ‘Total Exclusion Zones’ appeared on maps.

Though joint patrols are sometimes run, Australia does the heavy policing. Indonesia has more compelling issues than helping a neighbour nurture sea slugs.

Boat people ‘to the rescue’

The arrangement stayed afloat till some skippers found ferrying asylum seekers paid better than harpooning trepang. The Boat People scare hardened loose laws. Crews were jailed – often illegally – boats burned, and their human cargo was sent to Nauru.

That traffic seems to have lessened, giving the ABF the chance to track those pesky trepangers.

The December catch followed an ABC TV Lateline programme featuring Australian authorities and high-tech fishers with steel boats venting their disquiet and voicing rumours of hidden mother ships. The views of the Indonesians were not included.

A Fisheries Management spokesperson told MWM: “The Kimberley Marine Park has seen a significant increase in illegal foreign fishing since July 2023 (and) many Indonesian fishing vessels intercepted.” No actual data was supplied in support of the claim.

Boat boy shame. Juvenile people smugglers wrongly imprisoned, finally compensated

The diver’s tale

Diver Sukri

Diver Sukri. Photo by Erlinawati Graham.

Diver Sukri surfaced twice in the last decade to find a boat waiting with men in uniform.  He was not afraid.

“I love Australia,” he said, “everyone was kind and polite. They gave me regular health checks, plenty of food and even money when I was deported.”

His overseas adventures excite his mates on Barrang Lompo, a half-square kilometre island an hour from Makassar.

It’s the largest homeport for trepang fishers in Eastern Indonesia, with a fleet of around 100 diesel-powered timber boats. Most are leased, so burning or confiscating by the ABF rarely impacts crews.

Sukri said he was warned of jail if he got caught again. He doesn’t fear the shame of imprisonment, so the threat is useless.

“Catches are down but that could be the weather,” he said. “I’ve just earned Rp 14 million ($1,350) working Indonesian waters for 40 days. That’s good.” (The minimum monthly wage in Jakarta is $500, less in the provinces.)

No buyers remorse

Yusran’s under-house store, also on Barrang Lompo, has eight 50 kg Styrofoam boxes of fresh salted trepang. He said he paid a captain $80 a kilo, down $20 from a month ago. The trade is reportedly worth $300 million a year, a figure that seems too low.

“I sell to the processors, and the trepang eventually go to China,” he said. “Prices vary according to supply and demand.”

Sydney University research suggests trepang numbers are falling on the Great Barrier Reef. There are no reports of Indonesians fishing in Queensland waters.

The 30 men caught in December were sent to a WA detention centre. The Indonesian Consul General in Perth said it hadn’t been told the men’s homeports and names, suggesting Jakarta was being kept out of the loop.

The fear factor

This story broke courtesy of the ABF feeding understaffed newsrooms with its version of events plus video. The 6,000-strong ABF is a third force extra to the police and defence. Some officers carry guns. It was set up in 2015.

It keeps its doings sub rosa, even though it operates in a democracy. To ease any distress citizens might suffer on discovering sea-slug gatherers stepping ashore, the ABF release added: “The Australian community can be assured these fishers will be detected, and our response will be resolute.”

It didn’t say whether the men had been charged and, if so, which court and when. MWM has been vigorously seeking answers.

Habeas corpus (produce the person) is a fundamental principle of Australian law requiring every prisoner to be brought before a court. If illegally held they must be released. A prisoner has to apply, so he needs legal help. The men were picked up in the Silly Season, which is not an ideal time for activating legal aid.

ABF refused to take questions; the government’s Fisheries Management Authority would only say,

These matters are currently under investigation …(no) further comment.

From other sources and after a fortnight of nagging, MWM can now reveal that 15 men have been deported, and the rest are scheduled to fly out in a few days.  So no public scrutiny and no political outrage. Is that how we want our agencies to operate?

Like pollution and global warming, conservation is an international concern. Trepang wriggle across sovereign borders, so their carers and catchers better think outside the box.

The election of a new president this year gives Canberra a chance to reset relations. That includes negotiating better ways to preserve marine life without demonising and jailing poor fishers following orders and spending millions to process and deport the naughties.

Maintaining the present policy may keep the ‘Indonesian invaders’ story alive in the mainstream media – but who benefits from continually bashing that drum of amorality?


Duncan Graham has a Walkley Award, two Human Rights Commission awards and other prizes for his radio, TV and print journalism in Australia. He now lives in Indonesia.

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