Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
Nowhere on earth is there a greater disparity in maritime environments than between northern Australia and the southern regions of Indonesia. Northern Australia's historically low population and its regulated fisheries management have—until now—provided relatively good protection for the rich and diverse marine resources of the Timor Sea. By contrast, the Arafura Sea, directly to the north of Australia, is among the most heavily fished regions in the world. As the marine resources of other Indonesian regions have progressively been overexploited, fishing ves sels—both local and foreign—have shifted operations eastward. Under a ruling of the Soeharto period, trawlers banned elsewhere in Indonesian waters are allowed to operate legally in the Arafura Sea. A plethora of these fishing vessels, some legal and others illegal, vie with each other to exploit available resources. The increasingly sophisticated operations of these large fishing fleets have disrupted and diminished the opportuni ties for the small-boat fishermen of eastern Indonesia to derive a living from the sea. As these fishermen have seen their capacity to operate curtailed, they, too, have been forced to extend their voyaging.
Many of these small-boat fishermen, especially from South and Southeast Sulawesi where pressures on sea resources are particularly acute, have shifted, either permanently or on a seasonal basis, to strategic locations along the coasts of the southern islands of eastern Indonesia. Limited by commercial vessels operating in the Arafura Sea, they have increasingly looked to Australian waters for key commodities that were previously plentiful in their own seas, particularly shark but also trepang and trochus.
As the number of small-boat fishermen has multiplied and the resources they seek in their own waters have diminished, the problem of illegal fishing in Australia's northern waters has become ever more acute. Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) concluded with Indonesia in 1974, Australia permitted ‘traditional fishermen’—those who relied exclusively on sail power—to fish within a demarcated sea area known as the MOU (or MOU74) Box.
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