As Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Edhy Prabowo was tasked with protecting one of his country’s most precious resources: baby lobsters so tiny one can fit on the tip of a finger.
The waters off the nation’s many islands and archipelagos had once teemed with lobster. But overfishing in recent decades decimated the crustacean’s population, so much so that fishermen turned to catching the hatchlings. They scooped them up by the thousands and shipped them to Vietnamese lobster farms, where the babies are raised to adulthood and sold mostly to dealers in China to meet its enormous demand for seafood.
Concerned that such harvesting was harming lobster populations, Indonesia’s fishing ministry in 2016 prohibited the export of the tiny crustaceans. Shortly after taking office, Prabowo lifted the ban. Court documents show that just a month later, in June 2020, the minister accepted a $77,000 bribe from a seafood supplier to grant it a permit to sell the hatchlings abroad.
The money kept flowing. In his short stint as minister, Prabowo accepted bribes of nearly $2 million. He was arrested in 2020 by Indonesian authorities, having used the graft to purchase 26 road bikes, Old Navy children’s clothes, Louis Vuitton bags, Rolex watches and two luxury pens. Prabowo, 50, was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption. His attorney declined to comment.
Prabowo’s case is not an outlier. At least 45 government officials have been accused of corruption in the past two decades, the AP found. The allegations range from high-ranking officials like Prabowo, accepting large payments from fishing companies to obtain lucrative contracts, to low-level civil servants accepting a few thousand dollars to ignore fishermen bringing illegal catch ashore.
“Fisheries corruption can have devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and local communities that may depend on them,” said Ben Freitas, manager of ocean policy at the World Wildlife Fund, based in Washington. “It is a global problem.”
The situation is most critical in areas managed by developing nations because many industrialized countries have already overfished their own waters, forcing their trawlers to go afar. Many coastal developing countries depend on fish for millions of jobs and to feed their people.
Those wishing to conceal their operations or pay bribes to get around restrictions have found fishing to be a welcoming industry.
“The lack of accountability, I think, is even greater in the fisheries sector than it is in other environmental-related activities,” said Juhani Grossmann at the Basel Institute on Governance, which is working on anti-corruption efforts with Indonesia's fishing ministry.
At least with illicit lumber operations, Grossmann said, “you don’t have a different shell corporation for every single truck."
The AP review found that most cases of corruption and graft were low-level schemes, like one in India in which prosecutors last year alleged two fisheries officers extorted $1,100 to approve subsidies for a fish farm. Another involved fishermen said to have bribed Malaysian officers with at least $11,000 for every boat they agreed not to report.
But some involve global financial institutions. In 2021, the Swiss bank Credit Suisse admitted to fraudulently financing a massive loan to Mozambique to expand its tuna fishing fleet. A contractor handling the loan paid kickbacks of $150 million to Mozambican government officials.
And in the “ Fishrot ” scandal, Namibian authorities allege the Icelandic seafood company Samherji paid roughly $6 million in bribes to Namibian officials to be permitted to fish in the country’s waters. Samherji has denied committing crimes.
Stephen Akester, a fisheries management adviser who has worked in Africa and South Asia for four decades, cited a long history of foreign companies — particularly from China — forging corrupt relationships with fisheries officials.
“They exploited the weakness of these governments for whom any kind of revenue was big money, even small dollars,” he said. “And that still continues today.”
In Gambia, a small West African nation nestled along Senegal’s coast, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources, Bamba Banja, was charged in 2021 with accepting a bribe from a Chinese company to free a vessel detained for illegal fishing. The case is ongoing; Banja’s lawyer told AP that the fisheries secretary denies any wrongdoing.
Corruption is not limited to developing countries. Malta's fisheries director in 2019 was linked to a criminal network that sought to launder illegally caught bluefin tuna that arrived in Spain from Italy and Malta via French ports. The newspaper El Confidencial said Spanish police intercepted a phone call in which the director was heard telling a tuna magnate, “You have to pay me." Malta's fisheries ministry said the director was on unpaid leave.
The cases reviewed by AP probably represent a small fraction of the corruption that takes place daily as seafood is transported and sold around the world.
In Ghana, for instance, the fishing ministry has been unmarked by any major corruption scandal. Yet the Environmental Justice Foundation, which has investigated abuses in the fishing sector for two decades, issued a report last year documenting how the West African nation has become ensnared in “a culture of corruption in which bribery and intimidation pervades all levels of fisheries management.”
Kyei Kwadwo Yamoah advocates for better fisheries management in Ghana as convener of the Fisheries Alliance. In reviewing infractions reported by observers on fishing vessels for a World Bank project in 2016, Yamoah found wide, unexplained gaps in enforcement. The government had penalized some companies, he said, but others were granted a renewed fishing license without question.
“There was no clarity as to why these vessels were not even booked or sanctioned, while there was a clear case of a breach of law,” Yamoah said.
Overfishing and illegal fishing have pushed Ghana's fish stocks to near collapse, prompting presidential action and putting the livelihoods and the health of millions of Ghanaians at risk.
The situation, Yamoah said, is growing dire: Some days fishermen spend all day on the water and come back with nothing.
Associated Press reporters Colleen Barry in Milan, Ciarán Giles in Madrid, Joshua Goodman in Miami, Abdoulie John in Gambia, Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi, and Edna Tarigan and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.
Follow the reporters on Twitter: @FuTingBJ, @GraceEkpu and @helenwieffering.
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips.
This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The AP is solely responsible for all content.