Maritime authorities in Indonesia have tracked down and nabbed a Russian-flagged fishing vessel that was on the most-wanted list for suspected serious crimes in Indonesian waters, including fuel smuggling, illegal fishing and modern slavery.

With assistance and information from Australian authorities, the Indonesian fishery enforcement vessel KP Paus 01 found the suspect fishing vessel Run Zeng 03 (RZ 03) in the Arafura Sea on May 19. In a dramatic high-seas boarding, the patrol vessel delivered a law enforcement team to the deck of the fishing vessel and arrested the crew. The vessel allegedly was using trawling gear in a prohibited area, and had 30 tonnes of illicit catch on board. The RZ 03 and its captain have been detained at a base in Maluku for further investigation.

The captain admitted that the vessel had been operating in Indonesian waters since January, according to Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. The ministry will investigate alleged fishery offenses and transfer evidence of any other crimes over to the regional police, a spokesman told Kompas.

A second suspect vessel, the Indonesian  fishing tender “Y”, was also apprehended and escorted to a government base for further investigation. Two other vessels related to the same fleet, the trawler RZ 05 and the Indonesian fuel barge Mitra Utama Semesta, are also under investigation. The Semestra is suspected of supplying 150 tonnes of subsidized diesel and 55 replacement crewmembers to the RZ 03 and 05.

According to the ministry, the operators of the Y and the Semestra are also under investigation for allegedly cooperating with and facilitating illegal foreign fishing operations. Criminal charges are a possibility, along with permit revocation.

The NGO Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI) said that it may be possible for Indonesian authorities to declare the RZ 03 and 05 to be stateless vessels. Both fly the Russian flag, but both are owned by companies with official registered headquarters in China. Russian law requires Russian-flagged vessels to have a domiciled address in Russia; an apparent violation of this registration requirement could render their flag status null and void.

IOCJ says that it detected the two vessels’ movements in Indonesian waters as early as April 2023. Run Zeng 03’s AIS signal does not appear in recent records in commercial AIS databases.