In what was known as the octopus center in Mentawai, the waters off Sinakak have much less to offer today as fishers struggle to find the eight-limbed mollusc.
Ilyas Pical Saogo looked out at the sea, which reflects a turquoise shimmer. The 37-year-old stood on Simatapi Island beach in Sinakak Hamlet, South Pagai Sub-district, Mentawai Islands District, West Sumatra. It was a sunny morning and should have been pleasant for everyone. But not for Saogo.
He didn’t seem too happy about the sunny day and calm sea, because June had arrived. June is the time when octopuses, which can be exchanged for money, become increasingly difficult to find.
Like many other fishers in Sinakak, Saogo believes that in June all female octopuses lay eggs. They only stay in their nests on the rocks and are reluctant to leave. In fact, with their limbs (tentacles), they also lift corals to cover their hiding holes so that no one can find them.
“[The octopus] will protect its eggs until October. It will not come out of its nest even if it’s just to catch fish for food,” Saogo said, describing his experience with the eight-limbed mollusc, when met on Thursday (15/6/2023).
But that morning, Saogo pushed his wooden boat into the sea. He was accompanied by Gilte, his 14-year-old sister-in-law. They both rode the boat to Nyang-Nyang Island, 750 meters from the Simatapi Island Jetty. We followed them in another boat.
Nyang-Nyang Island’s sea is crystal clear. Colonies of hood coral (Stylophora pistillata) and knob coral (Favia speciosa) were clearly visible from the boat. It’s a known habitat for octopuses in this part of the Mentawai Islands.
From the boat, Saigo threw a large stone into the sea as an anchor. The stone was tied with a plastic rope and was sufficient to hold the boat steady at 10 meters above ground.
He put on a snorkeling mask. In his hand was a spear he used to catch an octopus – a half-meter-long iron rod with the diameter of an adult finger with a pointed tip. He also carried an octopus ‘fishing rod’ – a nylon thread — with what he called an “octopus toy” attached to the end.
The toy was made from a sea snail shell (Littorina sp) with four fishhooks on its back. Beneath it dangle four metal spoon stalk hangers roughly the length of a palm. The spoons glistened in the water.
Saogo then jumped into the sea with his spear and fishing rod. He swam close to the reef. Gilte watched him from the boat. Saogo swam back and forth to the octopus nest among the corals. He shook the fishing rod, but not a single octopus appeared.
After an hour of trying, Saogo climbed back onto the boat and lay down to warm himself up, facing the blazing sun.
Not long after, he dove back into the water. But that day he and Gilte went home empty-handed. At midday, he rowed the canoe to the shore and rested under the trees on Nyang-Nyang Island.
The island is uninhabited and became a resting place for octopus fishers. The white sandy beaches were covered with mollusc shells and coral fragments carried by the waves
Saogo explained that octopuses spawned on the reef he dove into. They only peek at the fishing line from their nest and didn’t want to come out. “During a spawning period like this, they will not be interested in fish, let alone fishing toys,” he said.
Octopus fishers, said Saigo, must be precise in their aim. The spear must pierce the area between their eyes.
“If you hit its limb, he will run away and release black poisonous ink. After that, we can’t see it anymore. Octopus is like a chameleon. It can change color quickly. It can appear like sand or coral,” explained Saogo.
Saogo is not fond of the nylon thread, because he thinks they can wipe out the octopus population. The nylon thread fishing rod made from sea snail shells has only become popular in the last year. Sinakak fishers started making them after seeing videos on YouTube.
“Octopus that are about 3 ounces in size, will also be hooked, this will quickly finish the octopus here. With spears, we can only pick grown octopus,” he said.
Saogo admits, hunting octopus has allowed him to make a sufficient living to support his small family — wife and a three-month-old child.
“The money from selling the octopus is for the family’s needs. For daily food I catch fish, there is plenty of fish. There is also income from crops. But farm produce, such as areca nut, is not as stable as octopus prices,” said Saogo.
But now, octopuses are becoming increasingly difficult to find while the hunting season is twice a year. Many fishers who rely on octopuses for their main income, he said, will feel ‘unemployed’ as no money flows into their coffers.
However, Saogo is not convinced that the sea near his village will run out of octopuses. That day he was unlucky because they were laying eggs.
“There are many eggs. I’ve seen them. One mother octopus can produce thousands of eggs, but not all survive because of many predators, including fish. Even big octopuses eat smaller octopuses,” said Saogo.
It was late afternoon and Saogo headed home without a single octopus. But Gilte caught a few clams (Tridacna) while diving. They will feast on clams for dinner.
Saogo was not the only one who came home empty-handed. Sutrisno Madogaho, another fisher from Sinakak, also admitted that it was difficult to catch octopus after the season ended last April. Among the young fishermen community in Sinakak, Madogaho is known as ‘the father of octopus’ because he often gets the most catches.
At the peak of the octopus season in March 2023, Madogaho broke a record by catching 54 kilograms of octopus in a day. For that catch, he earned Rp1.9 million ($588) from octopus sales to collection vessels in Sinakak.
“That was my biggest income in the octopus season last March. But throughout March I earned an average of Rp400-Rp500 thousand a day,” said Madogaho, Friday (6/16/2023).
Like other young fishers in Sinakak, Madogaho lives in a small wooden house with a tin roof. He admits that he diligently saves the proceeds from octopus sales at the bank in Sikakap — a sub-district in North Pagai — to pay for his son’s school fees.
“Only octopus generates money. I never bring the octopus home, I sell it immediately. After I get the octopus, I start fishing to feed my family,” he said.
Madogaho recalls the time when one could catch octopuses any time of the year. That was five years ago. The size of the octopuses at that time was quite large as well. Even one octopus can weigh 4-5 kilograms.
He said that in the past, they only needed to sail close to the island and it didn’t take long to catch up to 83 kilograms of octopus.
“Now the octopus is smaller, weighing between one and two kilograms at most, and we sail further out to the small islands ahead,” said Madogaho.
Sinakak, with 199.7 km of coastline and bordering directly the Indian Ocean, is the largest octopus-producing center in the Mentawai Islands. The octopus population is spread across 20 small islands and 100 sand islands in Sinakak. A lush mangrove forest completes the village’s landscape.
This geographical condition has long made Sinakak waters an important fishing area in Mentawai. In addition to octopus, reef fish, pelagics, sea cucumbers, shrimps, and lobsters make up the area’s ecosystem.
Octopuses collected from Sinanak fishers are taken to Medan and Jakarta to be exported overseas. Records from Yayasan Citra Mandiri (YCM) Mentawai — a local NGO focused on indigenous rights and empowerment in Mentawau Islands and has been assisting fishermen in Sinakak since January 2022– showed that in 2021 at least eight tons of octopus were produced by Sinakak fishers every month during the octopus season. During the stormy season, production drops to one to two tons per month.
Sinakak octopus fishing began in 2000, when octopus traders arrived from Padang. Octopus that was previously caught — one or two — for a family side dish, suddenly had a market and presented a lucrative opportunity to Sinakak fishers.
But the ‘boom’ in octopus fishing happened in 2018 when octopus prices reached Rp65,000 per kilogram. Fishers raced out to the sea, competing to catch the most. In a day, a Sinakak fisher can earn up to Rp1 million ($65).
The buyers would bring the catch in cool boxes and sail for two hours to Sikakap. There, the octopuses would be picked up by collectors who bring them to Padang, from where they were shipped to Medan and Jakarta. If the packaging is perfect, the octopus can stay fresh for a week.
Octopuses are dwindling, not hiding
Sinakak Village head, Tarsan Samaloisa, believes that octopuses are increasingly difficult to catch not because they hide to lay eggs.
“Not because the octopus is laying eggs, but the octopus has started to run out because it has been caught continuously for a long time,” said Samaloisa when we visited him on Saturday (17/6/2023).
He said that octopus had been the mainstay of Sinakak fishers for the past five years. However, continuous hunting without discretion — large and small — has made the octopus population decline even further.
“If this continues, the octopus will run out, just like what happened to sea cucumbers and lobsters in the past,” said Samaloisa.
There has been a significant decline in the populations of sea cucumbers and lobsters in the Mentawai Islands. In the 1980s, fishers caught hundreds of kilograms of these animals a day. The price at that time was around Rp1,000 (65 cents) per kilogram.
In early 2010, sea cucumber and lobster prices soared to Rp200,000 per kilogram. As a result, massive poaching occurred. The use of poisons and bombs damaged Mentawai’s marine ecosystem and led to the decline of sea cucumber and lobster populations.
Idris Maulana, a sea cucumber and lobster collector, said that in 2023, fishers could only catch around 5-10 kilograms of sea cucumber and lobster every week or two weeks.
To prevent such over-exploitation, Samaloisa said, the Sinakak administration, together with local fishers and YCM Mentawai drafted a village regulation to control octopus and fish catches so that they do not overfish. This is also to protect the environment.
“The cause of octopus decline is due to over-exploitation and uncontrolled fishing. There are also those who use gasoline and soap to catch octopus, but now it has begun to decrease,” said Rifai Lubis, director of YCM Mentawai, Thursday (6/15/2023).
From January to June 2023, YCM Mentawai observed a total catch of 22 tons of octopus in Sinakak and Korit Buah hamlets. In 2021 the octopus caught could reach 8 tons per month.
“The fishers’ income this year has also decreased compared to the past because the octopus catch has also decreased due to prolonged bad weather,” said Lubis.
Lubis said that based on data collection in the past year, there was an anomaly or shift in the seasonal calendar. From YCM Mentawai’s initial assessment and profiling conducted amongst collectors and fishermen, the octopus fishing season lasts for seven months, between January-April and October-December, while May-Sept is the galoro, the local language forbad weather, which peaks in July-August.
“But the storm season this time is longer, from May 2022-January 2023, fishermen’s catches are below normal, they fluctuate, even though in October 2022 the weather should have improved, but last year October-November was still stormy, the octopus catch only rose in January 2023, but starting at the end of May and this June (2023) it dropped again. Whether that is an effect of El Nino or climate change, of course, must be analyzed by experts, but fishermen have felt this uncertain season for the past 3-5 years,” explained Lubis.
To preserve the octopus in the Sinakak waters, on June 17, 2023 the village administrators and YCM Mentawai announced that fishing location in the Beriuloi Island area is temporarily closed and will be reopened in September.
Samaloisa said the closure will also be implemented in several other fishing locations.
“So far, we have been negligent in monitoring our marine (biota, ed) habitat, even though the sea is the economic foundation of the Sinakak community. I hope there will be a change in fishers’ mindset,” said Samaloisa.