Despite the risks, fishers continue to use compressors to make a living. Journalist Febrianti met with Jertianus from Sinakak to learn more.
A 15 PK outboard engine boat docked at the wooden pier on Matapi Island. Its four crew members, fishermen from Sinakak (Sinaka) Hamlet, Mentawai Islands, disembarked hurriedly.
Three of them were young. Their clothes were wet. They looked tired after diving. Only Jertianus, the boat owner, kept his clothes dry.
Jertianus (46), the eldest on the boat, looked happy. He took a bag from the net containing lobsters. The bag was deliberately attached to the end of the boat so that it would be submerged in water to keep the lobsters alive. When he lifted the net, dozens of lobsters were crammed inside.
In the past few days, Jerti, as he is known among fishers, looked gloomy in front of his octopus hut, near the dock. Jerti and other fishers in Sinakak are finding it increasingly difficult to catch octopus, their main income generator.
Sinakak Hamlet in South Pagai is the largest octopus producer in the Mentawai Islands District, West Sumatra. The area is directly adjacent to the Indian Ocean, with 199.7 km of coastline. The octopus population is spread across 20 small islands and 100 sand islands in the region.
But lately, octopus has become increasingly difficult to find. Their catch has declined considerably. From hundreds of kilograms per day to just one or two, according to Jerti.
This, of course, has a big impact on Jerti’s income, whose main profession is collecting octopus caught by Sinakak fishers.
He usually sells octopuses to Sikakap, the most populous sub-district on North Pagai Island, where brokers await to take octopus catch to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra Province.
“I used to catch a ton of octopus a day, when there was still a lot of octopus, but not anymore. Now I want to find more lobsters and sea cucumbers,” said Jerti, who provided seven or eight fishers with outboard engine boats and fuel to go to sea every day.
That’s why Jerti couldn’t help but smile when they brought home dozens of lobsters.
Jerti brought the catches from three fishers he financed to the front of his hut, put them in plastic baskets, and weighed them. Most were bamboo lobsters (Panulirus versicolor) and scalloped spiny lobsters (Panulirus homarus), the size of an adult palm.
A bamboo lobster, which is shiny green with black lines like bamboo segments, can weigh up to 1 kilogram. It’s a decent catch — buyers in Sikakap can offer it for Rp320,000 per kilogram. While scalloped spiny lobsters fetch a slightly lower price.
After Jerti weighed them, the lobsters were put back into the nets to be taken to the collective floating cages owned by the Sinakak fishing group. They were then submerged in seawater to keep them alive and fresh when brought to Sikakap the next day.
Difficult without a compressor
The profit from lobster fishing is shadowed by the risks that fishers have to face. To catch lobsters, a fisherman must dive using a compressor, commonly used by roadside tire patchers, to provide oxygen underwater.
Lobsters cannot be caught through conventional fishing methods such as nets. They live in holes in coral reefs, so fishermen must dive to catch them.
Jerti says without a compressor it is difficult to catch more lobsters and sea cucumbers. They will get tired quickly because they have to swim back and forth to the surface of the water to breathe.
Meanwhile, he added, scuba diving equipment is too expensive for these fishers.
Jerti has three compressors equipped with hoses — hose-to-nose equipment, and diving goggles that he bought in Padang for Rp15 million. Meanwhile, scuba diving equipment plus oxygen cylinders cost more than Rp10 million per unit.
“Actually with scuba diving equipment it’s better, the oxygen is clean. But it’s very expensive, not affordable for me,” he said.
Jerti argued that they never dived too deep or for too long. “Only at the shallow edges of the island, 10 to 15 meters deep,” he said.
He said that in 1999 he was a diver who caught sea cucumbers using a compressor. At that time, depending on the type, sea cucumbers could fetch up to Rp800,000 per kilogram. The compressor helped him stay underwater for three hours.
“I dived for elephant swalo (sea cucumbers) at depths between 50 and 60 meters deep,” said Jetri. He said fishers from Padang — who also searched for sea cucumbers — were amazed. ‘Why do islanders take so long to dive?” recalled Jerti.
A life-threatening risk
Using a compressor for diving is dangerous. The oxygen produced by the compressor is not 100% pure. It can be mixed with CO2 gas from the exhaust of the diesel engine running the compressor.
In addition to endangering divers, compressor fumes also harm marine ecosystems, which is the basis for the government’s ban on their use through Law 45/2019 on fisheries.
Traditional fishers who use compressors do not equip themselves with standard diving equipment, including depth guides. This makes them more susceptible to decompression sickness – injuries caused by a rapid decrease in the pressure surrounding a diver, either air or water — which can lead to permanent neurological impairment and even death.
Jerti admits that fishers understand the risks of compressors. Since 2000, Jerti said, many fishers have died due to compressors.
Jerti admits that Sinakak fishers understand the risks. Since 2000, many fishers have died due to the use of compressors.
“There were two to three in a year. Not only fishers from Sinakak, but also Sibolga, and Madura. They are buried on the small islands there,” said Jerti, pointing to islands across Matapi.
“Even though we got a lot of money, it was like hot money, the money disappeared, I don’t know what spent them on. Finally, I and many people in Sinakak stopped diving for elephant trunk sea cucumbers, horrified because many have died, some are paralyzed too,” he continued.
However, that has not deterred fishers from using compressors. They argue that compressors are safe because they don’t dive deep for lobsters.
“If it is only near here, no more than 15 meters, it is still safe. I have been diving for a long time and now it still has no effect on me, no shortness of breath,” said Jerti.
Difficult to prohibit
Bayu Sisyara, a fisheries educator from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries office in South Pagai said he often witnessed fishers in Sinakak using compressors to dive. However, he couldn’t prohibit them.
“The compressor has been banned by the government, but in reality, we find it difficult to prohibit it, because it’s a matter of their livelihood. The most we can do is provide counseling to the community on the risks of using compressors,” said Sisyara.
Similar to Jerti’s observation, Sisyara said fishers in Sinakak know and understand the harms in using compressors for diving. Because they have witnessed many people die from diving using compressors.
Sisyara said he often reminds fishers about compressors and the response he receives is “That’s puri, Mr. Bayu.”
Puri is short for “purimanuaijat”, a Mentawai word meaning “life” or “source of income”.
Meanwhile, acting Mentawai district head Fernando Jongguran Simanjuntak said he would be more active in socializing the dangers of compressors and promoting more environmentally friendly and sustainable ways of catching fish and lobsters.
“Fishermen do that to survive, so they often ignore everything. This cannot be allowed,” said Simanjuntak, who is also the head of Sukabumi Freshwater Aquaculture Fisheries Center, during an interview on July 27, 2023 in Tuapeijat, North Sipora.
“We have to provide alternative fishing methods for our fishermen friends.”