Just Below the Surface. Loss of Livelihood

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I had been on the island for nearly a year by then, and I did feel comfortable asking those villagers with whom I felt closest about the blast fishing. During that time, it became clear to me that many of them were concerned about the practice, but no one dared speak out about it. I learned that blast fishing was only rarely practiced by the villagers of Balobaloang, and that the blast fishers came from other islands. Just before leaving the island for my return to the United States, I took a telephoto picture of a boat whose crew was gathering up fish stunned by a bomb they had detonated. I gave this photo to a trusted friend who had grown up on the island and had moved to the capital city of Makassar, where he was employed as a civil servant. He said he would show it to people and not reveal its source, but, as far as I know, nothing ever came of this. After completing my doctorate and assuming a teaching position at Ohio University, I returned to Balobaloang in 1997 and again in 2000 to record the life histories of several retired senior Bugis navigators. On those occasions, I stayed in the home of Pak Razak, the captain who had first brought me to Balobaloang aboard his then new 40-ton lambo.One morning in 2000, we were standing on the front deck of his house and were startled by the sound of a bomb being detonated beyond the reef flat opposite his house. Without being asked, he offered that this was, indeed, blast fishing and that its occurrences were increasing at a troubling rate, destroying the fishery near the island, and forcing village fishers to travel great distances to find enough fish to feed their families and sell to neighbors. Further discussions with Razak and others revealed that the local fishers had been forced after more than nine years of destructive fishing to give up their indigenous and ecologically sustainable dugout boats equipped with outriggers and powered by paddle. Now they fished from narrow plank boats inspired by Western designs. Larger than dugouts and powered by diesel engines, these boats, called joloro’, are capable of traveling far enough from the island and covering enough ground to make fishing more profitable. Disturbed by what I now saw as an attack on the very lives and livelihoods of the people who had been my gracious hosts and friends for more than a decade, I returned to the United States and made plans to spend my sabbatical year studying the impact of destructive fishing practices on the people of Balobaloang and the marine environment surrounding the island. My plan was to carry out ethnographic research among the local fishers and their families, learning all that I could about their knowledge of the surrounding reefs and marine life as well as the technologies they employed in foraging for fish and other marine life for subsistence and trade. I would also record their stories of the history of destructive fishing in the area and their responses to it. I would not be doing this alone. I was joined by graduate students from Ohio University and Hasanuddin University, Makassar. One team from both schools carried out a survey of the health of the surrounding reef, while Amelia Hapsari, an Indonesian graduate student in Telecommunications at Ohio University, produced a “participatory” documentary video, one that allowed the fishers and their families to tell their own story about the impact of destructive fishing practices on their own lives. In Indonesia as elsewhere, bombs used for fishing are made from plastic drinking bottles filled with explosives illegally obtained on the black market.2 Such a bomb is tossed from a dugout into a school of reef fish. The dugout is quickly paddled away while the weighted bomb sinks to a predetermined depth and explodes. The fishing boat then moves in and divers using “hookah” rigs and goggles descend with empty sacks to collect the stunned and dead fish. They then load the fish aboard the boat and take them to a nearby island to be dried before taking them into port, or, if they are close to port, the fish will be ice-packed aboard the “mother ship” and sold “fresh” in local markets and restaurants. The major long-term destruction from blast fishing, beyond the killing of juveniles and noncommercial species (or “by-catch”), results from the impact of the explosion on the corals that comprise the reef. Recall that corals are huge colonies of tiny living organisms called “polyps” of the class Anthrozoa and the hard “skeletons” they create around them. These corals provide the foundation for complex marine ecosystems and are homes to hundreds of species of fish and other marine life. When a bomb explodes on or above a coral reef, it smashes the coral skeletons to bits, killing the polyps and leaving only coral gravel behind. Because this gravel shifts with the waves, no new colonies can establish themselves, and the area can no longer support abundant life. While blast fishing yields dead fish for local markets, potassium cyanide is used to drug valuable reef fish so that they can be easily captured alive and without injury for international markets, where they wind up as dinner in high-end restaurants or as pets in saltwater aquariums. Fishermen dive with plastic bottles filled with potassium cyanide solution, squirting it into holes and crevices in the coral where the targeted fish live. The fish then drift out and are kept alive in floating nets or holding tanks until they are picked up by the “mother ship” and taken into port. Meanwhile, the poison kills any polyps with which it comes into contact as it drifts with the current. This “bleached” coral is essentially dead, and, while new polyps may eventually recolonize the old substrate, these bleached skeletons are fragile and easily destroyed by strong waves or, in the worst cases, subsequent blast fishing. And even if corals aren’t destroyed, breeding stocks of fish such as groupers are often wiped out by cyaniders who have learned that these and other fish return to their birth places to spawn at the same time each year. When cyaniders return to the spawning grounds year after year for several years, whole generations of adult fish are lost, and eventually there are no more young fish being born at those locations. Interestingly, several fishermen on Balobaloang told me that grouper are “lazy feeders” when they are spawning; the effect is that they are highly unlikely to be overfished using traditional weighted hand lines with baited hooks. On the island of Balobaloang, I was told, blast fishing was practiced up until about 1990 but only at times when large quantities of fish were needed for weddings, circumcisions, and other ritual events where large numbers of people were expected to be fed. On one occasion in the 1980s, a local fisherman was caught and arrested for blast fishing by the police officer stationed on the island; in those days, such an arrest meant a promotion and salary increase for the police officer and shame for the perpetrator and his family. Since then, I was assured, no one on Balobaloang has made a living from either blast fishing or cyanide poisoning. By the early 1990s, however, fishermen from other islands, nearby and distant, began to exploit for profit the rich fishing grounds of the Sabalanas with both explosives and cyanide. Because key materials are illegal and, thus, expensive and hard to obtain, and because it is difficult for an individual to get his own larger catch to market, those who practice destructive fishing usually work for a patron, referred to locally as a pongawa or bos. Such patron–client relationships have a deep history in Southeast Asian social organization (see, for example, Scott 1979; Errington 1989; Pelras 1996; Robinson 1998; Chozin 2008). In this case, I learned over time, the boss provides, on credit, the needed illegal materials, as well as other fishing equipment. He also pays the requisite bribes to the police and other local officials to protect the fishermen from being arrested; if someone gets arrested and their boat impounded, the boss will pay the judge to have the case dismissed. The boss also buys the fish from the fishermen, taking out a large percentage of the profit plus payment on the debt. While the fishermen may freely enter into these arrangements, because of their ongoing indebtedness to the boss, it is often hard for fishermen to terminate the relationship. When we arrived in September 2003, the first thing my wife and I set about was having a small house built in the village on the island’s ocean- ward side. This would be our home and house for other researchers for the duration of our stay; later on it would become a research center for studying Sabalana Islands coral reef management. While it was being built, I began work with my longtime research associate and principal of the village elementary school, Supriady Daeng Matutu, interviewing local fishers in order to learn about their fishing knowledge and practices, past and present. About three weeks after our arrival, I was sitting on the porch of our temporary home on the south side of the island, looking out across the exposed reef flat. Preoccupied with getting our own house built but anxious to start my research, I spotted a dugout and some men fishing just beyond the flat. I picked up my camera and notebook, and ventured out to learn all I could about what these men were doing. As it turned out, there were four men, one pair fishing with a net from the dugout and the other pair diving for fish with home-crafted goggles and spear guns. Because I was on foot, I could only stand and watch both operations from the edge of the flat. After a time, however, the latter pair of men emerged with fish on their spears and more in a dugout they had anchored while they fished, one of them inviting me to photograph their catch and shouting proudly, “and we caught these with our own hands, not with bombs!” These two men, Mama’ and Saleh, were among only about ten men on the island of about six hundred residents who made their living entirely from fishing. Within the following few weeks, I got to know more of them through conversations, interviews, observations, and participation aboard their fishing boats. I will now introduce a few of them and their individual stories as fishermen.

 

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