East Nusa Tenggara Fishermen Fear for Future After Oil Spill

The Jakarta Globe

Monday, June 28, 2010

Eras Poke

Kupang. Residents from fishing communities along the eastern seaboard of East Nusa Tenggara have called on the central government to do more to mitigate the impact of an oil spill that threatens their livelihood.

The spill was caused by a blowout at the Montara wellhead platform in the Timor Sea off the northern coast of Australia. The leak lasted 74 days, between August and November 2009, before the well was finally blocked, and by then the slick had already spread into Indonesian waters.

We’re not expecting any compensation,” Mustafa, the chairman of a local guild of traditional Timor Sea fishermen, told the Jakarta Globe over the weekend. “We just want our fishing grounds to be free from contamination. Any compensation will be completely up to the government.”

The impact of the spill on Indonesian fishermen was initially handled by East Nusa Tenggara Governor Frans Lebu Raya, who later handed it over to the central government, citing the province’s lack of facilities to deal with the problem.

In May, provincial legislative speaker Ibrahim Agustinus Medah lambasted the governor for failing to abide by his promise to monitor the government’s handling of the issue, saying he had witnessed firsthand the suffering of various local fishing communities as a result of the slick.

Medah, who visited the three districts of Rote Ndao, Sabu Raijua and Kupang, said the slick had devastated local seaweed farms and pearl farms. The province is renowned for its exports of South Sea pearls.

Mustafa said the impact on the pearl industry had been particularly heavy.

We lost at least 6,000 oysters by September 2009, just a few weeks after the oil spill began,” he said. “Each oyster costs an average Rp 1 million [$110], so the loss to local farmers was Rp 6 billion. The seaweed stocks, too, were lost during the same period.”

He added that fish stocks in the area had decreased drastically because of the contamination, driving some fishermen to move elsewhere.

Many of our fishermen have gone to Bangka-Belitung Islands [off southern Sumatra] to start a new life, because they can’t fish here anymore,” Mustafa said. “We will not stay silent after having suffered such losses.”

He said the impact extended to other sectors of society, which now had to pay more for the fewer fish being brought to market.

These days you get fish being sold for up to Rp 50,000 each, when before they would only cost between Rp 20,000 and Rp 25,000 each,” he said. “The reduced supply is driving the price up, which affects everyone, not just the fishermen.”

However, some fishermen say the reduced catches and disruptions to seaweed and oyster farming may have been be caused by inclement weather rather than the oil slick.

Alfian, a local fisherman, said he did not intend to move in search of more fertile waters. “There are no guarantees in fishing,” he said. No one can say with certainty whether one place will yield better catches than another place.”

Silvy Fanggidae, the director of a local NGO working with fishing communities, said there was not enough evidence to link the oil spill and the reduced catches.

There are so many other factors at play, such as the toxic chemicals that some fishermen use,” she said. But she acknowledged the government had been slow to respond to the slick.

Alexander Oematan, head of East Nusa Tenggara’s environmental monitoring agency, also advised against blaming the oil slick for the fishermen’s woes, pointing out his office had not reached any conclusions.

Medah, meanwhile, called for a study to determine how long the current spell of poor catches would last. “Is it going to be one year, five, 10 perhaps?” he said. “Will it be permanent? Because if it is, it won’t be a small problem anymore and those responsible must pay.

This issue should be deemed a national tragedy, because it has already affected three districts in the province.”

Additional reporting from Antara

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