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The waters around Kusamba were once so rich in fish that three fishing boats could be swapped for an acre of coastal land.
Sixty-four-year-old Gusti Lanang Oka, a former fisherman from the village in Klungkung, says those boats offered a much better livelihood than farming, so were far more valuable than land.
“The seas back in 1969 were so clear you could see the fish. This place we are sitting on is half a hectare of land we bought with two boats, that’s how rich the sea was. We even had Napoleon fish. We used to swim in the sea and wash our fishing nets in the river here. Now it’s so dirty we can’t use the river and if we swim we get itchy. The sea is contaminated and the fish are gone,” he says.
Still strong despite his years, Oka says he is saddened that fishing as a way of life in Kusamba, which has been practiced for centuries, is collapsing due to environmental degradation so severe fish no longer breed in the waters off the village beach and the coral that once sustained fish populations has turned black and is dying.
“Where can we find a way to restore these fishing grounds? In the past there were 13 fishing groups here, now there are barely six and fish catches are deteriorating daily. Only the cooperative I belong to, Segara 1, has the funds to give rice to our fishermen and small loans to help them get through. I am very sad to see this happening,” says Oka, who is an auditor for his fisherman’s cooperative.
The collapse of this local fishing industry has three major causes, he says.
“There is severe contamination in these waters from plastic waste and rubbish coming from the land and the river. People throw rubbish a way without any awareness of what damage this does. We have tried so hard to educate the people here not to dump rubbish in the sea and the rivers and we have tried to collect the rubbish, but there is no trash collection here and the people just don’t understand,” says Oka of environmental issues affecting local seas.
Added to this is a lack of innovation in fishing, he says, pointing out that today fishermen still use traditional methods.
“We still fish with nets and rods and the boats are small canoes so the fishermen can’t follow the fish to cleaner waters, so they aren’t getting catches and clearly the human resources here are underdeveloped. So we have three factors: people don’t have the knowledge, there is a lack of modern tools and we have contaminated seas where fish can no longer breed,” says Oka, who is deeply concerned for the future of his village, its very existence based on the sea.
There is a babble of excited voices at the local Kusamba fish market across the road from Oka’s home as women haggle over the price of fish; truck after truck is delivering fresh fish caught in Karangasem while other trucks are drop off frozen fish.
The once rich Kusamba waters are barely 100 meters away, but these are now barren, says 64-year-old Ibu Suri and her 70-year-old husband, Pak Gare. The couple has a stall at the market where they have been cooking pindang (fish stew) from local fish since the mid 1960s.
“The season is poor so we have to buy frozen fish now. It’s been three months since there was any fish caught in Kusamba. The reason there is no fish is because of the weather — it’s not because of the rubbish and the oil. We don’t have that here. It’s because maybe the weather has broken up the coral,” says Suri, who with her husband has raised eight children, 18 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren from the sea’s bounty.
Another group of women are making snacks. All agree with their husbands who work on building projects as laborers: The problem with the fish loss is the weather — it’s got nothing to do with rubbish and other pollutants.
On the beach a group of young men are texting on mobile phones while watching an elderly man repair the outriggers on a boat.
“It’s a quiet season for fish — we call this musim paceklik, [bad season]” says 36-year-old fisherman Ketut Majerit. He has been fishing for a living since he left school, a profession he says was handed down from his ancestors. Like his friends on the beach, Ketut says he is deeply concerned for the future of fishing in Kusamba.
“We’ve got two factors working against us now, the weather and added to that is the pollution. Here we need to fix the environment because we have a river that feeds into the sea. Every time it rains the river brings rubbish so of course we want to fix the environment, but the rubbish keeps coming with the rain,” Ketut says.
The problems affecting Kusamba’s fishing industry are mirrored across the sea on Lembongan Island, says Made Nurata, who is in Kusumba for boat repairs.
“The coral loss is a problem, but here it’s very difficult to re-grow it like in Buleleng. This is because the waters are very deep between Kusamba and Lembongan and we have strong cross currents. In Lembongan fish stocks are also down,” says Made.
These young men fear for the future. They believe their way of life as fishermen is under threat and soon they may be forced to give up the sea and take on jobs as farmers or builders, 80 percent of local fishermen have stopped fishing and become laborers.
“Clearly we are worried about the future. We worry because we can’t harvest from the sea if the fish stocks keep going down in these, our ancestral fishing grounds. We would have to look for jobs as builders. If this happens our fishing culture will be lost and that is very sad,” says 32-year-old Wayan Surasta.
Government assistance for the Kusamba fishing village has been virtually nonexistent, says Oka, and research to discover the cause or causes of contamination and its clean-up yet to even be considered.
“The government never comes here to teach modern fishing methods. The only innovation so far was back in 1997 when we got outboard motors on the boats. That’s it — nothing else. The government must respond quickly to this contaminated environment,” says Oka of a massive environmental problem that to date has not even had basic research such as water sampling done to discover the cause of the reef die off and loss of fish stocks.
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