'We no longer catch fish’ — Balikpapan fishermen gripe about sea pollution

N. Adri and Gemma Holliani Cahya The Jakarta Post 10 Jun 18;

Fishermen in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, are complaining about sea pollution they claim has been caused by the loading and unloading of coal at sea, saying they “no longer catch fish or shrimp, but only coal.”

In their biggest protest so far, some 400 fishers blockaded the shipping lane used by coal-carrying barges, locally known as tongkang. “We want the activity of loading coal in the middle of the sea to stop, because it not only pollutes the sea, but is also killing our jobs,” Sakirang, 50, the coordinator of the protest, said on Saturday.

Sakirang and his fellow fishermen blockaded the lane with around 80 ships. They put banners on some of the pontoons, expressing their objection to the coal loading activity.

Personnel from the National Police and the Indonesian Military (TNI) as well as officials from the East Kalimantan Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Agency were seen escorting the protest.

The fishermen warned officials that they would stage a bigger protest if their demands remained unheeded. “We no longer catch fish or shrimp, we are catching coal,” Sakirang lamented.

The practice of loading and unloading coal at sea started in 2017 and has become more common since, especially after the oil spill caused by a broken pipeline belonging to state-owned energy company Pertamina in April, which prompted the closure of Balikpapan for any unloading activity, the fishermen said.

They further claimed that coal transported by the barges often spilled into the ocean, and that every time they went fishing, coal would get caught up in and even tear the fishing nets.

They put banners on some of the pontoons, expressing their objection to the coal loading activity.
They put banners on some of the pontoons, expressing their objection to the coal loading activity. (Courtesy of/KNTI)

Other than affecting the fishermen’s livelihood, the coal pollution had also caused environmental damage, said Pradarma Rupang of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

Coal, which contains pyrite or Iron sulfide, will produce high concentrations of sulfuric acid when mixed with water. Sulfuric acid is dangerous for sea creatures like fish and coral reef, Rupang said.

The Indonesian Traditional Fishermen Association (KNTI) supported the Balikpapan fishermen’s move. “The protest shows that the fishermen will not just sit idly when responding to the sea pollution from coal in Balikpapan waters, which has impacted their livelihood,” it said in a statement.

According to the 2016 Law on Fishermen Protection, local and central governments had the obligation to keep fishing areas free from pollution, it said. “It is important for the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry to intervene to ensure that the livelihood of the fishermen is safe from the coal barges that pollute and destroy the fish ecosystem in Balikpapan waters.”

Balikpapan Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Agency head Yosmianto said he had received reports of declining catches in recent months as a result of discharging coal at sea.

"I often get such reports,” he said.

Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry spokesperson Agung Pribadi, however, denied that the transportation of coal in Balikpapan had caused pollution in the sea. “There is no pollution […]. Everything they do is according to the procedures,” Agung told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

He said officials from local administrations and the central government had held a meeting to discuss the issue on Saturday. “Of course, the fishermen wanted to receive compensation for what they claim are their losses, but on the other hand, the companies also felt that what they do has been done according [to procedures].”

Coal carriers in the Balikpapan Bay and the Makassar Strait are owned by several parties. The coal is transported from Balikpapan to other islands, particularly Java, where most coal-fired power plants are located. It is also exported to other countries, such as Taiwan and the Philippines. (hol/ahw)