Hung Out to Dry – Jakarta’s dying fishing industry
Written and photographed by Joshua Vong
While making our way into the depths of Penjaringan’s market and fishing port, it became evident exactly how far off Jakarta’s beaten path we had travelled. This was clearly not a place that was used to foreigners, let alone some with rather large cameras.
But as we were contemplating a hasty retreat to the comfort and safety of our vehicle, we spied several large fishing boats. Decked out in every colour imaginable, we had to get a closer look. Our local fixer explained that seeing this many fishing boats docked here at once used to be a rare sight five years ago, but due to the massive land reclamation projects led by the local government and large developers, Jakarta’s once lucrative fishing ports are now a shadow of their former selves.
As we climbed under a flimsy gate, we started to see evidence of the impact that these projects have had on the fishing community here. From battle-hardened veteran fishermen looking dejectedly at a meagre haul from today’s catch, to several boats left sitting in disrepair, this once thriving port now sat semi-abandoned and in disarray.
As we observed a group of young fishermen hauling their nets out from a small boat, a middle-aged man who looked to be the owner of the vessel stepped off and approached us. We learned that his name was Adi, and that he had been fishing at this port since he was a child. Once a prominent fisherman known for his impressive catches, Adi’s nets are now filled with more trash than fish as he hauls them out of the ocean.
“After fishing all night, I would be lucky to cover the pay for my workers and feed my family a simple meal.”
It wasn’t always this way though, less than five years ago Adi would have been able to bring home a catch weighing more than 100 kilograms. These days, he would be lucky if he managed a third of that.
The fishing conditions in the waters off Jakarta’s coastline have changed dramatically over the past five years or so, with large scale land reclamation projects destroying the marine ecosystems in the area.
“I now have to use more than twice the amount of petrol to sail further out to sea if I want to have a chance of catching anything at all, so that will eat into my profits,” said Adi.
It has long been known that Jakarta Bay’s waters have been subjected to heavy pollution from both general and toxic waste that finds its way to the capital through the 13 rivers and tributaries that flow into it, and the recent land reclamation projects started by the local government and big developers have only worsened the situation.
Several fishermen who preferred to remain unnamed have slammed the leadership for not taking the livelihoods of local fishermen into consideration. Many agree that profit margins and the need to keep big developers happy are at the epicenter of the capital’s leadership style, and that the negative impact that it would have on the locals are simply dismissed as an inevitable casualty in the pursuit of progress. They are not alone.
Environmentalists have also slammed the large-scale land reclamation work being done in Jakarta Bay. They have stated that it not only damages and even completely destroys local marine ecosystems, but the new land masses have also caused a bottleneck, hampering the bay’s ability to allow waste to flow out. This causes the waste accumulated in the bottleneck to fester, turning the water into a toxic sludge and eliminating all chances of marine life in the bay.
This has pushed the fishermen to venture further and further out into the Indian Ocean in search of new fishing grounds. However, the completion of many land reclamation projects have separated them from their catchment areas. There is also a widespread fear of security patrols hired by the giant developers to keep fishermen away from project sites. They have been reported to resort to violent measures such as ramming and intimidating maneuvers if the fishermen got within a few hundred meters of the site.
“This place used to be our home, I grew up here. But now they come here with their big boats and diggers to destroy everything without even telling us,” said Adi.
Most fishermen had not even heard of the reclamation projects, let alone be consulted until they saw the construction of the islets.
Some fishermen from the community gathered to urge the City Council to push the city council to revoke the permits that had harmed their homes and livelihoods, or to at least come to a compromise. But most of these requests seem to have fallen on deaf ears, with others being dismissed as “politically motivated”.
As an exhausted and defeated Adi walked to the weighing scale with his catch of the day, he sighs.
“We all work hard to feed our families. We do not want to get rich and buy expensive things. But if god’s will is for us to fade away like this, then who am I to argue.”