Sun, 13 Jun 2004

Fishermen take their chances one day at a time

Leony Aurora, The Jakarta Post, Pangandaran, West Java

Miad Sayuti slowly opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling of his home, little more than a hut with bamboo walls and a plain cement floor.

The 41-year-old fisherman was about to go to sea with his brother Makmun and another friend to hoist the net they had set two days before at coral reefs near the island of Nusakambangan. There had been big waves last week, and hopefully lobsters would be caught in the nets.

"The fish is so limited nowadays," said Miad. "We have to wait for the dry season, when the white pomfret breed." The deep sea fish sell for Rp 60,000 (US$6.40) per kilogram.

At 3:30 a.m., Miad left the hut on his daughter's bicycle. His becak (pedicab) had a flat tire after he took a tourist around the day before. Driving a becak is his part-time job to make ends meet in between fishing.

Ten minutes later he was at the beach. The eight-meter-long and 1.1-meter wide boat, Mees, owned by a Dutch friend of Makmun, stood ready for them.

Darkness still enveloped the stretch of sand and the thousands of stars provided little light. Boat pushers appeared in shadows from between the dozens of boats, announced only by the final crackle of the burned cigarettes ends they held. They pushed the boat to the sea, and Miad quickly started the machine.

The boat moved swiftly to the middle of the ocean.

"It's a good thing the sky's clear, otherwise I won't be able to see the landmarks," said Miad. The only modern part of the boat are the machine and Miad's black plastic watch. His vision was his only guide.

Two hours later, the fishermen saw the flags marking the reef where the 15 sets of 70 meter by 3.5 meter string nets lay.

Two of them would pull the net out while the other sorted through the catch. They heaved as hard as they could, and out of the net tumbled several rocks, some as big as human heads.

"Well, if it doesn't get stuck, this is not a lobster hunt," said Miad.

A putrid odor arose as dead fish, pieces of reef, sponge, and small reef crabs were thrown back into the sea. On and on they went, pausing midway only to eat the rice cake that their wives had prepared for them.

After three long hours, the job was done. They had caught 20 small lobsters, two pearl prawns, six green prawns, two bamboo prawns and four kilograms of red crabs.

There were also two shrimps, as big as a thumb. Miad grabbed one, snatched off the head, and ate it raw. The sweet taste took him back to the time when he was lost at sea.

"One of my boat's two spark plugs went dead and the current steered us to the middle of the sea," said Miad. "There was nothing we could do but surrender to fate."

For two days and nights they drifted, kept alive by the water they had brought with them and raw squid and shrimps.

"I cried when I remembered my daughter. She was my only child at that time... she was seven," said Miad, staring at his hands, calloused from the cuts of the nets from 10 years at sea.

When he was found, he received a new nickname: Buang, or castaway. Five boats and a bigger boat from the Mina Sari fisherman cooperative, where he is a member, had been sent to look for him.

The cooperative serves its members using the 10 percent cut it receives from each sale at auction. The money is also kept for compensation in the event of a member's death, small loans to help the fishermen out during low-catch periods and monitoring illegal fishermen.

"We're not going to the auction today, it costs too much for such a small catch," said Miad.

Independent buyers were already waiting for them when they reach the beach at noon.

The lobsters, weighing 2.7 kilograms in total, were sold at Rp 310,000 while the crabs earned Miad and friends Rp 52,000. They received some more money for the prawns, but, minus the gasoline for the boat and tips for the boat pushers, the trip brought in only Rp 300,000.

Sixty percent goes to the boat owner, with the rest to be split equally among them. "I got Rp 40,000, not bad at a time when fish is so scarce," said Miad.

If a fisherman has complete sets of different kinds of nets and equipment needed to catch big fish, deep sea fish, surface fish, squid, prawns and lobsters that emerge at different times during the day, there is actually no scarce period for them.

"A complete set and boat will cost up to Rp 50 million," said Miad.

When fish is abundant, such as in the monsoon season after a long dry season, one trip can bring hundreds of kilograms of fish -- and a hefty profit.

"When the monetary crisis hit, we were very happy because the price of fish skyrocketed," said Miad. "But fishermen, we always live for today."

All he has to show from that exceptional period is the boat, a 15 horsepower engine and string nets to catch pomfret fish.

"Fishermen spend their money on two things: drinking and women," said Miad. "When you've been at sea for more than three days, any woman will look beautiful," he added with a big grin.

But he also knows he must save as much as he can.

"I will have to retire when I'm 50. I wouldn't be able to stand the cold and hard work," he said.

"What I want is to have a food stall on the beach."

At home, Miad changed his clothes, ate a simple lunch and then sat on his bench to fix his nets. They will have to be ready when the fish are out again.