Life

Cilacap fishermen live
with waves of luck and
uncertainty

Cilacap fishermen return home from fishing to dock at the banks of the Donan river. (JP/Agus Maryono)
Cilacap fishermen return home from fishing to dock at the banks of the Donan river. (JP/Agus Maryono

"A fisherman's life is very uncertain. If he can get a big catch, he'll be happy, but often he returns home empty-handed," said 35-year-old Maspin, a fisherman living in the Donan subdistrict of Cilacap regency on the southern coast of Central Java.

"A farmer can always estimate his yield during harvest time, but a fisherman depends on his luck," Maspin said.

There are about 34,000 fishermen in the regency whose lives depend on the unpredictable sea. Maspin became a fisherman 20 years ago and, over the past two decades, nothing much has changed, nearly all fishermen in Cilacap continue to live in poverty.

"The most important thing for a fisherman is to survive on a day-to-day basis, he must avoid borrowing money, even in hard times. Being debtless is something we are proud of," he said.

Fishermen begin their 12 hour work day at 4 a.m.

"But it all depends on what kind of boat you use," Maspin explained.

"Some of us who use bigger vessels, can stay in the sea for three days. Others who have even larger tuna fishing vessels can be away for 14 days at a time," he added.

Not all fishermen have their own boats though, as it is expensive to buy them.

"A brand new boat costs about Rp 10 million (US$900), so most fishermen here can only afford to rent. Others prefer to divide their catch with the boat owners on a profit-sharing basis," Lasmin, a 43-year-old said.

The "peak season" for fishermen is between August and November. However, Lasmin added, there is still an element of luck even then, as fishermen can still return home empty-handed.

"When we don't get a lot of fish, we usually try to catch shrimp."

"If we are lucky, we can catch between 100 and 200 kilograms of fish and shrimp," he added.

Once they return from the sea, fishermen take their boats directly to one of Cilacap's seven fish auction site to sell their catch.

There, they will unload their fish, stored in a drum. (JP/Agus Maryono)

There, they will unload their fish, stored in a drum. (JP/Agus Maryono)

"If we are lucky, we can make up to Rp 2 million for one catch," Lasmin said, adding, "or, nothing at all when we are run of luck".

When they do manage to net a big catch, fishermen usually buy gold jewelry or electronic goods, which they can resell later, when times are hard.

But there is a worrying phenomenon now as some young fishermen use their money to get drunk on the beach. "Most of them are still bachelors," Lasmin said.

Head of the Indonesian Association of Fishermen's (HNSI) Cilacap branch, Atas Munandar, said that over 90 percent of the 34,000 fishermen are poor.

He said they are powerless as they have to sell their fish to middlemen, often at a loss.

"It's really complicated. Nearly all fishermen take high interest loans from boat owners. They pay back their debts with their fish, but the price is set by the boat owners," he explained.

He added that the Cilacap administration has tried to overcome the problem by setting up cooperatives to handle fishermen's need for cash. However, the scheme didn't work well. To be able to lend from the cooperatives, a fishermen has to meet requirements they find difficult to fulfill.

Atas said the cooperatives has established the fish auction sites to ensure a fixed price is set.

"Since the fishermen have borrowed money from boat owners, they can't get away with going to the auction sites. They are forced to sell their fish to the boat owners and therefore, the auction sites have not been used," he said.

Despite the efforts, there is no end in sight for the fisherman's hard times and their future looks to remain as wild as the seas they work in.

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