The Jakarta Post
The East Kalimantan provincial administration has officially banned tugboats pulling coal barges from traversing the Kedang Kepala River in Muara Siran subdistrict, Muara Kaman district, Kutai Kartanegara regency, which serves as a natural habitat for the highly endangered Mahakam porpoise, in a policy highly applauded by environmental activists.
'I have requested the dock head of the Transportation Office in Kota Bangun district and the Samarinda port master [KSOP] to no longer issue sail permits for tugboats traveling along the river,' East Kalimantan Governor Awang Faroek said on Friday.
Awang's request has also been conveyed in East Kalimantan gubernatorial letter No. 660.2/3925/B.12/BlH/2015, issued on Tuesday. The governor has requested both officials to review coal-barge activities on the river, a tributary of the 900-kilometer-long Mahakam River, one of the country's largest watercourses.
In Indonesia, the porpoise can only be found in the Mahakam River's Muara Kaman estuary and at times in the waters of the Kutai Kartanegara regency capital of Tenggarong. In the 1980s, they could still be seen near the provincial capital of Samarinda.
Besides the Mahakam River, the porpoise is also found in the Irrawaddy and Mekong rivers of Myanmar.
Coal barges and tugboats have become a threat to the porpoise due to their noise on the water's surface and under the water, according to Aquatic Species of Indonesia Conservation Foundation (RASI) advisor Danielle Kreb.
The noise, according to Kreb, disturbs the porpoise's sense of hearing, which it relies on for orientation due to poor visibility in the murky river water that contains lots of sediment.
A porpoise, she said, could be hit and killed by a passing coal barge due to poor orientation, or could be unable to seek food and eventually die of starvation.
Besides that, large waves caused by the passing barges could also damage breeding grounds for fish and shrimp ' the porpoise's main source of food.
Like dolphins in the open sea, fresh-water porpoises like to play and leap into the air. With their color and appearance, they also resemble the dolphin, which is light grey and has small eyes, but the porpoise has an extended forehead and does not have a long snout.
For this reason, said Kreb, who has conducted studies on porpoises since 1997, the mammal has been known as the 'fresh-water dolphin'.
'The presence of the porpoise is [part of the] natural equilibrium. As a predator, it stabilizes the number of certain fish species in nature. If it is extinct, natural equilibrium will definitely be disturbed,' said Kreb, whose organization is concerned with the conservation of the Mahakam porpoise.
Based on RASI's 2005 estimations, the porpoise population at Muara Siran stood at a stable 90 individuals.
Kreb said she welcomed the governor's decision to ban coal barges from passing along the Kedang Kepala River.
'We deeply appreciate the governor's policy,' she said.
Industrial-scale vessels require sail permits to be able to traverse rivers. To sail along the Kedang Kepala River and other waterways within Muara Kaman, vessels must obtain permits from the Transportation Agency's dock head in Kota Bangun, located 70 kilometers west of Tenggarong. Another permit from the Samarinda KSOP is also required to sail the Mahakam River.
Coal-barge traffic on the Kedang Kepala River starts from a terminal belonging to coal miner PT
Bayan Resources, located in Senyiur subdistrict, Muara Ancalong district, East Kutai regency. The barges take the Kedang Kepala River as a shortcut to reach the Mahakam River.
NGO Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), meanwhile, called on local officials to comply with and implement the gubernatorial circular.
'Before issuing a sailing permit for barges, especially coal carriers, their routes must be thoroughly assessed,' said Jatam coordinator Merah Johansyah.
In a recent interview with The Jakarta Post, Muara Siran subdistrict chief Uhay said the villagers had faced difficulties in spotting porpoises on the Kedang Kepala River.
Uhay said that as of March this year, the porpoises could be seen congregating in the Kedang Kepala River delta, the section of the river that connects it with Lake Siran. However, due to busy coal-barge traffic, the porpoises have likely relocated to more isolated sections of the river.
'Usually, they are easily spotted in the morning or afternoon,' he said.