Corals perish in the Spermonde

Rising seas and temperatures due to climate change are making coral reefs vulnerable. In some parts of Indonesia, rising sea temperatures have caused coral bleaching. But in Spermonde, bleaching due to sea temperature is rare.
Photo & Text:
Eko Rusdianto & Iqbal Lubis
Saturday, 15 April 2023

Kodingareng Lompo is about 45 minutes from Makassar’s main terrace, Losari Beach, via passenger boat. The 0.4 km² island is inhabited by around 4,830 people. The houses are densely packed and crowded together. In the center of the island is a soccer field and a secondary school. Only a few islanders have gone to university. The men in Lompo work as fishermen, while the women work as hawkers and take care of the household.

In 2020, residents in Kodingareng were surprised by a large sand dredging ship that will be used as raw material for reclamation of the port – Makassar New Port. This is a reclamation project spanning hundreds of hectares that is one of the priorities of President Joko Widodo’s administration. Because of this project, around 20 companies are vying for the concession rights to mine sea sand.

When the dredger Queen of the Neteherlands owned by PT Royal Boskalis operated in the Copong area after obtaining a dredging permit, fishermen in the area became afraid. The mackerel season, which was supposed to mark the sea harvest due to high prices, had to stop. The mackerel ran away and did not come near. Fishermen are upset, no income, lost income.

Fishermen and several non-governmental organizations consider the dredging to be the culprit of the missing fish. Environmental activists also pointed out that the corals in the water area where fishermen look for fish were damaged because of these activities. The organization’s movement became more massive. Then came the action to save Spermonde waters as a whole. Companies must stop their activities.

Since the sand in the Spermonde Islands was dredged, 1,043 Kodingareng fishermen have found it difficult to fish and have suffered losses totaling Rp80.4 billion. 75% percent of the fishermen claimed to have experienced a decrease in income since the sea sand on the Spermonde coast was mined. Fish catch areas have also become smaller and catch production has declined.
Although the sea sand mining in Makassar has now stopped, the community is still feeling the impact, especially the women's group on Kodingareng Lompo Island. In 2020 Greenpeace showed that the total loss of residents reached IDR 80 billion.
Some residents help fishermen moor their boats after fishing on Kodingareng Lompo Island. Marine sand mining on Kodingareng Lompo Island, Sangkarrang Islands District, Makassar, is one of many cases in South Sulawesi that has created a natural crisis in the form of destruction of marine and coastal ecosystems. This crisis then cut off the source of income of fishermen families on the island.

Kodingareng is part of Spermonde, an area of small islands stretching from Takalar, Makassar, Pangkep and Barru. There are 121 islands in total and they cover an area of 2,500 km. This cluster is then declared as the source of fish for the community, especially the fish supply that goes to Makassar. But is this really the case?

On the top or flat area, for normal snorkeling and swimming, it is good. But if you dive in and look at the cliff side, you will see the damage.

Kodingareng Keke Island is one of the islands in the Spermonde region that is experiencing the threat of coastal erosion due to coral reef damage.

I meet Syafyudin Yusuf, a professor at Hasanuddin University’s Faculty of Marine Sciences. He has a small table on the fifth floor of the Puslitbang Laut Pesisir dan Pulau Kecil building. “This cluster has around 200 species of coral,” he begins. Then he takes a deep breath and looks at me and fellow photographer Iqbal Lubis. “In terms of ecosystem, the coral reefs in Spermonde have been damaged. In some spots, the damage can even reach 80 percent,” Syafyudin continued.

Syafyudin Yusuf, a professor from the Faculty of Marine Sciences, Hasanuddin University. Since the early 1990s he has been researching corals in Spermonde waters.

Spermonde is a field of practice and a place of learning for marine students in Makassar. Syafyudin, who studied at Hasanuddin University’s Faculty of Marine Sciences in 1989, was no exception. “In the early 1990s when I first dived in the waters of Spermonde, the corals were already damaged by bombing. So, if you say it’s getting more damaged now, not really, it’s been damaged since a long time ago. Now there are even recovery efforts,” said the man who earned his doctorate at Bogor Agricultural Institute.

Coral reefs in the Spermonde waters are categorized as medium. The cover is above 25 to 50 percent. The damage to coral reefs in these waters mainly occurs in the slope or slop area, where fish play. This is also where fishermen usually hunt for fish. Tourists who visit and do snorkeling activities in Spermonde tourist spots will easily assume that the coral cover in this location is good, not damaged. “That’s the way it is. At the top or flat area, for snorkeling and ordinary swimming, it is indeed good. But if you dive and look at the cliff side, you will see the damage,” said Syafyudin.

Fish from the Far Seas

Barrang Lompo Island is not far from Kodingareng. This island is smaller, but densely populated. Here, food and snack stalls are only five houses away at most. On Barrang Lompo, I meet Haji Dahrin, a seafood entrepreneur. He is a former diver and sea cucumber seeker. We chat on the back terrace of his house, which directly faces the ocean. In the distance, the buildings of Makassar City can be seen.

Aerial photo of Barrang Lompo Island. This island is one of a cluster of populated islands in Spermonde. Most of its inhabitants work as capture fishermen.

In the past, Haji Dahrin had practiced fish bombing, even using potassium anesthetic. Then he realized that this practice could not continue because it could kill corals, where fish nest. And it would be fatal to the sustainability of his income. “In the past, there were many fish around this island. But in the late 1990s, everything changed. There were fewer fish,” he said. Haji Dahrin then wondered about the cause. He tends to blame tranquilizers and bombing. The vibrations caused by the bombs destroyed the coral. While tranquilizers cause corals to die slowly.

The use of potassium by fishermen is simple. It is put in a mineral water bottle with a hole in the lid. When divers find a targeted coral reef, they will select fish. Usually, the targeted fish are reef fish, such as grouper and sunu. Then, potassium is pumped into the coral hole. The substance will cause the fish’s breathing to be obstructed. The fish become shaky and faint. The day after being exposed to the potassium liquid, the coral will turn white. Two days later the coral is dead, like brittle limestone.

This practice has long been practiced by island communities in the Spermonde region. Since the 1980s, several institutions and Hasanuddin University have routinely conducted socialization on the importance of protecting coral reef ecosystems. However, no one can confirm whether fishermen have abandoned the practice. Haji Dahrin said that there may still be those who do it around the island, but in secret. “We are talking here, maybe in the sea there are people who do anesthesia,” he said.

South Sulawesi Police released evidence of potassium explosives and bottles of fish bombs several years ago. According to the South Sulawesi Marine and Fisheries Service, a one-kilogram fish bomb can destroy 4.9 square meters of coral reefs. This activity is still prevalent in the Spermonde region.
Most reef fish species have started to be difficult to find at the Paotere Fish Auction Site (TPI) due to fishermen's fewer and farther fishing grounds.

Rising seas and temperatures due to climate change are making coral reefs vulnerable. In some parts of Indonesia, rising sea temperatures have caused coral bleaching. But in Spermonde, bleaching due to sea temperature is rare.

The potassium liquid carried by the water current, said Syafyudin, will pass through several corals and stick. “If fishermen do anesthesia at a certain point, the damage can be far and spread. This practice is very destructive,” Syafyudin explained. Fish became difficult to find. Not surprisingly, mixed rice sellers in Barrang Lompo mostly serve chicken and egg pieces, as well as instant noodles. “When people are having a wedding celebration, we usually buy the fish at the fish auction in Makassar,” said Haji Ilyas, another resident.

Ilyas, like Dharin, is a sea cucumber-hunting diver. In 1990, when he was barely 20 years old, he started diving. His range reached the sea border of Sulawesi and Kalimantan on Ambo Island. He uses an air compressor, and can reach a depth of 50 meters. He searched for sea cucumbers in such distant seas because large sea cucumbers were impossible to find in Spermonde.

Haji Dahrin--a resident of Barang Lompo Island--is a former fisherman who caught with bombs and tranquilizers. Now he is a seafood entrepreneur.

Spermonde should be an area rich in biodiversity. According to the records of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), now BRIN, the number of coral species in this area reaches 310. However, due to rising seas and rising temperatures caused by climate change, coral reefs have become vulnerable. In some places in Indonesia, rising sea temperatures have caused coral bleaching. But in Spermonde, bleaching due to sea temperature is rare.

Hasanuddin University noted that coral bleaching in Spermonde occurred in 1997, 1998, 2010 and 2016. It was also in small spots. The bleaching was not entirely influenced by rising sea temperatures, but was caused by many factors, such as anesthesia and changes in water quality.

A diver collects data on coral cover in the underwater area of Kodingareng Keke. In BRIN's records, the number of coral species in this area reached 200. However, the data is then updated continuously and has now reached 310 coral species.
The condition of the coral reefs at the Kodingareng Keke dive spot is severely damaged. In general, coral damage that occurs is caused by the phenomenon of coral bleaching. In some locations there are still signs of the use of destructive and environmentally unfriendly fishing gear such as bombs and cyanide (COREMAP, 2010).
The condition of coral reefs in Spermonde dive spots.

Charming Polyps

Similar to sea cucumbers, polyps are animals without vertebrae that work and function to form corals. Polyps live in a pH (Potential of Hydrogen) range above 7 to 8. These 1 to 7 mm animals are very vulnerable to water salinity. Polyps absorb calcium ions in water mixed with CO2 and H2O. Then, it discharges the hydrogen element because it contains acid. It is this waste that settles little by little into coral. The process of coral formation as a polyp house takes a long time, ranging from 5-8 cm each year.

Polyps are like snails on land. If the snail has a shell, then the polyp’s home is the coral that it forms itself. Syafyudin held up a specimen of one of the Acropora corals. At first glance, it resembled a tree stalk with several twigs. He examined it and showed small holes scattered on the coral’s body. “Take a look at this. This is one hole, one individual. There are so many holes. These small holes are where polyps live. So, there are hundreds of polyps in this coral,” he said.

There used to be very little turbidity there. Now there is also sedimentation. So you can be sure that Samalona’s fate will be like Lae-lae and Kayangan.

In the ecosystem chain, polyps are at the bottom, where they are constantly being preyed upon. In fact, polyps play an important role in the health of the marine environment. If threatened, polyps will release mucus. Parrotfish and crown-of-thorns starfish are some of the fish that often prey on polyps. The fragility of these coral building blocks also makes them vulnerable to stress. If the polyps die, the coral turns white and dies as well.

Apart from polyp proliferation, coral health is also affected by the health of the surrounding environment, as is the case on Lae-Lae Island. The island is located in front of Losari Beach and is no more than 15 minutes away by boat. The coral reefs on Lae-Lae are dead. The death of these corals is due to the changing salinity and pH of the water. Freshwater discharge and sedimentation have affected the ecosystem. The water around the area has become so murky and dirty that the coral reefs can no longer thrive.

Another island that suffered a similar fate was Kayangan Island. The coral reefs on this island will almost certainly die because of the increasingly acidic water conditions. Samalona, another tourist island, will also suffer the same fate. Until the end of 1990, the waters around Samalona were still clear. “In the past, there was rarely any turbidity there. Now there is also sedimentation. So we can be sure that Samalona’s fate will be like Lae-lae and Kayangan.”

A number of dead corals have been overgrown by algae. The water around the area has become so murky and dirty that the coral reefs can no longer thrive.

Safeguarding the Land, Saving the Ocean

The ocean depends on what happens on land. This statement gets its answer when looking at the Spermonde region. Changes in land use to agriculture, plantations and housing in the mainland areas located on the borders of large rivers have accelerated the rate of damage in the estuary. From 1990 to early 2000, the remaining coral reefs in several Spermonde snorkeling spots were still encouraging. If you couldn’t see big fish, then at least there were many ornamental fish swimming with various colors. But now those ornamental fish are starting to disappear.

Syafyudin explained that the ornamental fish with various patterns were an indicator of the good environmental health there. The fish swim around eating baby corals or baby polyps, algae, small seaweed attached to the surface of corals and plankton, animals invisible to the human eye. However, data from Hasanuddin University’s Faculty of Marine Sciences show that coral damage from the 1990s to the present has not increased, but the water quality has plummeted. Plankton and polyps could no longer develop properly as the main food for small fish. This is why the fish eventually disappeared.

Clownfish playing and feeding on anemones is a sight of symbiotic mutualism under the sea of Kodingareng Keke.

“Now look at how many big rivers all flow into Spermonde. There is the Jeneberang from the Lompobattang mountains, the Tallo River, the Maros River, and the Bone River. Then in Makassar, the drainage that carries black waste water also ends up in the sea,” Syafyudin said. “All the water from the river is not clear. They are all brown in color. This affects the health of our seas, especially in Spermonde.

Syafyudin also said that the high rainfall between December and February in Makassar and its surroundings had caused the volume of freshwater to be discharged into the ocean. The pH 7 water that reached the ocean became acidic and carried mud up to 11 miles around the waters of Barrang Lompo. This has led to the destruction of the coral reef ecosystem and the death of corals.

An aerial view of the Tello River with its polluted water flowing into the Spermonde Sea. The pH 7 water that reaches the ocean becomes acidic and carries mud up to 11 miles around the waters of Barrang Lompo. This condition then causes damage to the coral reef ecosystem and the death of corals.

Coral destruction makes some islands vulnerable. This is because their natural defenses are gone. Bone Tambu Island is one such example. The island, which is part of the Spermonde region, has been deforested on its outer part, which has a strong coral reef structure. Atoll corals, corals that resemble the shells of large heads, are taken from the island to make foundations for houses. When the waves come, the dead corals are slowly washed away by the waves. This then causes the sides of the island to abrade. As one side erodes, the other side grows. Bone Tambu Island now seems to have moved because of the sand carried by the current.

On the shoreline of the Galesong region in Takalar Regency, abrasion has also hit the land. Cemeteries are generally eroded, and human skeletons can be seen. The waters of Galesong, where the sea floor is sandy, are an area where sedimentation from the Jeneberang River accumulates.

Water currents changed in this area when the Center Point of Indonesia project in Makassar reclaimed 157 hectares of sea. The reclamation eventually functioned like a dike at a certain point. Other areas affected by refraction, the deflection of wave currents, will be battered by waves and have their shorelines eroded.

A look at the continuation of the coastal reclamation project for the construction of the Center Point of Indonesia (CPI). The CPI project totals 157.23 hectares. The South Sulawesi Provincial Government will obtain 50.47 hectares of land. The rest is 106.76 hectares of CitraLand City Losari. The area filled with sand above the sea varies from 6 meters to 16 meters.

Saving marine ecosystems is just as difficult as protecting land-based ecosystems. The two realms are interconnected, with mountains and seas connected by rivers as their ‘blood vessels’. “Remember, a healthy terrestrial environment will send nitrogen and food to healthy marine life,” Syafyudin said, “Not send muddy water like we are experiencing today.”

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