A small, motorised fishing boat heads out to sea from the port of Sinabang, leaving behind the remote island of Simeulue, off the coast of western Sumatra. Noticeable on the deck is a tangle of plastic tubes, linked up to a roaring, spluttering engine. The on-board fishers are going ‘compressor fishing’, a practice that involves divers searching the seabed for lucrative octopus, grouper and sea cucumber, all the while relying on air supplied by a single plastic lifeline, snaking precariously up to the surface. The rewards can be great – fishers are able to stay deep underwater for long periods, harvesting catches that would be inaccessible to those using other fishing techniques. However, this method is fraught with dangers, as local Simeulue fisher, Anhar, can testify.
On a previous compressor fishing trip, while he was searching among corals and rocks for his catch, Anhar’s air supply was accidentally turned off.
Fighting to survive, he rapidly swam 30 metres to the surface to catch his breath, but this fast ascent resulted in decompression sickness – an excruciating and potentially deadly condition (more commonly known as ‘the bends’) – where blood vessels are blocked by expanding gas bubbles, which can badly affect joints and nerves. Consequently, Anhar suffered permanent partial paralysis, a devastating injury often seen among compressor divers.
Although he is still able to fish from a boat at the surface, Anhar’s life has been profoundly changed by this accident.
A recent survey of Simeulue’s compressor fishers by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) saw 98% of them reporting some form of mishap or injury as a result of engaging in this hazardous practice. Furthermore, between 2012 and 2014, 12 deaths in Simeulue were attributed to compressor diving. The situation is exacerbated by poor understanding of the health risks and limited access to proper healthcare for pressure-related injuries, which require urgent treatment in specialist recompression chambers. Currently, victims are often treated through traditional methods, which may have limited efficacy.
Despite being incredibly risky, and illegal under Indonesian law, compressor fishing remains widespread. Beyond the dangers faced by the compressor fishers themselves, this fishing technique can also have severe impacts on coral reef biodiversity. Able to remain underwater for long periods, compressor fishers can quickly harvest their catch from across vast areas of reef, either using spears or by suspending large nets that indiscriminately capture all marine life trapped within. This intensive fishing pressure can deplete populations of economically important species such as grouper, octopus and sea cucumber, and deprive small-scale fishers of vital resources that they access utilising traditional gears.