22 Feb Sasi Ceremony in Lease Islands, Strengthening Local Wisdom to Protect the Marine Ecosystems

The dawn was still young. Dressed up in traditional attire, a small group of 20 villagers in Negeri Noloth, Saparua, Central Maluku, marched to the pier by the waterfront. A five-meter longboat was waiting at the edge of the pier, ready to sail to Petuanan Negeri Noloth, a coastal area at the north edge of Saparua Island. Led by the local raja (king) of Negeri Noloth and the adat (traditional leaders), the group sailed into the seas for the Buka Sasi or Sasi opening, a traditional ceremony where the community marks the start of the period when they can harvest fish and marine resources that they have not been allowed to catch for a certain period of time. That day, they were going to harvest sea cucumbers (Holothuroidea), the main marine commodity in the area.

The Sasi system is a traditional law to manage fisheries resources in Maluku that has existed for hundreds of years. Sasi prohibits the fishermen from catching fish and taking marine resources or plants from nearby coastal areas for a certain period.

Yunus Siahay, a USAID Sustainable Ecosystems Advanced (USAID SEA) Project Pejuang Laut (Champion of the Sea) and member of the Community Stewardship Group (Pokmaswas) in Negeri Noloth, escorted the group to Kaki Air Walaloni, one of the coastal areas in Petuanan Negeri Noloth, where the Sasi opening ceremony commenced. The journey took 40 minutes of travel by boat. According to Yunus, the location has always been protected with the Sasi system since the time of his ancestors, so this particular marine area has been preserved. The location is also known amongst the local community as the repository of various species of high-value sea cucumber, such as the Milk Sea Cucumber (Holothuria rigida), Pineapple Sea Cucumber (Stychophus ananas), Gamat (Stychopus variegatus), and Sand Fish (Holothuroidea Scabra).

Upon arrival, the raja of Noloth immediately commenced the Buka Sasi ceremony. He prayed for the success of the ceremony and for the community to bring home an abundant harvest of sea cucumbers. He then walked toward the coastline, followed by two fishermen, and continued the ritual by praying for more fortune and prosperity for the community of Negeri Noloth. As the ritual ended, 35 fishermen immediately dived into the sea to start catching sea cucumbers. The fishermen free dove and used traditional fishing methods to catch the sea cucumbers. They had previously signed up at the Negeri Noloth village government indicating their intention to fish during this particular Buka Sasi period. They were allowed to harvest adult sea cucumbers with a minimum length of 25 centimeters in seven sites: Wailessy, Labuhan Kecil, Kaki Air Walaloni, Tinaul, Hatuan, Umisin, and Asal. The fishermen were not allowed to catch lobster nor lola shells (Trochus niloticus), as the Sasi period for these other marine animals has not been lifted yet.

During the Buka Sasi, Yunus Siahay supervised the fishermen so that they did not conduct any activities that could potentially damage coral reefs. To ensure this, Yunus organized a meeting with them the week prior to the Buka Sasi ceremony to disseminate information about coral reefs and why they need to be protected. Yunus shared his knowledge about marine ecosystems that he gained from various trainings organized by the Coral Triangle Center (CTC) under the USAID SEA Project. He reminded the fishermen that they should not step on nor touch the reef when they are harvesting sea cucumbers, and those who do not comply with the rules will be subjected to a penalty and not permitted to participate in the same activity in the future. Yunus and other Pokmaswas members also organized daytime and nighttime surveillance patrols during the Buka Sasi period to ensure that rules were followed.

By late afternoon during the first day of the Buka Sasi period, the fishermen’s boats were pulled ashore at Kaki Air Walaloni. Several villagers who had been waiting nearby approached the boats and handed buckets to the fishermen for transporting the sea cucumbers to the weighing station. The fishermen showed big smiles on their faces knowing they had harvested a large number (approximately 200 kilograms) of sea cucumbers of different species.

As advised by the village government, the fishermen only took adult sea cucumbers and released the juveniles. The selected catch was weighed by a trader who will re-sell the sea cucumbers in Batam Island, Riau Province. The Milk Sea Cucumber fetched the highest price at Rp.200.000 (USD 14.00) per kilogram and the lowest price was for the Pineapple Sea Cucumber at Rp.20.000 (USD 1.40). The trader paid the village government in full, of which 40% was given to the fishermen and the remaining 60% was set aside for village development and Pokmaswas activities such as regular marine surveillance patrols.

Once the village leaders agree that they have gathered a sufficient number sea cucumbers during the Buka Sasi period, the village government of Negeri Noloth will close the area once again to allow the sea cucumbers to replenish and reproduce. Apart from providing livelihood to the local fishermen, sea cucumbers play an important role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems.

Photos by : Erni Hartini/CTC

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