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Efforts to conserve sea turtles disrupted by coal plant in East Java

  • Fuel for the Pacitan coal-fired power plant is brought by sea-going barges, which pass through turtle breeding areas.
  • Conservation areas near the power plant provide nesting sites for green, hawksbill and olive ridley sea turtles. Local conservationists say the presence of coal barges — and several spills — reduces the number of hatchlings.
  • Villagers say the river near the power plant is now empty of the fish and shrimp that once formed a regular part of the local diet.
  • This article is the second in a series on Pacitan originally posted on Mongabay’s Indonesian-language site.

The southern coast of Java — from Pelabuhan Ratu in the west to Puger Beach at the Indonesian island’s eastern tip — is an important breeding ground for sea turtles. The areas around the Pacitan coal-fired power plant in East Java are no exception — at least not until recently.

There are two sea turtle conservation areas around the Pacitan power plant, explained local environmental activist Papang Wida Kristianto. One is at Taman Kili-Kili Beach in the Trenggalek district, and the other at Taman Ria Beach in Pacitan.

Now, the coastal areas of Trenggalek and Pacitan fall along the route for barges supplying coal for the Pacitan Power Plant, a 630-megawatt facility that came online in 2013.  “The barges’ activities are threatening the coastal environments of Trenggalek and Pacitan,” Kristianto told Mongabay-Indonesia.

Environmental activist Papang Wida Kristianto overlooks the Pacitan coal-fired power plant. Photo by Nuswantoro.

Six of the world’s seven sea turtle species can be found in Indonesia: the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the flatback (Natator depressus) and the loggerhead (Caretta caretta). All of these species are protected by law.

Three of these species hatch their eggs at Taman Kili-Kili beach: the Critically Endangered hawksbill turtle, the Endangered green turtle and the olive ridley sea turtle. According to Kristianto, local fishermen once found a big leatherback as well, but that species has not been seen in the area for a long time.

Ari Gunawan, head of the Society for the Taman Kili-Kili Sea Turtles’ Conservation, told Mongabay-Indonesia these turtles usually lay their eggs on the beach between February and August, reaching a peak in June and July.

“They’d lay their eggs along the Kili-Kili Beach,” he said. “During high tide, many sea turtles would come to bury their eggs here. If we see the water rising in the afternoon, we can be sure that the turtles will be coming in the evening.”

The Taman Ria turtle conservation center in Pacitan. Photo by Nuswantoro.

The fuel supply for the Pacitan Power Plant comes from the Indonesian islands of Kalimantan and Sumatera. Barges laden with coal pass through the Bali Strait then hug Java’s southern coast, passing through Trenggalek before finally arriving in Pacitan.

Data from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources shows that in order to fulfill the Pacitan Power Plant’s need for 2.3 million tons of coal annually, the barges must make at least 20 – 30 trips each month.

If they follow the easiest, most direct route, these vessels pass right through sea turtle nesting areas in the southern shores of Pacitan and Trenggalek. “When there are many coal barges berthing around the Kili-Kili Beach, it has a huge impact,” Kristianto said. “There are fewer sea turtles coming to the beach.”

An olive ridley sea turtle hatchling, pictured here in Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett Butler.

In 2015, barges were still anchoring in the areas around Kili-Kili beach, Kristianto said. This resulted in low numbers of turtles laying their eggs on shore. The practice was finally banned last year, and local conservationists say the difference has been striking: in 2015 around 20 sea turtles lay eggs at the Taman Kili-Kili Beach, and 600 baby turtles were released. In 2016, almost 60 turtles laid eggs there, and 1,500 hatchlings were released.

Disruption to sea turtle conservation efforts hasn’t just come from the routine transit of barges. In January 2015, a coal barge carrying 9,000 tons of coal to the power plant caught fire and tipped over at Pelang Beach, less than a mile from Taman Kili-Kili.

“Many baby turtles were killed,” Gunawan said, explaining that young sea turtles at the facility are kept in seawater. At the time, students from Brawijaya University conducted lab tests on the water, Gunawan said. “They confirmed that, indeed, our seawater had been contaminated.”

The January 2015 incident was just one of several. That same year, a barge also keeled over at Kunir Beach in Pacitan. In 2014, barges were swept away by rough seas at Taman Kili-Kili and also in Joketro, Trenggalek.

Yanto sorting out baby turtles at the Taman Ria turtle conservation center. Photo by Nuswantoro.

When Mongabay-Indonesia met with Yanto, a staffer at the conservation center in Taman Ria Beach, Pacitan, he was sorting out hundreds of baby sea turtles before releasing them into the sea. Eggs were hatched in a sand-filled tub, while another tub held two turtles.

“This one had its shell broken, hit by a ship’s propeller,” Yanto said, pointing out a turtle with a severely damaged shell.

PT Jawa Bali Power Plant Business Unit Operations & Maintenance Services, the company that operates the Pacitan Power Plant, has had some cooperation with the Taman Ria Beach Conservation to release sea turtles. For example, they sponsored a release of around 800 sea turtles in August 2016.

Jemingan, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, shows his now-disused fish trap. Photo by Nuswantoro.

Impact felt on inland fisheries

The fish trap looks faded and dusty. About three feet (one meter) long, it is made from woven bamboo, its shape resembling a hollow drum. Jemingan, a resident of Sumberejo, Pacitan, Central Java, used to trap fish with this contraption.

Jemingan is a farmer, but like many locals he used to catch fish and shrimp in nearby Bawur River during his free time. Since the coal plant was built, his trap, and the nets piled in the corner of his house, have fallen into disuse.

“It used to be that when we needed side dishes, we’d just go to the river to catch some fish and shrimp,” he said. “Now, we have to buy food in the food stalls.” This translates to additional daily spending for Jemingan’s family.

While walking towards the power plant from the river’s delta, Mongabay-Indonesia encountered Kadeni, a rice farmer on the way home from checking his field. Kadeni said the marine fish that used to swim upstream to lay their eggs are no longer doing so. “These fish went upstream during high tide. Now they don’t do that anymore. They don’t dare. The small fish are gone. The catfish have also disappeared,” said Kadeni.

Farmer Kadeni stands near the Pacitan coal-fired pant. High-voltage transmission lines can be seen in the distance. Photo by Nuswantoro.

Kadeni also talked about pollution from the Pacitan Power Plant. “That hill over there looks foggy,” he said. “Every day. You can only see the hill when it’s sunny.”

Pointing at the high voltage transmission tower at the hilltop, he added: “A few days ago, even that tower over there was not visible.” The brownish, fog-like air Kadeni mentioned was not coming from the smokestack, but from below, where the leftover coal was burned. Even rain can’t easily clear this fog, Kadeni said.

“Crops, the environment, of course they are affected,” he said. “But what can I say? People here are just so patient.”

Apparently, their patience also has its limits. Last October, a handful of local residents filed a complaint against the Pacitan Coal-powered Power Plant, which resulted in a general meeting at the Sumberejo Village Office.


The final installment in this series will be published Wednesday. Click here to read Part I.


This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Dec. 26, 2016.

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