Relying on the sea: Pollution threatens the livelihood of green mussel farmers


The people of Cilincing, Indonesia, spend their lives harvesting green mussels in one of the most highly polluted bays in the world.

Mitra, 46, is one of the green mussel divers who spends up to four hours every day in the sea, gathering mussels from the bamboo structures they grow on beneath the water in Jakarta Bay, which, in addition to being polluted, has some of the world’s highest levels of mercury.

This agricultural sub-district of North Jakarta is known for its green mussel cultivation — and the mussels are the main source of income for its residents.

Green mussels are capable of absorbing toxic metal elements in the water, which, if consumed regularly, could cause cancer or organ dysfunction in humans, according to an article in the Jakarta Globe. Despite the harmful effects, green mussels are one of the only species that can withstand such poor water quality, and the people of Cilincing depend on them for their livelihood.

Mitra prepares his boat at 6 every morning before heading out to sea. He and one other diver spend the morning harvesting the mussels. Mitra says that in one year, one colony of mussels yields a minimum of $1,000. If there’s no pollution it can yield up to $5,000. Traditional mussel fishermen live on $1 per day or less.

Mitra says he often experiences headaches, dizziness, nausea and dehydration from the pollution in the water, but that he’s used to it. For him, diving for mussels is the only way he knows how to provide for his family. He grew up in a neighboring district and began harvesting green mussels at age 15. Every day for the past 31 years, Mitra has gone through the same routine.

Even though he and his wife, Royati, have been successful sea-workers, Mitra said he wants a better future for his children. He also worries about being displaced as new industry encroaches and threatens to take over the community of Cilincing within the next 10 to 15 years.

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