Problems facing Indonesian fleet have parallels in Chesapeake Bay


October 26, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

The western coast of Australia is about as far from the Chesapeake Bay as one can be on Earth. But leave it to Jean-Michel Cousteau to find in Indian Ocean waters a curious parallel with the anachronistic skipjack sailing fleet that harvests Chesapeake oysters.

In "Australia: A Continent at Odds," premiering at 9 p.m. tomorrow on cable's TBS service, Mr. Cousteau and crew finish up a fascinating two-part series on the environmental and cultural stresses of the continent Down Under. (Part one was seen last May.)

Among the new segments is a sensitive examination of a fleet of Indonesian vessels whose sailors ply the waters off Australia, seeking the food delicacy known as sea cucumber and the valuable spiral trochus seashell. The products, in high demand throughout Asia, permit the island people to eke out a tenuous living.

We see the Indonesians wearing crude, homemade goggles and diving deep to pick the slimy cucumbers. (The contrast with a Cousteau crew diver, clad in wet suit and scuba gear, is amusing and startling; they seem different species.) Yet in recent times, as harvesting pressure has increased, both shell and cucumber have been recognized as limited natural resources and the Australian government has moved to regulate their gathering.

The Indonesian sailing craft are forbidden from using motors, for example, and must operate in sharply delineated areas.

Sound familiar? While the show does not make the comparison, it is impossible for viewers in this region not to recognize the parallel with issues facing Chesapeake Bay watermen.

Indeed, the sailing fleet of skipjacks survives for the identical regulatory reason: Power vessels would be too efficient and the resource would soon be stripped. Areas where oyster gathering is legal are similarly restricted by law and season.

And even casual viewers might recognize certain intriguing similarities in design between skipjack and Indonesian vessel, including their size, beamy hulls and raked masts with a long-footed boom. The most noticeable difference is merely superficial: the pastel-colored sails flown on the eastern craft, looking like giant bed sheets.

The Australian dilemma is more complicated, however, for it also involves conflicting nationalities and economic systems. Indonesian sailors violate the law with boats stripped of their masts and equipped with propeller power, and sometimes not )) only poach on seashells but try to smuggle refugees into Australia, too.

The Cousteau crew follows one of the Indonesian craft to its home island, and must relay the sad news that some family members of local villagers are imprisoned in Australian jails.

So serious are some of the infractions, says Mr. Cousteau, that boats are confiscated and set afire.

And as we see the boats burn, he suggests symbolically, the act is "the last warning to all of us, as our world increasingly faces extremes [and] hard choices resulting from resource need."

As with all Cousteau specials of the last couple decades, "Australia: A Continent at Odds" also has its upbeat and purely marvelous moments, such as when divers find and photograph a remarkable species of sea dragon off the coast of Tasmania.

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