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Assessing the state of artisanal fisheries

Assessing the state of artisanal fisheries

Published by The Star• 03/11/2021

Artisanal fishermen have to follow the vagaries of nature (boats here stranded by low tide), which further restrict their fishing activity, other than competition from trawlers and unlicensed fishermen.

A comprehensive assessment of the state of traditional fisheries is underway to render targeted assistance for potentially affected fishermen, following the proposal to reclaim land at the southern part of Penang island


THE state of Penang fisheries is under intense focus of late, with various parties proffering their views on the viability of this traditional undertaking.


With the proposal to reclaim 1,821ha (4,500 acres) of land around the southern part of Penang island in the form of three islands, the wellbeing of fishermen residing around the area has received comprehensive attention from the state government as it looks at how to manage the various dimensions of creating Islands A, B, and C from the sea.


In particular, the state is concerned over the fate of around 900 artisanal fishermen who live in the vicinity of the proposed reclamation site. These fishermen typically fish in Zone A, which is a Fisheries Department of Malaysia’s classification for those who fish up to eight nautical miles (8NM or 14.4km) from shore (applicable to Kedah, Penang, Perak, and Selangor).


These fishermen typically use boats ranging from 21ft (6.4m) to 27ft (8.2m), which are hooked to outboard engines pushing out anything from 40-60hp (horsepower). The small size of the vessels and limited output from the engines mean that fishing can only be done within a limited range from shore, with many boats operated by a lone fisherman.

Idris Ismail, 66, supports the PSR because of his conviction that it will usher in a whole new era of possibilities for his children and 15 grandchildren (two of them pictured here).

Artisanal fishermen making a living in the southern part of Penang island usually arrive at their usual fishing spots in 15 to 25 minutes, depending on what they intend to catch that day.


Because of tide and weather conditions, they don’t usually fish more than 120 days a year as there is also downtime caused by the need to mend their fishing nets, as well as to undertake maintenance of their boat and engines, other than unscheduled disruptions due to engine breakdowns or accidental damage to boats and nets.


Some activists have decried the proposed reclamation – known as the Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project – on the grounds that the move will deprive these fishermen of their usual fishing grounds.


Low contribution


According to Fisheries Department data, the tonnage of marine fish landed in Penang, which is the aggregation of catch from trawlers all the way to inshore fishermen, has exceeded 50,000 tonnes a year from 2016 onwards.


However, the bulk of the catch, or more than 90% of landings at the south of Penang island, comes from trawlers operating in Zones B (5NM-15NM, or 8km to 27.8km from shore) and C (beyond 15NM). The contribution from Zone A, where the artisanal fishermen operate, consistently came in at less than 10% of Penang’s marine fish landings.


Zeroing in at landings by artisanal fishermen in the areas that are expected to be impacted by the PSR – namely Sungai Batu, Teluk Tempoyak, Teluk Kumbar, Permatang Damar Laut and Gertak Sanggul – the contribution is even smaller. In 2018, the artisanal fishermen there brought in a mere 1,317.41 tonnes, or 1.5% of Penang’s fish production that year. In contrast, trawlers calling at the Batu Maung fishery port landed 12,100.7 tonnes that year, or 9.2 times more.


Manifold threats


As it is, those fishing at the shallower areas have to contend with stiff competition, which may also be a precursor to overfishing, precisely because of its sheer accessibility by anyone with just a boat, which may not even be registered with the Fisheries Department. Anecdotes vary, but some say up to three quarters of the small boats plying Zone A are in fact unregistered.


Slightly further out, they compete with larger boats, which are equipped with larger nets, crew, greater speeds and better equipment, such as those equipped with GPS and fish finding sonar.

These trawlers sometimes originate from outside of Penang, and in some instances, are said to use the destructive apollo nets that sweep the entire seabed as the gigantic net is pulled at two ends in the same direction by two boats simultaneously.


“These boats, some of them from Perak, enter Penang waters in the dark of night, and operate for two to three hours, which by then, would have made an exit out of Penang’s territorial waters,” said Rossli Yusoff, 64, a fisherman based at Permatang Damar Laut, adding that local fishermen have to compete with those coming from parts of Kedah such as Kuala Muda and Langkawi.


No damage


The sexagenarian fisherfolk from the area – including Idris Ismail, Fajinah Jaafar, Haris Abdullah, Ismail Othman and Rossli Yusoff – all agreed that land reclamation in Penang is nowhere near as bad as painted by protestors.


They roundly dismiss allegations that reclamation of 1,000 acres (405ha) of seafront for the Seri Tanjung Pinang development in the north-eastern part of the island over the past few years had damaged the state’s fisheries beyond repair.


They are not wrong, as official fisheries data showed that when the Seri Tanjung Pinang 2 (STP2) reclamation in Tanjung Tokong on Penang island began in 2016, fish landing increased by almost 15% compared to the previous year, from 49,783 tonnes in 2015, to 57,013 tonnes in 2016.


While the STP2 reclamation was in progress, Penang’s marine fish production went up by 8,125 tonnes over the next four years (214,582 tonnes in the 2017-2020 period) compared to 206,457 tonnes (2012-2015). (see table)Idris Ismail, 66, a fisherman at Kampung Nelayan, Teluk Kumbar, said fish don’t stay still at one spot, and they move about, in response to the availability of food and other factors.


“Fish can move, and so can fishermen. There’s no such thing as just fishing from the same spot permanently.


“There were also those who made noise when the Second Penang Bridge was being built, but in the end, the piers of the bridge ended up being a hospitable place for fish – both juvenile and adults. You can see that it now supports the livelihood of those who fish using rods, or fish traps, proving that marine life can adapt,” said the seasoned fisherman who has honed the art of reading the wind, waves and sea currents to maximise his catch.


The bigger picture


The veteran fisherfolk could see the need to embrace progress with the passage of time as they are able to envision the kind of future that their children and grandchildren would enjoy.


“When the Bayan Lepas area was developed, there were also murmurs of discontent, but then, their children and grandchildren ended up working in the very factories built on the reclaimed land that hosts the industrial park,” said Idris, who added that what is objected to today will be embraced years down the road, as far as development in Penang is concerned.


“Likewise, there were also objections when the Second Bridge was proposed. But in the end, it served as a shorter route to other parts of the country, and sped up movements, not to mention that it is also a gathering point for marine life,” he added.

Artisanal fishermen in the southern part of Penang island don’t go further than several km from the shore, with many already fishing at areas that are well beyond the boundaries of the proposed reclamation.

Rossli said that most fishermen from his area are already sailing at least 4km away from shore.


“We can easily skirt around the reclaimed islands to fish. And the state has promised we will always have access to the sea, even during the project. I understand there will be a 250m-wide dredged channel for navigation that separates the reclaimed island from our shore,” he said.


For fishermen from the most impacted areas (Tier 1 areas), the Penang state government has promised new boats that are larger (up to 27ft or 8.23m), paired with more powerful engines that range from 90hp to 100hp – allowing these fishermen to go further, faster and with more equipment on board. However, the disbursement of this aid is subject to PSR given the necessary approvals to commence.


No bed of roses


It is readily evident that there are four constants that characterise the life of an artisanal fisherman – the absolute dependence on weather and tidal conditions, rising costs of fishing equipment, high dependence on intermediaries (be it middlemen or cooperatives) to market their catch, and a rapidly greying workforce.


The declining number of registered fishermen at Permatang Damar Laut, Sungai Batu, Teluk Kumbar and Gertak Sanggul over the past five years suggests that more are giving up this extremely hard life. According to data from the Fisheries Department, there were 691 of them in 2015, but only 496 of them are left now – a significant drop of 37%. This tallies with the project proponent’s recent joint survey with the state government, which found that no more than 450 of them are still actively fishing.

The absolute dependence on weather and tide, besides rising costs of fishing equipment and high reliance on middlemen to market their catch, means most artisanal fishermen fall under the B40 group.

The ageing artisanal fishery workforce is also a stark reality which many fail to see. A recent Fisheries Department survey found that 85.3% of fishermen in the four areas directly impacted by reclamation – Permatang Tepi Laut, Sungai Batu, Teluk Kumbar and Gertak Sanggul – are more than 40 years old.


“When I was 21, I had my own wooden sampan, which cost RM6,000 back then. Now, a fibreglass boat will set me back from RM12,000 to RM13,000,” said Samsuar Hasshim, 43, a fisherman based at Kampung Nelayan, Teluk Kumbar.


Another cost that is predictably upward all the time is fishing nets.


“For example, net used for prawning used to cost RM150 a set, but is now RM400, and worse, it can only be used for a few months before it is too frayed or worn,” said Samsuar.


A more secure future


Idris said that while some days may see a decent catch, fishermen like him stand to incur losses when the haul is low.


“Some days, you may get several hundred ringgit in income. Other days, the takings are not enough to cover the cost of fuel and rations.


“There is no guarantee that you will always have something in your net. Please perish the thought that one can net in RM1,000 every time they go out to sea. If this is the case, even ministers will want to be fishermen,” he said.

Haris Abdullah, 60, supports the proposed reclamation as it safeguards Penang’s future, and along with it, the fate of its future generations.

A social impact study commissioned for the project as part of the regulatory approval process found more than 85% of the artisanal fishermen in the affected areas earn less than RM2,000 a month (mean monthly income is RM1,578), putting them firmly in B40 territory. The mean family income is at RM2,710 – significantly lower than the national average B40 income of RM2,848.


It is no surprise that these fishermen are heavily reliant on fuel subsidies and cost of living allowances from the government, other than the occasional side job.


Samsuar does not mince his words when asked how he views his future.


“As a fisherman, I have no EPF, no payslip, no savings, no job security, which became a problem when I wanted to apply for a housing loan. This is one reason a good number of artisanal fishermen rent their houses,” he said.


Neither is he hopeful that Malaysians – Penangites or otherwise – can keep the artisanal fishery trade alive for long. “I can tell you that when we are all no longer around, the surrounding seas here will be taken over by fishermen who are not Malaysians at birth,” said Samsuar.

Rossli Yusoff, 64, is confident there is a significant number of fishermen who support the reclamation, even though they may not voice it out openly like him.

Against this backdrop, Rossli is confident that at least a quarter of artisanal fishermen in his village supports the reclamation, which is expected to generate around 15,000 jobs when Island A is being reclaimed.


“The remaining are either fence sitters, or those who oppose, but I think there is a silent majority who is able to see their own future as well, but are too afraid or embarrassed to openly voice their support for the project as they fear retribution,” he said.


Rossli’s confidence of sizable support for the island reclamation project stems from a memorandum of support for PSR handed to the state government on Oct 7, wherein 435 of the 1,521 signatories are actually fishermen from the Penang island south area (the rest are residents).


This means that among fishermen themselves, about half are ready to accept PSR, and even more can expect to be on board in time to come.

Fishermen like Samsuar Hasshim, 43, does not think he has a bright future if he continues to do what his doing, with or without reclamation.

It is not difficult to understand why, after hearing Samsuar describe his trade as one that is totally at the mercy of the elements – weather, tide, wind and currents – and other factors beyond his control such as the constant price increases for fishing equipment.


“In good weather, I can reach Pulau Kendi (an islet 6km to 10km from fishing villages in Penang island south) in 20 minutes, but during a storm, it can take more than two hours to return home. You can’t even make out where the land mass is without a compass.


“As the weather and sea can change at very short notice, it is like gambling with my life every single time.


“For these reasons, I won’t allow my children to follow in my footsteps,” he said.

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