Fishing for a Living: The Case of Pulau Aman

By Jay Penfold, Ian Browne

April 2024 FEATURE
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A makeshift wooden jetty.

Photos by Jay Penfold.

AFTER A TEN-MINUTE ferry ride from Batu Musang Jetty in Seberang Perai, we arrive to the “Island of Peace”. Suggested as a fisherman’s paradise, we quickly discover that “paradise” and “fishing” rarely go hand in hand nowadays.

Pulau Aman sits five degrees north of the equator. Out at sea as you pass by on the ferry, fish farms float with sentinel working cottages, signaling the endeavour of locals to continue eking out an existence around the island. The shoreline of the island is marked by long, dawdling wooden jetties leading to seafood cafes. A primary school straddles the side of the hill above the ferry landing, while little hammocks strung under breadfruit trees signal downtime in the tranquil location. However, environmental neglect in the seas is raising a lot of problems for the island natives.

Hollering out from a small home nestled between verdant jungle and ocean, a local man demands that we make our way no further along the foreshore. Obviously, this man has something to say about the current situation of the fishing industry here: “Pulau Aman hasn’t functioned as a shrimp harvesting place since the 90s!” announces the one-time fisherman, Saiful.

One-time fisherman, Saiful.
A cat waiting for the fishermen to come back with their haul.

Belacan is a necessity in many Southeast Asian recipes, and the star attraction in the punchy condiment—the shrimp—is not faring so well. In fact, it is disappearing from the tropical waters of Malaysia. Though shrimp paste is still produced on the island, the shrimp—an Acetes species known locally as udang geragau—is harvested and delivered from elsewhere. The industry has been waning.

Pointing towards the mainland from the eastern shore of Pulau Aman, this slightly built, middle-aged man scorns, “This new development is causing pollution to run out to the islands. This is no good for coral, no good for crabs. There is no retention of sediment leaving the sites. This is destroying nature for the fish.”

Along the coast at Bandar Cassia and Batu Kawan, development is on the go, with 50,000 housing units being built to cater for a forecasted increase in population. Greater ease of connectivity between Penang Island and the mainland via the Penang Second Bridge and the Penang Bridge has provided an incentive for development there.

A large, intimidating turkey harasses the writer as he interviews Noraini.

“Fishermen need to travel further now. They like to catch flower crabs. Unfortunately, when the bridges arrived at Penang, the shipping lanes changed. The ships don’t pass here now; they instead have to circle Penang. Once, it was clearer because the crabs and the prawns follow the shipping lanes. They follow the pathway of the ships. There is a trail of shells in the mud there.

“Now, fishermen have to travel further out to find the laneways and they only have access to 15 horsepower engines. Fuel is becoming more expensive, and it is dangerous now when travelling the greater distances. Waves can be disastrous for those in small boats. The whole thing is far from sustainable.”

Saiful, like many on the island of more than 250 fisherfolk, decided to go further afield in search of an income. He now skippers a boat, ferrying workers to the mining platforms offshore from Singapore. His command of English is excellent, an advantage when working internationally. Many on the island are shy, rarely straying from their native Malay tongue. But Saiful is not one to remain silent on the negative impacts negating the livelihood of his fellow islanders.

“The fishermen have been compensated for their loss of income from the new developments—but only marginally. This includes making available to fisher families cheaper annual fishing visas. Some of the fishermen actually sell their annual fishing visas to others for a decent sum, three times the original price, and thus need to fish less now.”

According to Saiful, the abundance of female crabs has hampered reproduction.

“The shells that litter the shipping pathway are also much smaller than they used to be. The cockles are smaller now. Yabbies used to be plentiful. These are a good indicator for environmental change.”

A fisherman casting his net.

The Penang region now relies on importing seafood—and this, in a nation that is listed as having the second best food security in Asia after Singapore. Pulau Aman is among the three main aquaculture areas in the region.

Illegal fishing and pollution from intensive farming on land, and landfill sites, are further restricting the industry. Considering that Penang’s live capture fishing makes up 77% of the local seafood industry, with aquaculture at 22%, this is a real concern.

At the very heart of this environmental change is inadequate protection of fisheries. Poor mapping of resource sites is a reality.

There lies a dire lack of trust among the fisherfolk.

Saiful and his fellow residents at Pulau Aman.

“Education is so important! The children need to know what is taking place here. The impacts of global warming and plastic items on our seas need to be expressed. Dolphins still pass by the island—this is a good sign. But don’t take that for granted!”

Climate change impacts on fisheries in the region include rising sea levels, warmer ocean temperatures which facilitate disease outbreaks in marine fauna, and increased cyclonic activity. Marine nutrient and salinity qualities too are affected.

I also met with a mother of a fisher family. Speaking in Malay to our translator and shy of the camera, Noraini was still more than happy to discuss her family’s life on the island. A gentle lady in her early 40s, she is the mother of nine young adults.

“We catch catfish, crab, stingray—big ones! Some of the stingrays can be 30kg in weight. The big boss arrives from Batu Kawan and buys directly from the homes here. He then sells the product at the market on the mainland.”

The islanders also rely on live hauls of mantis shrimp, along with gelama (croaker) king mackerel, kurau (threadfin) and golden pomfret. Salted fish is another way to bring in an income.

“I have three sons and six daughters; they work in factories in Batu Kawan.

“One of my sons is 24 and when he arrives home at 7pm he goes out by boat to fish. Right now is a good time for fishing, as it has been raining, and the wind is up, which means more fish. Between October to December, less fish is found, so we rest then.

“In the time of my grandfather, everyone fished ‘fulltime’. The fishermen head out on the seas at 4am. They usually make their way over to the bridge. No specified fish species are targeted; we take what they can. The problem is that the average hauls are now less and yet the costs associated with fishing are increasing.”

Pulau Aman was once a haven for pirates. On top of the island’s hill lies the final resting place of the region’s chief of pirates, Panglima Garang. I wonder what he would make of the environmental challenges the islanders are currently enduring.

There are many environmental impacts occurring that could be better managed. Land reclamation projects tend to swallow up shallow seabeds used by prawns, crabs and fish species. Mud and sand are dredged from the seabed and dumped in reclamation projects, smothering fishing grounds and seagrass meadows. This, of course, impacts the food web. Clearing of mangrove forests and land-based forests also increases silt discharge into the ocean, which then slows water currents and disrupts intertidal mudflats. Meanwhile, lack of protective legislation over the aquaculture industry has negatively affected natural and social systems.

In 2016, Malaysian prawn exports were banned by the US due to the presence of nitrofuran and chloramphenicol. Though forbidden in Malaysia, the use of many such chemicals are a reality on prawn farms. These seep into groundwater and disrupt the hydrological prosperity of wetland systems. The accumulation of harmful waste and the lack of fresh water mean that ponds become redundant.

Pulau Aman is no longer the shrimp haven it once was. But though the villagers are faced with hardship, they have adapted admirably, some diversifying to local industries, while others, sadly, have moved from the island in search of other jobs.

Jay Penfold

is an Australian photographer who enjoys penning stories related to “paddock to plate” sustainable use of foods.

Ian Browne

is an Australian writer who has travelled throughout SE Asia researching the impacts of development on social groups and ecosystems. His book, What the Monsoon Knows, is recently released in London.