The sea and fishing are in our blood, says Mah Meri fisher Zarul anak Miring. (SL Wong)

Grandfather Stories Can save our Seas

As small-scale fishers lose livelihoods due to coastal development and depleted catches, their traditional knowledge is also being lost. Recognising this knowledge could save their fisheries and cultural identity.

Writer: SL Wong

Editor: YH Law

Published: 9 October, 2023

This story is part of Macaranga’s #SeaWorld series.

(Feature image: The sea and fishing are in our blood, says Mah Meri fisher Zarul anak Miring  |  Pic by SL Wong)

THE POLAROIDS are neatly pinned to the board. They show ocean catch of all types and sizes. In one, a smiling man holds up an astonishing 15kg siakap as if to proudly say, “Look what I caught!”

Each polaroid is dated, numbered and described. They are the first lot of fisheries data collected on Mah Meri Orang Asli fishers on Pulau Carey, Selangor. And the informants are from the community itself, with the data collated by fisherman Zarul anak Miring.

The Mah Meri fishers are documenting and quantifying their knowledge and practices. Can this help secure their culture and identity, conserve their fishing grounds and ensure food security?

Zarul neatly notes Mah Meri catch, gear and fisher (SL Wong)
Zarul neatly notes Mah Meri catch, gear and fisher (SL Wong)

The data is feeding into a government research project exploring concepts of indigenous community based fisheries management. Specifically, the Department of Fisheries Malaysia (DOF) is looking at ICCA, a term referring to territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities. It is a pioneering effort by the agency in Malaysia.

“We can’t just preserve nature, but leave out the local communities and indigenous people in those areas,” says Izarenah Md Repin from DOF’s fisheries conservation and protection division.

The DOF research project therefore aims to document the community’s local ecological knowledge as regards the sea and fisheries.

“We need to know to what extent they rely on marine resources. If they are fully reliant on these resources and if there are several sites which have cultural or spiritual significance, then we could look at the potential of protecting those areas.”

Artisanal fishers fish close to shore and use traditional gear (SL Wong)
Artisanal fishers fish close to shore and use traditional gear (SL Wong)

Small scale or artisanal fishers like the Mah Meri traditionally fish within 5 nautical miles (about 9 km) of the coast and/or in rivers. In Peninsular Malaysia, these communities make up 60% of fishers. Yet they are often left out of fisheries management policies.

This is despite them being the socio-economic backbone of poor coastal communities and related upstream and downstream small businesses.

Small-scale fishers gain and pass on knowledge through generations of natural resource use. They “play an important role in managing, restoring, conserving and protecting aquatic resources and ecosystems,” says the FAO.

The Mah Meri is one such indigenous group. Although more famous for artisanship – wood-carving, weaving, performances and rituals – they are also skilled fishers. Their prowess has earned them the name Orang Laut (sea people). Landlocked neighbours once referred to them as ‘people with (fish) scales’.

“According to [elder] Gendoi Samah Seman, our Temuan neighbours on the mainland used to call us Hma’ Besise’ or literally, ‘people with (fish) scales’ – though she said that it also referred to our preference for living in coastal areas and our love of fishing.

Ibah Pion Bumbong [a master woodcarver] adds that this was also because we spoke the Besise’ language. He also relates this term to a chita muyang [ancestor stories] in which a fish scale lodged in the eye of a Besise’ man nearly caused pandemonium when he mistook it for the distant sails of marauding pirates!”

Chita’ Hae, Reita Rahim and Tompoq Topoh (2007)

Zarul’s first polaroids of the range of ocean catches and equipment are indicative of the Mah Meri’s broad skills and knowledge.

His village, Kampung Sungai Kurau, is the westernmost and most remote of Pulau Carey’s 5 Mah Meri villages. There, the community jetties thrust finger-like through estuarine mangroves. A government-built bund stops the rising seawater from flooding the village.

Zarul points to a huge pile of fishing nets. Everyone now uses modern fishing gear and motorised boats, he says. But he easily rattles off the traditional tools that were once used: bamboo, rotan, spears, and fish traps like lukah and bubu.

And whilst in the past, Mah Meri fishers relied on looking at the moon, they now use the Chinese lunar calendar, says his father-in-law and head of the fishers’ collective, Lanuza anak Layon.

“Fishing depends on tides, and how full the moon is tells us whether it’s low tide or high tide. Then we know what sort of fish we will be able to catch then. Like, OK, on such and such a day, the tide is like this, and we know we’ll be able to catch more prawns.”

Learning from elders

What has not changed is the way fisheries knowledge is transmitted: by going out to sea with their elders. Both men and women fish. Zarul himself started fishing with his father at the age of 10; he is now in his 30s. 

Lanuza, in his 50s, learned later, at the age of 19, as he grew up in town and returned to the village only when he married. But he too learned by following his in-laws out to sea. “I also taught myself by observing the tides and fish,” he adds.

As with their forefathers, fishing remains core to their identity. “Every day, we must eat fish,” Zarul asserts. “Everything we catch is used. If there’s more, we sell it.” And if they cannot catch any fish, “we eat vegetables and ubi (tubers) that we plant ourselves.” Like many coastal fishing communities, seafood is their main, if not only animal protein source.

And though there are only around 40 licensed fishers, everyone in the village goes out to sea, with daily wage-earners doing so on weekends.

Women and men equally go out to fish (SL Wong)
Women and men equally go out to fish (SL Wong)

But they have had to adapt in their fisheries. Reduced catch is a concern. Their personal experience backs the alarming statistic of fish stocks in Malaysia having declined by 96% in less than 60 years.

Zarul remembers that “in the past, there would be so much fish that the boat would almost sink.” He blames the ‘pukat harimau’ (trawls) for catch reducing from “around 2007”. Trawling is notorious for destroying the marine ecosystem, including coastal fisheries.

The tides have also changed, says Lanuza. “When we expect to catch a certain fish at a certain time, it doesn’t happen.”

And then there is Westports. Housed in the neighbouring island, the massive development is the main cargo gateway in central Peninsular Malaysia. It is also the second busiest port in Southeast Asia. It attributes its success to, among other things, “our strategic location”.

No match for big ships

Unfortunately, for the Mah Meri fishers, the port’s location is problematic.

The Mah Meri have been fishing in these waters for generations. The port started operations in 1994. But the constant coming and going of storeys-high cargo ships looming over the fishers’ tiny boats, has made it dangerous for them to continue fishing alone.

“We now go in groups of 5 boats for safety,” says Zarul, adding that they also have to fish further out to sea, in unfamiliar waters.

Loss of traditional fishing grounds is almost unreported compared to the Mah Meri’s loss of traditional lands to oil palm plantations and resorts.

Cultural loss

But for the community, the vanishing of associated knowledge is as worrying culturally, says Lanuza. “Our children don’t know any more what siput (shellfish) and tenggiri (mackerel) are. They don’t recognise what a mangrove tree is, this Generation Z always with their IT.”

Nonetheless, the cultural relationship to marine resources was evident at a recent Mah Meri festival on the island. On sale were handmade shell-based curios and keychains and traditional anyam dawud nipah decorations woven in the shape of crabs, jellyfish and horseshoe crabs.

Visitors eagerly bought bags of freshly harvested kepah (clams) and siput buluh (bamboo clams), as well as all sorts of fish, ketam bunga (flower crabs) and belangkas (horseshoe crabs).

“Kampung Sungai Kurau is the most vulnerable and most dependent on fishing on Pulau Carey,” says the DOF research project leader Dr Jarina Mohd Jani of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. 

An advocate of community based fisheries management, she was the one who roped in Zarul and the community to collect data as participatory scientists, paying them as research assistants.

Traditional fishers “know a lot more than we give them credit for because they go to the sea every day,” says the biocultural conservationist.

“Not only do they have traditional knowledge, which is handed down from generation to generation but they also have their own knowledge which is something they acquire themselves because they have been fishing 10 years or 20 years or 50 years… They are scientists too, because they collect data every day.”

However, that knowledge is limited: “The fishers don’t know everything either.”

Terengganu code of conduct

Nonetheless, she says that traditional knowledge is valuable because even dying traditions can be revived for sustainable fisheries management today. One such tradition is a self-regulating code of conduct revolving around the unjang, hand-made artificial reefs.

The code was once widely practised by the small-scale coastal fishers of Setiu, Terengganu. It is a sophisticated system of ‘ownership’, boundaries and payment. At its core is recognition of the huge effort to set up an unjang.

An Unjang by any other name

Unjang is the Terengganu name for traditional artificial reefs. Elsewhere, it is unjam, whereas the west coast fishers would also call it tuas. There are many names for these devices such as alat peranti ikan (fish aggregating device, for fisheries), tukun tiruan (artificial reefs, for conservation) and artificial habitats.

Known in standard Bahasa Malaysia as unjam, the Setiu unjang are fashioned from coconut fronds, tree branches and rocks, and are secured to the seabed.

The fisher has to collect and prepare the plant materials, attach them to a rope, load up his small boat with the device and rocks, and go out to his chosen fishing spot, before releasing the lot and ensuring it stays put.

Its objective is to attract fish for fishing. It works well, largely because any floating biomass is a fish magnet. With depleting fisheries, it is an important means to enrich fishing resources. 

These devices have been used for a long time, probably when fisheries started becoming established as a livelihood and communities realised the need for rules to fish, says Jarina, who has researched artificial reefs for 15 years.

Because it takes so much effort to set it up, the community acknowledges the fisher who does so, as the ‘owner’ of that spot. He remains the ‘owner’ until his unjang disintegrates. However, others may fish at that spot by paying him compensation.

“So if Dollah sets it up, that’s unjang Dollah. When you fish there, you pay Dollah,” explains Jarina.

Since the 1960s, unjam have been recognised by the DOF in Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan as a tool to enhance fisheries. It in fact became the basis for the department’s ongoing artificial reef programme and is regulated by the Fisheries Act 1985.

The Act also protects unjam ‘owners’ through licensing, which is compatible with the code, and punishes culprits who destroy unjam.

However, the unjang code of conduct is no longer widely practised. For one, says Jarina, fishing is no longer as communal. Reasons include depleted fisheries, larger boats encroaching into artisanal areas, and the switch to fish-detecting technology.

In addition though, the government has completely taken over making and deploying the artificial reefs, which are custom made and massive. Some are specifically for increasing biodiversity and disallow fishing.

Do’s and don’ts unclear

Because the governance of all these various artificial reefs appears unclear, says Jarina, artisanal fishers do not know where or how much to fish. What’s more, fishers using seiners – large purse-like nets that close at the bottom – keep swooping up fish at these artificial fishing grounds. It defeats the purpose of deploying the devices for artisanal fishers.

“You create more habitats using artificial reefs because resources are depleted, especially coastal fisheries,” she says. “But no one is governing them. Since the 1990s, the government has been championing how community based fisheries and artificial reefs go hand in hand. But it isn’t done.”

Hence, her call to revive the unjang code of conduct to restore and manage artisanal fisheries. She recalls that the code was actually used when the government started deploying contemporary unjang in Terengganu in the 1980s. Small-scale fishers and their boats were involved, thus “unofficially making them ‘owners’ of the created sites, in accordance with the unjang practice”.

Using what is already there

The system is easy to revive because as a traditional concept, fishers understand and own it as part of their culture, says Jarina. “The sea belongs to no one but one part belongs to you if you make the effort to create a fishing site.” What’s more, it can be used for conservation, by creating guidelines as to where they can fish and where not.

“When you talk about resource enhancement, you need boundaries. The key thing about the unjang code is it helps you create boundaries… Then you can govern.”

Regionally, unjam are still used and adapted for sustainable fisheries, adds Jarina. For instance, Timor Leste coastal fishers are accessing higher-value tuna by modifying their traditional unjam devices.

“This was supported by the state’s fishery development agency, and the fishers use local traditional laws and regulations to decide where they could go using this modified device.” Access to this new resource could be controlled and conflicts reduced.

Zarul explaining to researcher Dr Jarina Mohd Jani what gear Mah Meri fishers use for different species (SL Wong)
Zarul explaining to researcher Dr Jarina Mohd Jani what gear Mah Meri fishers use for different species (SL Wong)

With fish stocks shockingly low, the traditional knowledge of Malaysian artisanal fishers can help manage and maintain the sea’s ecosystems and related food systems. DOF’s Izarenah says that “we don’t want generational knowledge to just end”. FAO recognises these fishers as “innovators and a driving force in ensuring food security and ending poverty”.

Back on Pulau Carey, Zarul continues to photograph and document his community fisheries. But a proposed development on the island itself has recently been greenlit: a third port that can handle 3 times the capacity of Westports. On this, Zarul shrugs and says he doesn’t know anything about it. 

Whatever happens, fishing is integral to his life. “Seperti orang kata, Orang Asli dan laut tak berpisah.” (As the saying goes, Orang Asli are inseparable from the sea).

This feature is part of #SeaWorld, our series on marine issues. The series is supported by the French Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Also read: One Thousand and One Ways to Protect the Ocean  |  Nature’s Forts Key to Weathering Storms  |  Urgent Search for Malaysia’s Super Corals.

FAO. 2023. Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries
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Mohd Jani, J. et al. (2015). Artificial reefs in Setiu: at a crossroad between tradition and modernity. In Faridah M., et al. (eds). Setiu Wetlands: Species, Ecosystems and Livelihoods (pp.161-176). Penerbit UMT.

Mohd Jani, J. et al. (2018). Re-Exploring the Application of Artificial Reefs for Community-Based Fishery Management in Malaysia. In Marine Artificial Reef Research and Development: Integrating Fisheries Management Objectives (pp.235-249). American Fisheries Society.

Mohd Jani, J. (2020). ‘The Status of Artisanal Fish Aggregating Devices in Southeast Asia’. In

Bortone, S.A. et al. (eds). Modern Fisheries Engineering: Realizing a Healthy and Sustainable Marine Ecosystem. CRC Press.

Parry, M.L. (1954). The fishing methods of Kelantan and Terengganu. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XXXVII, Part II: 77-144.

Serina Rahman. (2022). Malaysia’s Artisanal Fishermen: Political Ecology and Survival. ISEAS Perspective. ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Reita, R. & Tompoq Topoh. Chita’ Hae. 2007. Center for Orang Asli Concerns.

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