Terengganu’s fishermen caught between dwindling catch and corruption

Source: The Malaysian Insider

The fishermen on a boat returning to shore with their catch, near Marang in Terengganu. Their livelihoods have been impacted in a negative way by various factors in recent years. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, August 23, 2015.

Already struggling to make ends meet, the lives of Terengganu’s weather-beaten small-time fishermen are being made harder by competition from huge trawlers encroaching their waters, and corruption in local cartels that leaves them at the mercy of foreign fishing boats.

The Malaysian Insider’s recent visit to the fishing community at the seaside village of Marang found fishermen already struggling with the fact that they will have no familial successors, for the young find the job hard and the money too little.

A fibreglass boat now costs RM1,500, but the returns are little these days.

There is also competition from those who are more well-off in the trade and who own trawlers which catch almost every living being in the waters – squid, fish, prawns and crabs.

The small fisherman cannot compete. All he has is the camaraderie of his fellow fishermen on board and a net that has battled the elements, and can only haul in a much smaller yield.

Small-time fishermen have to stick to a designated fishing zone, closer to the shore. This is Zone A, which begins 5km away from the land, while Zone B and C is about 3 to 5 nautical miles (about 9.26km) from land, and fishing in these waters is subject to a quota. These zones are the purvey of trawlers and bigger boats.

“Despite the zoning and laws, the trawlers do ‘gatecrash’ the waters that are meant for the nelayan pinggir, but what can we do?” Mohd Zulkifli Mustafa, a member of theLembaga Persatuan Nelayan Kawasan Marang.

The trawlers are owned by Malaysians, who hire foreign workers.

“The foreign workers, they are quite respectful of us and won’t do anything to offend us, but what are these trawlers from Kuantan doing in our waters, taking our fish? They are quite shameless.”

Complaints made to the authorities have come to naught, said Zulkifli.

“When we get someone who is sympathetic, either the Cabinet changes or the whole department does. Politics is killing us.”

Dying trade

Universiti Malaysia Terenggganu researcher Dr Nazli Aziz says one of the factors affecting the fishermen is the changing of the coastline in the name of development. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, August 23, 2015.
Universiti Malaysia Terenggganu researcher Dr Nazli Aziz says one of the factors affecting the fishermen is the changing of the coastline in the name of development. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, August 23, 2015.

Dr Nazli Aziz and Dr Norhayati Saat, two researchers from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, who have studied and worked with the Marang fishermen say their dire situation is not as black and white as the community may claim.

Factors such as complacency and a negative attitude towards life and earnings contribute to the decline of fishing as a tradition and employment.

About 40% of the local youths have moved away from fishing, be it trawler or small-time, preferring an easier way to eke a living. This is why foreign workers like Bangladeshi workers have taken the place of the Malay youths.

“The duration of fishing is about six months. It is seasonal – there is no fishing during the monsoons. But the big boats from Vietnam, Thailand, they go all out,” Norhayati (pic, below).

Small-time fishermen have their reasons for not going all out beyond their borders.

The ocean can be frightening, they say, and some use the excuse of families and religion – they want to pray on land, for example – not to venture farther out to sea.

Attitudes aside, development is also sounding the death knell for the fishing industry.

The irony is that while the state gives out generous subsidies and financial resources to help small-time fishermen, development shunts them.

Assistance from the state could not fight the ecological impact of the redevelopment of Terengganu’s coastal areas, such as land reclamation for a new airport, which took away the fishermen’s catch.

“That’s the (fishermen’s) playground. When you change the coast in the name of development, they have nothing. They leave because the seas are no longer their livelihood. There is no fish in the sea,” Nazli said.

Though the state allocates money for small-time fishermen, the two researchers say that the community is not included in the state’s development planning, which is focused on the mainland.

The fishermen’s plight is divorced from development plans, leaving few ways to empower them.

Inevitable demise

Perhaps the negative outlook fishermen have on their futures is not that surprising after all, when one considers the odds stacked against them.

Already crowded out by trawlers, and faced with dwindling catch as a result of ecological changes brought by development, they are also at the mercy of corruption by well-connected locals who have good ties with the Fisheries Department over the issuance of fishing boat licences.

“Men with titles – Datuks, Tan Sris – unlike us,” said one of the fishermen, “lease out fishing licenses to Vietnamese tekongs who own huge boats and are armed with guns,” said Buyang, a fisherman from Pulau Duyong.

These Datuks and Tan Sris rent the licences, in many cases, to Vietnamese fishermen, at RM5,000 each per boat or trawler.

It is good passive income for the well-connected, said Buyang.

“Imagine this. One Datuk gets RM5,000 per boat per month. He leases out these licenses to 17 boats. That makes it RM85,000 a month.”

The fishermen don’t dare make a scene out of this, as the community is small, and repercussions may be felt for generations.

“Maybe it’s our time to go. We (fishermen like us) will soon be extinct,” said an elderly fisherman. – August 23, 2015.

Fishermen in the villages in Marang facea daily struggle in getting a good catch as unfair competition and corruption directly affects their livelihood. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Afif Abd Halim, August 23, 2015.



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