The Chinese New Year feasting will start soon, and the middlemen have passed the word around. Grade A prawns (extra large) caught off the coast of Penang are now RM67 per kilo, fresh off the boat. By the time they reach the local wet markets, these jumbo prawns will surpass the RM100 per kilo mark, to as much as RM120.
The prawn fishermen in Teluk Kumbar on the southern coast of Penang island are giddy with the lucrative prospect.
Fisherman Shahran Abdul Khalid said the ex-boat price of large prawns in December was only RM32 per kilo.
“This is it. Large prawns are a must at Chinese New Year dinners and this is our chance to make some good money,” said Shahran, 52.
But the results don’t meet his expectations.
When we visited this traditional prawn hunting ground of Sungai Batu in Teluk Kumbar one recent morning, fellow fisherman Azizan Yusoff, 46, had just returned from three hours of non-stop netting. His catch: one large prawn and three longfin herrings.
More bones than meat, longfin herrings (ikan puput or ikan beliak mata to the Malays) are typically used to make fertiliser or fishmeal.
“I pushed off at 6am. I was working two prawn nets for three hours just to catch this one prawn,” said Azizan.
That prawn probably weighed 200g and would have made a fine prize if one were a recreational fisherman out on a weekend jaunt.
According to State Fisheries Department statistics, there are 500 traditional fishing boats and an estimated 950 fishermen operating along the south coast of the island. Their numbers make up 14% of the total sum of Penang fishermen but their fishing ground only yields an average income per fisherman of less than RM2,500 per month – and about 60% of them almost exclusively fish for prawns.
The work of a fisherman must be emphasised here; it is not a simple activity of letting out gill nets and waiting for Lady Luck to smile while nodding off on the bobbing boat.
“Each net of mine is 500m long. Stringing out these lengths by hand is a lot of work and it takes skill to keep the net from becoming a tangled mess,” said Azizan.
“By the time I string one net out, it’s time to haul in the other. So I am working non-stop at sea,” he said.
Shahran said their nets only last them a month, two at best. The 500m long nets cost them RM485, and it is an extra RM100 if they hire someone to string in the lead sinkers and cordage.
“It’s a fine mesh of three layers specially made for trapping prawns. We can only use them in the cove in Teluk Kumbar. We can’t even use them around Pulau Kendi (a scabrous islet 2km from Penang island). If you cast these nets in deeper waters or where the current is strong, we’ll get all sorts of fish and even sea snails that will tear the nets apart,” he said.
Since they cannot depend on fishing for a living, Shahran said that 90% of the 500-plus fishermen in Teluk Kumbar hold another job.
According to marine ecologist Dr Aileen Tan, these fishermen are “artisans”.
“It takes a lot of skill to catch prawns with a small boat fitted with an outboard motor of less than 40hp.
“Sometimes I think of them as an endangered breed of fishermen. They cannot go far out because their boats are basically skiffs, so they depend on the protection of the cove. The hills block the wind and keep the waves gentle, while the bowl-shaped coastline keeps currents mild. That is what allows them to be at sea,” said Dr Tan.
Since 2011, Dr Tan said prawn catches in Penang had steadily recorded about 10,000 tonnes each year but these are catches by trawlers equipped to travel tens of nautical miles away.
“Small boat fishermen have to find alternative livelihood. When they net too close to the shore in Penang, the fish and prawns they catch are exposed to human pollution. The catches will not be good,” she said.
She stressed that only the catches of deep sea trawlers are used to measure Penang’s annual prawn tonnage; the catches by the “artisan prawn netters” were too low to record and they only catch enough for markets within their vicinity.
As if to accentuate Dr Tan’s observation, fisherman Mohd Shahril Rosli was spotted returning at noon after five hours of netting.
After berthing in the man-made lagoon, he waded from his boat in the chest-high sea to the wave breaker, holding aloft a plastic bag with about 500gm of freshly caught medium-large prawns.
“My catch for the day. Probably worth about RM30 if I sold it,” he declared.
At 32, Mohd Shahril is among the youngest fishermen in the area; about 10 other fishermen interviewed were over 50 years old.
Enticed by the chance to taste freshly caught prawns, we asked Mohd Shahril to name a price for his catch. Sheepishly, he turned down the offer.
“I have to take this home. Later in the evening, I will go out again and see if my catch could be better.”
There is another type of fisherman in Teluk Kumbar who don’t use nets. Che Anuar Putih, 54, is one of them.
Che Anuar uses fish traps, called bubu in Malay. He has about 40 fish traps lying in the cove’s seabed – wire cages framed in wood and weighted down with at least two bricks each.
The cages have an opening that lets the fish swim in, but the opening is built in such a way that once inside, the fish would not be able to exit.
Che Anuar goes out on his skiff every day to check his 40 traps. There must be hundreds of such traps lying in the shallow waters of the cove.
“I mostly get kerapu (groupers) and jenahak (golden snappers). These fishes love to find crevasses to hide in. Usually, I can find about 5kg a day, but three years ago I could get about 25kg a day.”
The fishes that find their way into the traps are almost always not fully mature.
Soza Syahrimy Zainol, 40, said he left his 30-odd traps sunk in the water permanently and changed them every month or so when the wooden frame began to rot.
“This is a surefire way to catch fish, but they are usually small. Our catches are not meant for restaurants that want large fish. These are for local markets,” Soza Syahrimy said.
He remained silent when asked if trapping juvenile fish could diminish fish stocks in Penang’s southern waters.
Winds of change could soon be blowing from a direction that the fishermen least expect.
There are plans to reclaim two islands a few hundred metres off the island’s southern coast. Measuring 930ha and 566ha each, the state government intends to use these new islands to finance the RM27bil Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP), which has been labelled “a five-in-one public transport solution involving light rail transit (LRT) or monorail, catamaran or water taxis, buses, taxis and cable cars.”
The reclamation project, said state executive councillor Abdul Malik Abul Kassim, presented an opportunity to dredge the mud flats on the island’s southern shore.
“At low tide now, the sea retreats far away and the fishing boats would be stranded in the mud. By dredging and deepening the shore while we reclaim the two islands, we will allow the fishermen to go out anytime,” said Abdul Malik who is also the Batu Maung State Assemblyman representing the area.
While many of the fishermen are fearful that the emergence of the reclaimed islands would mean the end of their days at sea, Abdul Malik said there were plans to build fishermen’s wharf to go with the new islands.
“The wharf will overlook the new island and they will be designed to be pleasurable for tourists to visit, something like those in Australia or Japan.”
Besides turning the future reclamation plans to the fishermen’s advantage, he said the water taxi element in the PTMP itself offered a chance for them to become transport providers.
“We can use water taxis to get from the airport, for example, to the beach resorts in Batu Ferringhi and avoid traffic jams on the road. The fishermen can become water taxi skippers and use their knowledge of the sea to provide public transport and help ease the congestion on land.”
The future development, he said, was a chance for them to step out of the “fishing village mentality”.
“Change is the chance for us to be more than what we think we are. We are now frequently engaging with the fishermen and their families and our long-term goal is to help them see that they don’t have to be only fishermen,” he said.