Cockle hub for Pontian


Rich harvest: Cockles, locally dubbed ‘black gold’, can only breed in certain states, namely Johor, Melaka, Selangor and Perak.

THE Johor Fisheries Department plans to introduce 10 cockle farms this year, mainly centred in Pontian.

It is part of the state government’s initiative to turn the Pontian district into the national cockle hub.

Department director Zainudin Abd Wahab said the project would be conducted in phases with a maximum of 15 fishermen for each cockle farm.

He said the state government had allocated RM500,000 for the two-year programme.

“Johor Land and Mines Department (PTG) has given us the green light.

A fisherman sorting freshly caught cockles according to their size in Pulai Sebatang, Pontian.A fisherman sorting freshly caught cockles according to their size in Pulai Sebatang, Pontian.

“We are looking at 15 plots in total, with 10 starting this year.

“We will begin with two plots in Pontian within the first quarter of this year, followed by two plots in Muar, three in Batu Pahat and the remaining three in Pontian as well,” he said.

He added that the five additional plots would be set up next year in Pontian too.

Zainudin said each plot would be about 30ha wide.Expanding fishing industry

The initiative was announced by Mentri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad during the Johor Budget 2022 speech last November.

Currently, the department is in the final phase of discussions with the land office on granting temporary occupation licence (TOL) to the fishermen involved.

It is also finalising the list of participants for the entire programme.

“Most importantly, we already have the place to run the project and identified the cockle farmers who will start the initiative in Pontian.

“The project’s success or failure will depend on participants’ willingness as they will be fully in charge from start to finish.

“This is part of the myKomuniti Perikanan (myKP) programme,” said Zainudin, adding that it would be a two-year pilot project.

MyKP was launched in 2018 by Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry to expand the fishing industry.

The Fisheries Department website states that up to March 21, 153 myKP have been set up.

Hairul Salleh (right) operating the cleaning tank together with Dawik. — THOMAS YONG/The StarHairul Salleh (right) operating the cleaning tank together with Dawik. — THOMAS YONG/The Star

Zainudin said the project could take up to 12 months before it showed results, as such only full-time cockle farmers would be allowed to take part.

“We will start by cleaning the base for the cockle cultivation plot before scattering the seeds.

“The cost is minimal as these are already natural breeding grounds for cockles.

“From then on, each farmer will be responsible for protecting their plots, especially against theft.

“They cannot expect government agencies to patrol these areas 24 hours a day.

“But since they are part of myKP, they can report suspicious activities in their area,” he said, adding that the fishermen would be the department’s eyes and ears.

Zainudin said cockles were considered “black gold” locally and could only breed in certain states aside from Johor, namely Perak, Selangor and Melaka.

“We want to expand the industry as currently, we do not have enough for local consumption.

“So through this project, we hope to increase our production rate and perhaps export cockles to neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Thailand,” he said.

Huge potential in growing industry

Zainudin highlighted that last year, the department recorded over 628 metric tonnes of cockles, nearly five times the amount harvested in 2020 (146 metric tonnes), while the figure for 2019 was 179 metric tonnes.

“So, clearly, there is huge potential to grow this industry, and we hope this project will be the starting point,” he said.

“The market for cockles is expanding.About 30 years ago, 70kg could fetch only RM35 but people would still think twice about buying it.

“But today, the price could be 10 times higher as demand for the mollusc continues to soar,” he noted.

Reminiscing on his early years harvesting cockles, fisherman Dawik Mohammad Ali, 58, said there were so many cockles in Ayer Baloi, Pontian, but not many people consumed them back then.

“I would have to beg people to buy them from me because cockles were not a ‘mainstream’ menu item back then,” he said.

In time, demand for cockles grew and before he knew it, there were about 14 fishermen “competing” against him in the market.

“There used to be just a handful of us, and the ‘tauke’ (market owner) from Batu Pahat would only buy a 70kg bag a day.

“But then the market grew, and I no longer had the strength to provide 70kg a day on my own, so I asked my friends to harvest cockles instead,” said Dawik, who is the myKP chief in Ayer Baloi.

He claimed that he could easily obtain 70kg of cockles in the morning, sell them in the afternoon and return in the evening, adding that this was his routine now.

Dawik said one kilogramme of cockles could fetch up to RM10 today, depending on the size.

Sustainable practices

According to Dawik, the harvesting period for cockles is usually from September to December, while the mating season is from January to June.

“We usually do not harvest until August as the size of the cockles will be too small otherwise for consumption.

“We can only harvest once we get clearance from the Fisheries Research Institute and Johor Fisheries Department,” he said, adding that a harvesting permit would only be issued during this period.

Currently, there are 34 fishermen in Ayer Baloi in the cockles business and each of them is only allowed to harvest a maximum of 100kg a day.

“We want to ensure this natural resource is sustainable and not overharvested,” said Dawik.

He revealed that there were six other locations for harvesting cockles in Pontian, namely Tampok, Benut, Sanglang, Pulai Sebatang, Api-Api and Pontian Besar.

On the cockle farming project by the Johor Fisheries Department, he expressed hope that the department would address the issue of theft.

Win-win proposition for all

Pulai Sebatang MyKP chief Ismail Mohd Hassan, 50, said more engagement was needed between the state government, Johor Fisheries Department and fishermen in Pontian on the cockles project.

“We want to help ensure this pilot project is successful as it will be a win-win situation for all.

“This project is something new, not only for the fishermen but also the department and government.

“Usually with something new, there will be hiccups along the way, and some issues may require government intervention,” he said.

Ismail Mohd added that expanding the cockle industry in Pontian and turning it into an agro-tourism product would be good for the district.

Meanwhile, fisherman Hairul Salleh Md Tahir, 50, is in charge of operating the cockle cleaning tank system dubbed “Molluscure”.

“The system was developed by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and has been used by the fishing community here since 2016 to clean harvested cockles.

“The cleaning tank helps remove toxic metals from the cockles,” he said, explaining that the process could take up to three hours for two tonnes of cockles.

He added that rainwater, a vinegar reagent and sea salt were used during the cleaning process.

Aside from cockles, the state Fisheries Department is also planning a lobster farming project.

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