“WE understand that the government is new, but we hope that they can just hear us out.”
This is the plea from Tan, a fisherman from Parit Jawa, Muar.
Seated on a wooden bench overlooking the port, the 50-year-old is forlorn.
He’s only managed to come home with fish five days in the past month.
Team Ceritalah met Tan exactly one year ago – before the historic May 9, 2018 elections.
So how have things changed for Muar’s fishermen since then?
According to Tan, the only significant cost hike for them has been the prices of raw nets, increasing from RM90 to RM200.
Tan’s main concern however, are fish stocks. When Team Ceritalah came last year, the operations of dragnet fishing boats were a major problem for Muar’s fishermen.
Since then, the number of daily sightings of dragnet fishing boats has allegedly increased from two at most to seven to eight currently. This is despite the government promising to stop the licensing of dragnet vessels.
“They are never allowed to conduct any dragnet fishing in this area. I am sure about it. This is a prohibited area. We have confronted them before, but they knocked our boats instead,” says Tan.
Dragnet fishing destroys the seabed, where fish lay their eggs. Everything is swallowed up in its path – including everyone else’s fishing cages.
The “grade B” vessels the dragnet fishers use are huge, larger than “grade A” boats owned by fishermen like Tan and even the “grade Cs”, which are able to catch up to a ton of fish every day.
Numerous police reports and complaints to government bodies have been made, but to little effect.
Tan has even tried to meet Muar MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, but the Youth and Sports Minister has apparently not been seen in Parit Jawa since the election.
To the fishermen, the government needs to focus on delivering what they promised before coming to power.
“Leaving the dragnet fishing boat issue hanging, while seeking an alternative method to preserve the fish: What is the point of that? What can that do for our environment when the seabed is already destroyed?” says Tan.
Moreover, their incomes remain unstable.
Local fishermen have complained that middlemen pay them low prices for the reduced catch but sell them to market vendors for a large profit.
This is why the market seems distorted. Fish prices are rising, but little of the money goes back to the pockets of the fishermen.
What’s more, the government allowances they receive have allegedly dropped from RM300 to RM200.
It was further claimed that no warning of this reduction was given, meaning that the fishermen could not adjust their expenditure beforehand.
Hence, controlling the prices of goods is pointless as the strain will be just as palpable.
These conditions, coupled with the fact that they must maintain their port facilities out-of-pocket, have created a sense of frustration.
“We understand that the country is in debt, but none of their promises have been fulfilled.”
Moving forward, Tan is pessimistic about the future of his profession.
“I don't want any of my children to work in this industry. The volume of fish is reducing: you can't even earn enough to survive. Why would I want my children to take over my business?
“That's why there are no young people that want to be fishermen. We are the last generation.”
Addendum: Within hours of this piece being published, Muar MP and Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman was on the ground to address the issue. He has promised to set up a dialogue session to engage with fishermen and related bodies in the district, as well as take up the matter with relevant ministries on a national level.
The writer also has a weekly column in The Star; ‘Ceritalah’ appears every Sunday.