FISHERMEN’S livelihood has been at the centre of protests against the Penang South Reclamation – now also called the Penang South Islands (PSI) – since the project was mooted as the Penang Transport Master Plan’s (PTMP) financing model in 2015.
Detractors have lately stepped up their campaign against the project, repeating the mantra of fishermen not being able to continue to fish and Penangites losing fresh seafood especially large prawns once the reclamation begins.
But not all fishermen are singing the same song.
“Do they think the sea is very small and the reclamation will cover the whole sea all the way to Indonesia?” said fisherman Rashid Ahmad.
He said many who protested the PSI project were making it sound as if fishermen and fish would be doomed if the reclamation proceeded, but such claims were exaggerations.
Old claims being recycled
Rashid, 68, from Sungai Batu said such claims were not new and were used when the Second Penang Bridge was being built from late 2008 to early 2014.
“Back then, fishermen who protested the bridge construction made the same claims. Did their claims become reality?
“Do you know that the area near the second bridge is now popular among fishermen, especially south Penang island fishermen?
“The bridge structure under the water became a reef where marine life thrived. The fish came back,” he said.
Fishing grounds larger than PSI site
Fajinah Jaafar, 60, a fisherwoman from the Permatang Tepi Laut unit, concurred with Rashid on the popularity of fishing spots beyond the PSI reclamation footprint, like the Second Penang Bridge.
“Today, we catch a lot of prawns around the area near the second bridge. That area is well-known among fishermen.
“It is not true that fishermen will not be able to fish anymore just because of a construction project,” said the woman who has spent more than half her life catching fish.
Fajinah said the reclamation impact would not be permanent and marine life would eventually return.
Teluk Kumbar fisherman Ang Hock Hin, 70, also laughed at the notion that seafood would disappear because of the PSI reclamation.
“Nonsense. New breeding grounds will emerge. Fish will not die out completely when a small part of the sea is reclaimed.
“Even the Fisheries Department won’t say such a thing. Whoever says this has water in his brain,” he said.
Idris Ismail, 66, also said fishermen would still be able to fish during the reclamation because they normally fished further away from the coast beyond the PSI site.
The fishing area for coastal fishermen categorised as Zone A extends to eight nautical miles (NM) or 14.8km from the coastline. However, coastal fishermen are allowed to fish beyond 8NM.
Passage to sea remains open
Idris, who is also from Teluk Kumbar, is not worried that his passage to sea would be affected once reclamation begins.
It was reported that the Penang government (the PSI project owner) had recently submitted an application for environmental management plan (EMP) approval to the Department of Environment to start reclamation with Island B off the Teluk Kumbar coastline.
“The reclamation will not block off the whole southern coast. If they reclaim in front of Teluk Kumbar, we can take our boats east or west to get to the open sea.
“We can still go out to fish. They are not reclaiming all the way to Perak,” said Idris who has been fishing since his teens.
Penang needs progress
There are many silent supporters of the PSI project, even among the local south Penang island fishermen, who understand the development’s benefits for the state and the future generations.
But the likes of Rashid are far and few – those bold enough to go against the tide to openly defend PSI in the name of progress.
Penang, he said, was not an agricultural state but an economy that depends on the manufacturing and services sectors to prosper in order to create and safeguard jobs as well as maintain the wellbeing of its citizens.
“There are others who support the PSI project, but they won’t speak up. They don’t want to offend certain people,” he said, adding that opposition against the project was also political.
Sungai Batu, where Rashid is from, is an anti-PSI stronghold led by fishermen unit chief Zakaria Ismail, who filed the appeal against the EIA report and has become an anti-PSI spokesperson.
Fajinah said she saw no reason to oppose PSI because Penang must continue to develop and progress for the sake of the next generation.“I have been doing this for a living over 30 years. Fishing allows us to get by but it will not take us any further in life.
“I worked in a fruit orchard in Australia once. I saw so much progress in that country. Why should I reject development that benefits youths and the future generation?”
Benefits for fishing group
Penang Deputy Chief Minister I Datuk Ahmad Zakiyuddin Abdul Rahman, who is also chairman of the Fishermen Taskforce, said the state government would never leave the fishing community in the lurch, stressing that fishermen were central in the PSI development plan.
The PSI’s implementation includes a 250m-wide navigation channel that provides fishermen passage to the sea around the clock – regardless of the tide – during and after the reclamation phase; and the Social Impact Management Plan (SIMP).
The SIMP offers ex-gratia training and education schemes, including free tuition for fishermen’s children, job opportunities, housing initiatives and others to fishermen from the Permatang Tepi Laut, Sungai Batu, Teluk Kumbar, Gertak Sanggul, Seri Jerjak, Batu Maung, Teluk Tempoyak, Pulau Betong and Kuala Sungai Burung units.
Those closest to the PSI site from Permatang Tepi Laut, Sungai Batu, Teluk Kumbar, and Gertak Sanggul will also get one multipurpose jetty with tourism facilities, and three new fishermen jetties.
Tekong (skippers) from these four units will receive new boats and higher power engines to go further out to sea to fish.
“The development of the first island will take 20 years. During this time, fishermen’s access to the sea will not be blocked, and they can travel further to fish,” Ahmad Zakiyuddin said.
He added that mangroves would also be planted at PSI and other locations to promote biodiversity and create nursing grounds for various marine species, which would be beneficial to the fisheries sector.
Other initiatives include deploying artificial reefs and fish aggregating devices, and releasing fish and prawn fry to encourage marine life.