The last fish listeners

Fish listening is a dying traditional fishing method where fish listeners locate their catch by “listening” for fish.

Before watching the documentary ‘Fish Listeners of Setiu Lagoons’, I hadn’t even heard of this traditional art form. The documentary tells a story of Pak Harun and his son, Polo, who are the last fish listeners in Setiu Lagoons in Terengganu.

Fish listeners literally hunt by sound.

Learning about this unusual way of fishing was definitely an eye-opener for me, their ability to detect how far, which direction, what type, and approximately how many fish there are in the dark waters below amazes me.

It is pretty magical how man and the sea can be so in tune. It is also considered a great human feat for fish listeners to have a sense of direction underwater.

Pak Harun says that fish listening was his “calling” and sought after the knowledge from his father.

He says that the art calls for the total engagement of the mind, body and senses.

“Nobody can teach us this art. We learn from the fish themselves. The fish teach us,” says Pak Harun.

Pak Harun and his apprentice and son, Polo, dive 13 to 15 times during each trip out to sea. But he says that the accuracy of fish listening depends on the current and wind.

In ideal conditions fish listeners can hear fish from up to 3km away. However, it takes years of practice to master this skill.

Pak Harun’s crew is made up of four speedboats and 12 crew members, and when they locate where the fish are coming from they will scare them into their waiting nets by banging on submerged wooden rods.

“Unfortunately, fish listeners today are a dying breed as a result of depleting fish stocks and changes in the fishing industry,” said Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma, CEO of WWF-Malaysia.

Modern fishing methods are designed to maximize the number of fish caught, disregarding the impact it has on the marine environment and the local communities who depend (almost entirely) on fishing.

“The scenes of silence when Pak Harun was underwater (as depicted in the documentary) are a chilling depiction of the dire state of fisheries in the country,” said Dionysius.

Dionysius reveals a harrowing fact: “At 55kg per capita, Malaysians are one of the highest consumers of seafood in Asia.”

He said that Malaysia lost almost 92% of its fishery resources between 1971 and 2007 due to over-fishing to meet our growing demand.

“If we do not reverse this trend now, our oceans will soon become nothing more than a vast and barren body of water,” he adds.

Pak Harun and those in Setiu Lagoon also reveal that the number of fish in the area have decreased over the years.

As a viewer, it is sad to see the murky and filthy water at the mangroves because we are told that the pollution will affect the whole marine ecosystem along with the livelihoods of the villagers.

According to Dain Iskandar Said who is the writer, director and narrator of the documentary, fish listening exists nowhere else in the world.

It’s hard to believe that I only found out about this extraordinary fishing method, which is exclusive to Malaysia, just recently.

Dain also adds that Aristotle was the first to describe fish sounds over two thousand years ago, and now it has become known that several types of fish make a distinct sound. 

He said that during a recky with Pak Harun and his crew, he got curious to how these fish sounded like and got into the water.

“Of course I heard nothing”, said Dain.

But when they were really sure that the fish were there they asked him to jump into the water again and sure enough he could hear the fish.

“I was really shocked. They said that it was like a ceramah with a speaker, and it was literally like that. I was really quite surprised,” revealed Dain.

I tried to think back to all my past experiences when I went diving and snorkeling and I can’t say that I have ever heard any fish. I can’t imagine how it would sound like, but I definitely would like to experience it!

The documentary ‘Fish Listeners of Setiu Lagoons’ was screened by WWF-Malaysia and produced by Apparat in association with FINAS. It is definitely a must-watch so keep your ears peeled for any future screenings.

You can check out the trailer of ‘Fish Listeners of Setiu Lagoons’ here:

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own

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