Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tanjung Kupang Fishermen Leaving It To Fate

Disturbance of the marine ecology at the Straits of Johor has hurt the daily catch for Johor’s coastal fishermen since the first pile went into the straits to build the 2nd Link.

Subsequent developments such as the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, power plant and petrochemical hub have affected the fish, prawn and crab stocks.

Now two future developments are slated for the already stressed Straits, one a massive 4,800 acre development of luxury dwellings called Forest City and another proposed 3,484 acre reclamation project proposed by Benelac.

Both will form artificial islands in the straits. Could these two be the final nail in the coffin for the largely Malay fishing community on the south-west corner of the Johor Straits?

We speak to an environmental activist and two fishermen from the fishing village of Tanjung Kupang, just 40 kilometres from Johor Bahru and take a boat ride to a vital ecological area, the Merambong Shoal. Part of this shoal has been reclaimed over – a sand bank now juts out from the land and the shoal is facing total destruction.  

The Merambong Shoal

“The Merambong shoal is so rich and diverse and a vital component of marine life all along the
Bakhtiar Jaaffar, Environmental Activist
Straits of Johor,” says environmental activist, and former teacher Bakhtiar Jaaffar. It is home to the largest sea grass bed in peninsular Malaysia and stretches from the Pulai River estuary to Merambong Island on the Straits of Johor.

Why is this shoal so vital?

“Where the mangrove and river systems are the hatcheries for fish, prawns and crustaceans, the shoal and sea grass bed is their nursery. This is where fish and crustaceans mature,” he explains.

Once there was an abundance of seahorses in the shoal estimated to be about 30 hectares in size. Bakhtiar’s Alumni Club together with the Save Our Seahorses initiative created an inventory listing 14 categories, comprising 49 types of marine life in the Merambong Shoal including 20 types of local fishes and 15 types of crustaceans.

“One type of fish, the pipefish is extremely rare. The other location where this fish exists is in the Gulf of Aden,” he says.

“Take this shoal away, and you take away a vital component of the marine ecosystem and thus a food source,” he adds. This is the food source that the coastal fishermen of Southern Johor have relied on for revenue since human civilization began in this region.

Once there were turtles that hunt these waters for crabs and other crustaceans, and dugongs were reported to have frolicked in these waters of the shoal. It was an important habitat for seahorses. 

The threat to the shoal began in 1994.

“Since reclamation and construction work started in 1994 for the Malaysia – Singapore Second Link, our catch from these coastal waters have dropped drastically,” says Norhaidi bin Mahmood, 54 who has been a fishermen since he was 15 years of age.

No sooner was the second link completed in 1998, that work commenced on the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, which began operations in 1999, followed by a petrochemical hub and a power plant in Tanjung Bin.

“Before this, we could bring home 50 to 60 kilos of crabs with a 600-metre net. But now we need to lay 1,000 metres of net to catch maybe 20 kilos of crabs and sometimes we net only five or six kilos; doesn’t even pay for the cost of fuel,” adds Norhaidi’s cousin Abdul Ghani bin Abdul Rashid, a 40 year old fisherman.

“We would be lucky if we earn RM1,000 a month now,” adds Norhaidi. According to Norhaidi, there are over 200 fishermen in his village of Kampung Tanjung Kupang, but if you include other fishing communities in the south west of Johor from Tanjung Piai to Johor Bahru, there are easily more than 1,000 fishermen trying to eke out a living in this once bountiful Straits of Johor. Almost all are Malays and a smaller number of Orang Asli Seletar fishermen.

As at time of publication, the Forest City Development has been kept on hold pending a Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment report requested by the Federal government’s Department of the Environment. “But the damage has been done to the shoal. One area has already been reclaimed and rises from the waters like an embankment, effectively splitting the shoal.

“The embankment was then ‘cut’ to create a channel after complaints that tide flow was affected. “The developers claim that creating the embankment from shore was done in error,” says Bakhtiar.

Now the waters are murky from sand used to build the embankment and the sea grass bed is in danger of dying. “This shoal is our treasure, says Bakhtiar. “How could they have allowed this to happen?” he asks. Often rubbish gets stuck in the nets and sand from the reclamation damages fishing nets, increasing the cost of fishing while fish stocks decline. 

Mitigation Efforts

Bakhtiar says there are mitigation efforts. “But you can’t just transplant the sea grass bed. Where are you going to transplant it to?” He says they’ve put buoys to hold nets and these surround the embankment to hold the sand in place.

“This will surely create a dead zone. Nothing can survive. They don’t understand that marine life need the right environment and depend on each other to survive; it’s a symbiotic relationship,” explains Bakhtiar.

And what of the State’s department of the environment?

Bakhtiar questions how and why the state government’s environmental department could have approved such destruction to the area’s ecology. “They claim they monitor all projects that could have adverse effects on the environment and community but they probably do this monitoring with long range binoculars,” he says cynically. “No villager here has seen or met with any officers from the department of the environment,” Bakhtiar claims.

For fishermen Norhaidi and Abdul Ghani, the future is bleak.

Norhadi Mahmood, Fisherman
Norhaidi has four children, one at university. One in a technical college, while two others are in school aged 17 and five.

Abdul Ghani is widowed also has four young children, the eldest being just 11 and the youngest, six. They have no idea what they will do if there is nothing else left to fish and they could no longer earn a living.

“Nowadays it’s difficult to earn a thousand ringgit a month,” says Norhaidi.

He has been tightening his belt, but then there’s the prospect of a 6% Government Sales Tax from April 2015 and he expects his cost of living to balloon.

“If the government wants to help, one way is to give us land and turn us into farmers,” he adds. “There’s no future in fishing anymore.” “I can’t go and fish elsewhere, like in Kota Tinggi (Johor river area),” says Abdul Ghani.

“I don’t have local knowledge of other areas other than this and you just can’t go fish anywhere,” he adds.

There is a rumour of the government compensating them with fishing trawlers that could fish further out to sea. “How are they going to do that with over a thousand fishermen affected by all these developments?” asks Abdul Ghani

 “And you need to employ people to operate these boats, not like now where it’s just us,” Abdul
Abdul Ghani bin Abdul Rashid, Fisherman 
Ghani says.

“The fishermen are stunned. They don’t know what’s happening,” adds Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar thinks that proving fishermen with trawlers to go out father into the sea into the straits of Malacca would be a good idea.

“Train the children of the fishermen to operate the trawlers because many of them will end up as fishermen themselves anyway. Some will go on to colleges and universities but the majority will remain to inherit their father’s vocation,” he says. 

Survey? What survey?

“There are people claiming to have done a poll and the results indicate that the people here support the development of Forest City. Who did they survey? They certainly didn’t survey me,” says Bakhtiar. “Did they survey foreign workers living here? How many kampong people and fishermen did they survey?” asks Bakhtiar sarcastically.

“A dialogue held in September with the developers was a ruckus affair and clearly showed that the people here are unhappy with the development,” he adds.

In July this year the State government announced that developers conducting reclamation work would have to contribute 30 sen per square foot towards a fund for fishermen. (

How this will pan out is still a mystery for Bakhtiar and the two fishermen we interviewed.

“Who is going to manage this fund? How will it be used? These are issues that haven’t been revealed,” says Bakhtiar.

Being a former teacher Bakhtiar is concerned for the future generation. When he was teaching, he organized an environment club outside of the school’s curricula and followed that with an alumni club comprising of former students. They helped out NGO, Save Our Seahorses at many fact-finding projects concerning the environment and in particular around the Merambong Shoal.

“What’s going to happen to the youth of this village when there are no more fish, prawns and crabs to earn from?” he asks. “Nobody asks the youth here what they want, and they should be asked because it’s their future,” he says.

The Fishermen’s Association

We asked about their Fishermen’s Association. The fishermen shook their heads. “We don’t want to say anything. It would not sound very nice, says Norhaidi.

According to Bakhtiar, the information doesn’t get to the fishermen. “Whatever information the association received doesn’t get filtered down to the members.

They seem to think that because they are elected, they can decide on what to do without informing or briefing the others. “How can they do this especially on important issues, but that’s the level of their
thinking because that’s their level of education,” says a cynical Bakhtiar. The two fishermen seem to have resigned themselves to an uncertain future.

Quotes Norhaidi fatefully; “Ibarat batu tengelam. Ibarat sabut timbul” or ‘if you are lucky you will float and if you are unlucky, you will sink’.

“Many of us don’t even own the land we live on; we are either squatting on property of relatives or on government land. If we are forced to move, where will we go?

If they offer low cost housing, we won’t be able to buy because banks will never approve our loan applications; we don’t have a salary slip.

“You wait and see. Fishermen here will be living under bridges and underpasses soon,” says Norhaidi.

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