By Kymberley Chu
In the early morning, subsistence fishers weave their fishing nets and set off to sea. Paying close attention to the lunar calendar and observing the rising ocean tides, they case their nets in hopes of catching mackerel. But the crystal waters from which they draw their intuition are now choked with mud. Subsistence fishers in Malaysia struggle to survive as coastline altering land reclamation project displace their traditional docks and massive trawlers tear apart the seabeds.
“The Indian mackerel is the people’s food,” 65 year old fisher Tuan Haji Zakaria Ismail asserts.
Not all fish are suitable for aquaculture and the ones subsistence fishers catch are often deemed economically inviable to fish hatcheries. “[Indian mackerel] are small in size, yet so sensitive to oxygen content. If the oxygen is too low, the mackerel quickly dies,” Zakaria explains.
Despite the low commercial value of smaller fish species like Indian mackerel, studies in Cambodia and Bangladesh show that small fish are more accessible to working-class communities and wild fish provide more nutrients than farmed.
Now, these working-class fishers struggle to put food on the table. Malaysia is facing an exponential increase in fish prices. The Indian mackerel that fishers consider a staple for their food security has increased from 3-4 to 12-14 RM (Malaysian Ringgit) per kilogram, reflecting a global pattern of international fish trade diverting food from nutrient-insecure toward nutrient-secure countries.
Due to land reclamation projects, subsistence fishers feel pressured to travel further away from coastlines as they suffer drastic drops in daily catches. They face mounting difficulties such as the intimidating presence of commercial trawlers and purse seine vessels indiscriminately catching marine life, sometimes illegally close to shorelines.
Heavy-weighted trawl nets not only catch juvenile fish and other marine life as they are dragged across the seabed, but destroy everything in their path. To catch these smaller species, commercial fishing vessels use fine mesh, which traps everything bigger than their target, including endangered animals like dugongs. They then discard most of the net-entangled species overboard. The majority do not survive.
A 2009 paper on the coastal fishing village of Teluk Bahang in northwestern Penang Island, Malaysia showed how subsistence fishers struggled to maintain their way of life as trawlers encroached further into their traditional fishing waters. The fishers expressed deep concern about trawlers extensively destroying the seafloor and illegally fishing within 5 kilometers of the shoreline.
Similarly, a 2018 paper published in Fisheries Research calculated that bottom trawling and purse seining accounted for 53% of catches, yet trawling generated most of the bycatch, accounting for $560 billion of waste. Another study estimated about 60% of total annual discards came from trawlers.
In 2019, the Department of Fisheries reported Malaysia had lost 96 percent of its demersal fish population in less than 60 years due to overfishing. While trawling is not the only reason, it is believed to be a major cause.
Malaysian grassroots organizations such as Consumers’ Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam oppose trawling because of its environmentally destructive consequences. Aquaculture is also not a viable option for subsistence fishers because it requires substantial overhead costs and an incomparable set of skills.
Reflecting on his 46 years of coastal fishing experience, Zakaria laments the misconception that commercial aquaculture is a good solution amid the rapid land reclamation projects and trawling efforts across Malaysia, saying, “Fish farming methods are not feasible because they use huge cages to store fish, like prisons, and they cause even more pollution of our rivers.”
Zakaria worries about the ‘debt trap’ working-class fishers may face in starting their own aquaculture ventures. There are volatile financial risks associated with aquaculture such as the expensive building of fish cages and failure to pay off high-interest loans.
Under the commercial fishing industry, the commodification of fish goes largely unnoticed for urban dwellers. We tend not to question where our fish comes from or how the commodity form of a cooked fish came to be. Marine life becomes “stock” and their worth is measured by the economic “yield” trawlers produce for profit. Seafood corporations make false promises of sustainability, co-opting the values of the people they exploit.
While the fishing industry uses their likeness to promote its products, the truth is that subsistence fishing communities around the world are suffering most from the impacts of commercial fishing. Those of us with a choice, especially in the Global North, should radically alter our diets to reduce or eliminate the consumption of seafood in solidarity with the people and marine life exploited by the commercial fishing industry.