Multi-pronged approach needed to solve fisherfolk’s woes

Pemuda PSM is saddened to learn of the pitiful state of local fisherfolk in Malaysia. According to Zulkifli Subran, a 46-year-old fisherman, external factors like unpredictable weather, and temporary inconveniences like the movement control order make it hard for him to catch in-demand fish and sell them at a reasonable profit.

The fishing industry is fast becoming beset with both deep problems that threat the food supply chain and marine ecosystems globally. Dwindling fish stocks and mass wastage alongside rampant price gouging by middle-men are stripping our fishermen from their hard-earned profits.

To respond to this effectively, Pemuda PSM believe a multi-pronged approach is needed. Firstly, we must recognise that climate change has a large part to play with the destruction of marine ecosystems. Rising global temperatures have impacted ocean currents, fish migration patterns and even cause algal blooms that collectively reduce the number of fish in a certain area, even increasing the risk of extinction for many species of marine animals.

Hence, before we do anything, we must accept that we are facing an existential crisis with global warming that warrants serious and immediate action. Pemuda PSM, with respect to this, would urge the government to announce a Climate Emergency and launch a committed strategy to address some main areas that accelerate climate change, such as reducing Malaysia’s dependence on fossil fuels, expanding and protecting our primary forest areas and revamping our agriculture industry to increase food security.

However, as much as we want to address climate change locally, global warming cannot be addressed by one country alone. As things stand, any significant difference brought by a concerted effort to address climate change cannot come soon enough to alleviate the immediate issues we face locally. Hence, mitigating actions must be taken to address three main facets; namely, reducing the removal of fish from their natural habitat, restoring natural habitats damaged by human activities and reducing the dependency on wild-caught fish.

The simplest and most straight-forward step is simply to reduce the number of fish caught. This seems, at first, like worsening the problem our farmers are facing, however we must recognise that maintaining or increasing the current rate of fishing will only further reduce fish stocks in the sea especially if fisherfolk are forced to use tighter meshed nets with smaller holes. This will capture small fry, fish that have yet to grow to adulthood, and prevent them from eventually laying eggs, thus disrupting future generations of fish. The government must review net sizes used by fisherfolk to ensure the mesh is loose enough to let small fry escape and only capture larger fish that are older.

In addition to this, we have to understand that not all the fish caught by fisherfolk can be sold to fishmongers. This is due to a lack of local demand. Pemuda PSM believe that the adherence to fish that we know and love is detrimental as overfishing of these species become only natural. Instead, if the demand for fish is diversified to be supplied by many different types of fish, the pressure on certain fish populations would be partially lifted, leading to their replenishment. Since this requires a change in demand from consumers, the government must run a thorough re-education campaign to promote less popular fish species to the public through increases subsidies for these, audio-visual material and direct engagement with consumers. The increased demand can lessen the wastage of fishermen and increase their income through selling already caught fish that would otherwise have been discarded.

We must also recognise that climate change has impacted coral reefs greatly, both due to temperature and pH shifts in seawater. These reefs are focal points for many species of marine life to come together in search of shelter and food. With the death of coral reefs around the world and even in the waters surrounding Malaysia, it is no wonder that endemic fish species are also dwindling. The government must invest in artificial coral reefs as a restoration activity of damaged reefs around Malaysia. This step would attract reef fish and slow the migration of these fish away from their usual habitat due to changes in their surroundings. Material for these artificial reefs need to be carefully sources so that unintended consequences such as toxic leachate may be avoided.

The third approach is probably the most difficult yet most sustainable one to address problems related to the impoverishment of fisherfolk. The government must look towards reducing wild-catching of fish to be replaced with fish farming. As much as we want to enrich fisherfolk, the romance of them living as they have for years is something we need to avoid. Wild fish need to be protected as much as they can be to ensure the balance of the ecosystem in these habitats is maintained.

Pemuda PSM would like to suggest the government to absorb as many fisherfolk as possible into a public-owned initiative to create as many fish farms as possible throughout Malaysia to maintain fish supplies whilst reducing wild-caught fish. Of course, care must be taken to ensure the siting of these farms, feedstock used and fish density are all carefully controlled to avoid issues such as environmental degradation, rampant marine illnesses and increased water pollution. With a significant number of fisherfolk turned into fish farmers, they themselves can benefit by rearing a steady amount of fish to be sold to the market. The remaining wild-catching fisherfolk also benefit with fish stocks partially recovering due to a lower number of total fisherfolk in wild areas.

The above are practical approaches that the government can consider implementing immediately that can achieve a good level of success. However, this is in due consideration of the government not being socialist or even left-leaning. As with agriculture, the fruits of labour done by the marhaen (fisherfolk and farmers alike) are stolen away from them through politically well-connected middle-men. A true solution to the problem of fisherfolk and farmer impoverishment would see the eradication of these middle-men and the maximum profits produced from labour returned to the fisherfolk or farmer in question, with the ones expending the labour deciding where the money goes, democratically.

We in Pemuda PSM do not believe in any illusion that paints the current or any previous administration as ready to engage in something so radical. In the end, it will be only the likes of us and the marhaen constantly knocking on the doors of power that will never open. In the future, when the democratic socialist revolution come into fruition, one of our main goals would be the elimination of the theft of surplus capital by those who do not expend any labour. Until then, the above shall suffice to eliminate the immediate suffering of our fisherfolk.

Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Head of Bureau of Science and Technology
Pemuda PSM

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