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Closing the Fishing Frontier in Southeast Asia

February 16, 2012

I highly recommend John G. Butcher’s The Closing of the Frontier: A History of the Marine Fisheries of Southeast AsiaThis book compares positively with Callum Roberts’ The Unnatural History of the Sea. Here Butcher does for Southeast Asia what Roberts did for the North Atlantic.

The main theme of the book, as indicated by the title, is how fishing operations expanded from small, coastal fisheries to a mix of small- and industrial-scale fisheries that operate in the entirety of Southeast Asian waters.  In effect, the book is an excellent regional case study to complement more abstract analyses of the geographic expansion of global fisheries (for example: Swartz et al).

Like Roberts, Butcher provides some useful anecdotes on the past abundance of SE Asian waters.

When the naturalist Tenison-Weeds traveled along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula in the 1880s he found that at the mouth of one river “the mud is almost alive” with crocodiles and added that “I have never seen such numbers, or such large crocodiles in any other place in the whole course of my travels”.

And it was Alfred Russel Wallace’s judgement that “there is perhaps no spot in the world richer in marine productions, corals, shells and fishes” than Ambon harbor: “the bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges, actiniae, and other marine productions…”

On a visit to the fabled fishing grounds near Sitangkai in the Sulu Archipelago Alvin Seal, a pioneer of fisheries science in the Philippines, witnessed “a most astonishing movement of mullet”: “A noise like a great waterfall was heard.  Hastening to the beach I saw a vast shoal of fish coming from the north, keeping quite near the shore; they were leaping along the water in great flashing waves.  The shoal was fully 100 yards wide and 500 yards long; there must have been over a million individuals in it.” [pp. 29-30]

These descriptions have given way to far gloomier ones today:

By the mid-1990s the “resource biomass” in the Gulf of Thailand and Manila Bay was about one-tenth of what it had been before the great fish race began. In 1938 “exceptionally large shoals of Terubok [shad]…appeared” off the coast of Perak, but by the 1980s shad were “very rarely found” along the Malay Peninsula.  In the Panjang Strait, once the site of the most lucrative shad fishery, one species (Tenualosa toli) that had once been common had virtually disappeared, while the population of the other (T. macrura) had fallen dramatically since about 1970.  Large, relatively long-lived, and commercially valuable fishes such as sharks, rays, various groupers, and humphead wrasse had become much less abundant in many areas.  Crocodiles had “now seriously declined in numbers and distribution”. Indeed, in the Malay Peninsula, where Tenison-Woods had once observed that “the mud is almost alive” with crocodiles, estuarine crocodiles had as early as 1949 been “persistently hunted and large specimens [had] become rare”.  [pp. 288-289]

Sadly, the above quote is just the start of a long description of decline that Butcher has compiled.

There are several other core themes in the book.  One that I found fascinating was on how overfishing occurred not only due to the introduction of modern fishing gear, but also through the overuse of traditional fishing methods.  Frequently it is assumed that traditional fishing is the best way to ensure sustainability, but ultimately – as the entirety of chapter 2 of this book shows – this thinking is over-simplified. (I’ve written on this before here)

There are also a number of interesting anecdotes on how conflict and security have shaped Southeast Asian fisheries.  An important development in the 19th century was the introduction of coast guards to stop roving bandits and slave raiders.  This allowed fishermen to go further out to sea.  More recently, violence has also occurred as Malaysia failed to protect traditional fishing livelihoods from predatory trawl fishermen.  For example:

Between 1964 and 1976, according to official records, sixty-two vessels were sunk and thirty-four fishers killed in clashes between trawlers and inshore fishers.  Virtually all of these clashes occurred in the waters of Perak and Penang, the location of the richest shrimping grounds on the eastern side of the Straits of Malacca. [p. 230]

All in all, the book is a solid read.

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