Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
5. Conflict over natural resources in malaysia: the struggle of small-seale fishermen
5.2 The 1950s early developments in the Malayan fisheries industry
5.3 The experience with fishing co-operatives, 1957-1965
5.4 A decade of trawling development, 1960-1970
5.5 The poverty eradication programme of the 1970s: new deal for small-seale fishermen?
5.6 Policy derelopments in the 1980s
Lim Teck Ghee
ROUGHY 40 per cent of the world's total fish production comes from Asia and for many years, the great proportion of this catch came from the vast number of small-seale or artisanal fishermen who live by the coastal water. The contribution of these fishermen, estimated in 1982 in the ASEAN countries alone to number 2 million (or 10 million including their dependents), to their national economies and the protein food needs of their countrymen has been enormous. In 1982 for example, it was estimated that the fisheries contribution to the economies of Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand was US$3.2 billion. Nevertheless, the economic positions of small-seale fishermen have never been stable. The low productivity of traditional fishing gear, the control of the market by middlemen, the seasonal nature of their income, their chronic indebtedness; all these problems have plagued small-seale fishermen for a long time and prevented them from reaping the full rewards of their labour.
In recent years, their precarious economic positions have worsened as a result of new threats and today there is a real danger that unless strong policies and measures are undertaken to counter the new and old threats, small-seale fishermen will be left out of the mainstream of economic and social development, and reduced to being the poorest of the poor in their countries. The new threats to small-seale fishermen, most visible in the ASEAN countries, are due in large part to the adoption of the policy of export-led growth through increasing foreign and local capitalist investment by the governments of the region in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the larger national economy, the export-led growth strategy of ASEAN governments has resulted in misguided infrastructural developmcut, the clearing of swamps, and the establishment of industrial areas close to traditional fishing grounds, thereby destroying fish spawning areas and denying fishing communnities easy access to the rivers and seas. The depletion of fish stock available to small-seale fishermen has been further aggravated by the consequences of other types of economic expansion. As an example, the Sungai Skudai in Johore, Malaysia, is so heavily polluted by the untreated discharge from 30 factories that hardly any aquatic life forms can live or propagate for a distance of more than 6 miles upstream. Water pollution all over the ASEAN countries is also being caused by the excessive use of fertilizers, insecticides, and wcedicides.
Within the fishing industry itself, the rapid development of heavily capitalized, export-oriented large-seale fishing operations has had adverse consequences on the well-being of small-seale producers. Invariably, the large trawler fleets of this 'modern' fishing sector have competed directly for the fish resources of the coastal waters worked by small-seale fishermen, to the detriment of the latter. As a result, a clear pattern has emerged of diminishing catches by small-seale fishermen. In the Philippines, it is estimated today that 98 per cent of the fishermen produce 50 per cent of the total catch whilst 2 per cent of fishermen engaged in large-seale industrial-type fisheries net the other 50 per cent. In Thailand, large capitalist enterprise fisheries now produce 65 per cent of the total catch while small-seale fishermen net only 35 per cent.
Although the fact of marginalization of small-seale fishermen throughout the Asia-Pacific region has become quite indisputable, it is still important to know how exactly this process has taken place so that the lessons learnt can be applied to help traditional communities dependent on other types of natural resources avoid the same fate. What are the forces at work that have undermined the interests of traditional producers? What has been the role of government in the transformation of the fisheries industry from one based on smallseale producers to large-seale ones? How has fisheries as a natural resource been affected by the transformation taking place within the industry? This case study will answer these questions through the use of a historical approach so as to show how conflict over a crucial natural resource has been generated over a long period of time and the impact of the conflict on the interests of various parties. By focusing on a single country-Malaysiaand examining the role of government through a study of administrative policies towards the fisheries sector, it is also hoped that a clearer understanding would emerge of the reasons why national governments behave as they do towards natural resources and the communities that exploit them.
5.2 The 1950s: Early developments in the Malayan fisheries industry
Our review of fisheries in Malaysia begins with the immediate postwar period when the colonial government began reconstruction of the country's battered economy, and concern for the proper development of the fishing industry was expressed by the authorities due to the urgent problem of adequate food supplies for a population much ravaged by the war. At that time, too, the colonial authorities had recognized that important changes were beginning to take place in the traditional fishing industry, mainly as a result of the impact of modern technology. The High Commissioner, in a foreword to a publication by one of his officers, had sounded the warning that when 'fishing areas receive the full impact of modern technology the resources must not be permitted to diminish' (Kesteven, 1949: I). He also commented that the question of marine resources was 'a problem on which scientific investigation and wise administration' must be turned to since 'unlike the land, the sea has no barrier'. These words were to prove prophetic as the issue of technological change in the industry and its impact on fishermen who could not participate in the change was to become a recurrent problem over the next four decades until the present, when it is still largely unresolved.
Despite the acute perceptivity with which some officials in the colonial administration viewed the problems of development in the fishing industry, the colonial government appears to have done little for the fishing industry in the short interregnum between the war's end and the passing of authority over to an independent government. Rehabilitation of the industry following the gear losses and depreciation brought about by the war was largely due to the initiative of individuals within the fishing community. Similarly, the use of artificial fibre nets and the mechanization of boats came about less through the efforts of the Fisheries Department than the private sector's own interests in improving the industry's efficency and profitability. Preoccupied with a prolonged guerrilla war waged by the Malayan Communist Party and more important political developments, it was not until the eve of independence that the authorities began to initiate a closer scrutiny of the fishing industry. In September 1955, largely at the urging of the local representatives in the Legislative Council, the colonial government established a committee to investigate the fishing industry in view of the fact that 'the occupation of fishing is one of the lowest rewarded in the country' and to suggest 'ways to improve the economic condition of the local fishing population' (Anonymous, 1956: I). Unlike other committees appointed by the colonial government, the committee was not dominated by government representatives who might have minimized the seriousness of the fishing community's problems in defence of colonial economic policies. Ten of its eleven members were Malayans and the strength of local representation appears to be largely responsible for the unambiguous character of its output and the candid recommendations made. The committee's report produced in 1956 warrants discussion as it was in many ways a landmark study that can be used to evaluate the shortcomings of government policy towards the small-seale fishing community during the following years.
The committee prefaced its report by noting that although it was able to provide recommendations in some detail for the improvement of the equipment and operations of fishermen, it did not feel sufficiently confident to provide more than a limited and superficial survey of the marketing and distribution side of fishing, which were extremely complex activities related to the capital structure of the industry. Nevertheless, its main recommendations were directly connected to the question of changing the prevailing ownership and control patterns in the industry. Principally, the committee found that the industry's main problem arose from the dependence of fishermen on financing, and through the loan of boats, gear, and nets, by capitalists who rarely went to sea themselves and exploited the former group by offering them low prices for their catches and charging high prices for the equipment or goods sold. To free fishermen from this exploitative capital structure, the committee proposed that provision be made for financial assistance in the form of boats and gear to selected groups of fishermen. Specifically, the government was advised to encourage fishermen to form themselves into co-operatives or associations which would receive loans in the form of credit for the purchase of equipment, repayable over a certain period with nominal interest and including a non-repayable subsidy of onethird the amount of the loan. To administer the co-operatives, the committee recommended the establishment of a Fisheries Board which was set up as a statutory body with an initial capital of M$3 million. Recognizing the difficulty of administering a loan scheme successfully from previous government experience with loan defaults, it emphasized that the Board should be provided with adequate advisory and supervisory staff. Other major recommendations of the committee were directed towards overcoming the 'utter dependence of fishermen upon the sea for a livelihood and upon the almost complete lack of alternative employment' and the inadequacy of amenities and social services for fishing communities. To overcome these problems, it put forward a wide range of recommendations requesting that the government give special consideration to providing land for fishermen, the introduction of cottage industry and agriculture, the construction or improvement of fishing harbours, jetties, and roads, the expansion of training for fishermen, and control over the price of ice.
Clearly, the committee had performed well its task of identifying 'the relevant problems connected with the fishing industry' and recommending 'ways to improve the economic condition of the local fishing population'. Besides meeting with representatives from all sectors of the industry, its members had also visited fishing villages to study at first-hand the opinions of fishermen and the fishing communities. The resultant report was a comprehensive yet thoughtful document which could have been the basis of a long-term programme to bring about the upliftment of the fishing community. However, this did not happen. Although it was a government-appointed committee and despite the presence of three senior members of the Alliance party who were later to reach the ministerial ranks, it failed to make an impact on the incoming government's policies. Except for an attempt at establishing fishing co-operatives and providing them with credit, little was done to implement the other recommendations and the urgency which had prompted the committee's investigation of the poverty-stricken fishing community was quickly lost. Why this happened is not clear. It could be that the recommendations were unworkable or that they became a casualty of the political differences between rival factions of the post-independent government. Whatever the reason, it was to weigh heavily on fisheries development during the next decade.
5.3 The experience with fishing co-operatives, 1957-1965
The general failure of the newly independent government to implement smoothly the committee's recommendations is clear when government policy towards the industry and small-seale fishermen during the next ten years is examined. The decade from 1956 to 1965 saw the implementation by the new government of two national Fiveyear Plans. These Plans could have provided for the advancement of the fishing community through the correction of the adverse consequences that neglect by the colonial government had produced (and which were identified so clearly by the 1955 fishing committee). But little progress was achieved. No doubt, the Plans included public expenditure allocations for fisheries development and had ambitious schemes to extend fishing co-operatives throughout the East and West Coasts, provide facilities such as jetties, fishing gear, and ice stores, and accelerate the mechanization of fishing boats to enable fishermen to operate in deeper waters. However, the sums set aside were wholly inadequate for the purpose. Amounting to M$2.4 million for the first development plan for Malaya and M$7.2 million for the second, these sums amounted to 0.24 and 0.33 per cent of the total public expenditure budgets respectively, and the public funds committed hardly lent credence to the professed aim of the country's development plans to accord the 'highest priority' to improving the livelihood of peasant fishermen (amongst other peasant groups) by raising output and diversifying and intensifying production. The inadequate allocation of funds was one problem but more important was the absence of a clear-cut policy of fisheries development aimed at the small fishermen community and the lack of an effective administrative structure to supervise ongomg projects.
Some indication of the government's failings in these two key areas can be obtained from an analysis of its policy in the area of cooperatives. The history of the govemment's attempts to establish fisherecn co-operatives which had been suggested by the committee as a means of enabling fishermen to purchase their own equipment and free themselves from the clutches of middlemen-financiers has been examined by various scholars (see, for example, Fredericks, 1973; Gibbons, 1976). Their findings indicate that the experiment with cooperatives was a failure. In the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia between 1957 and 1963, a total of M$1.4 million was loaned by the govcrmnent to a marketing and transport union formed by 43 fishing cooperatives which supervised its disbursement to fishermen to enable them to buy equipment. An estimated 16 per cent of the 21,000 fishermen in the East Coast were said to have participated in the scheme but only a negligible amount of the loans was repaid and the extent of operations of the unions was short-lived, with the scheme coming to a virtual standstill by l962. The loan-scheme did result in some diffusion of improved technology and provided an alternative source of credit but it generally failed to make much inroad into the entrenched capitalization patterns which were disadvantageous to fishermen and did not bring about significant improvement in the income levels of fishermen. This was the first major attempt made by the government to benefit fishermen through their own organizations and its failure demonstrated the ill-preparedness of the government.
In the West Coast, a redesigned co-operatives scheme was introduced between 1961 and 1966 but just as little success was achieved as with the earlier effort in the East Coast. ()f a total of M$841,000 loaned by government to seven fishing co-operative establishments, only 13 per cent was repaid. Three co-operatives had completely collapsed within a few years and few benefits of a lasting nature had been provided to the small number of fishermen who managed to participate in the schemes (Gibbons, 976: 97)
Why did these attempts at fisheries co-operatives fail when they had so much potential to benefit fishermen? In 1968 a paper by the Malaysian authorities reviewing fisheries development since independence attributed the failure of its attempts to organize fishermen into co-operatives to an 'apparent lack of leadership' among fishermen and their low level of education (Anonymous, 1968: 229). 'Good and able leaders are few and far between and in turn when they lack organization and co-operation amongst themselves they can easily fall prey to any unscrupulous middlemen or profiteers,' argued the paper. It was no doubt true that the fishing industry was not served by good leaders, but the critical lack of leadership was more within the bureaucracy than with fishermen. According to Fredericks (1973: 123-4), the Cooperatives Department, in explaining the failure of the East Coast scheme admitted in a departmental document that there was inadequate staff for administrative and supervisory work, share capital requirements were unrealistically high, there was divided administrative responsibilities and authority, and a lack of coordination between the Departments of Fisheries and Cooperatives.
The government also could not claim that the problem of infiltration of co-operatives by influential and opportunistic individuals or interests was unexpected. In many other parts of the world, the history of co-operatives is littered with failures chiefly due to poor management, incompetence, and dishonesty, and a pattern of individuals or groups not representative of the target community's interests gaining control of the co-operative management and monopolizing the activities. The 1955 committee investigating the fishing industry had anticipated these same problems in Malaya and cautioned that the government should ensure 'the provision of adequate advisory and supervisory staff whether under the Department of Cooperative Development or otherwise, since these Associations will for the most part lack that degree of satisfactory leadership without which they cannot hope to survive' (Anonymous, 1956: 5). Neither was the government unaware of the inherent difficulties in trying to organize often dispersed groups of individualistic fishermen to whom the advantages of co-operative production or marketing were not easily discernibly. In more congenial conditions in rural and urban Malaya, co-operatives had failed time and again, thus putting the onus on the government to approach the subject with caution.
The key to the co-operative experiment is the attitude and response of the participants and their perception of the benefits likely to be attained. Without genuine participation by its members, no cooperative venture could hope for success. This was known to the government. At the same time, a selective programme of co-operative establishment with sufficiently trained and motivated government personnel supervising activities, together with stringently administered financial procedures, could have prevented many of the subsequent problems of mismanagement, abuse, and dishonesty which plagued co-operatives and reduced their effectiveness in assuming a leading role in the development of small-seale fishermen.
The immediate result of the unhappy experience with cooperatives was to deter the authorities from supporting their expansion. The defaults on loans were viewed with much concern by the financial authorities and the regulations for credit procurement were stiffened with fishermen being called upon to provide as much as 70 per cent of the capital cost of new projects. Although this large proportion of initial capital investment was later relaxed, the lower requirement was still beyond the resources of most fishermen. One effect was to restrict the opportunities available to fishermen to adopt more productive gear through loans obtained from the public sector which could lessen their dependency on middlemen-financiers. Another effect was to discourage co-operatives from embarking on projects which could bring benefits to members. In the light of this, it is not surprising that even functioning co-operatives failed to provide much benefit to their members and there were few, if any, examples of successful small-seale fisherman collective activity that the authorities responsible for fisheries could point to, so as to justify an increased financial and institutional commitment from the government. It was a vicious circle of failure breeding neglect and inadequate support, which in turn created more failures.
The lack of success of fisheries co-operatives sounded the warning that there were important inadequacies in government policy and the implementational capacity of the administrative machinery entrusted with the task of protecting the interests of small-seale fishermen and developing the industry. However, it failed to lead to any serious review of the problems faced by smallseale fishermen and the fishing industry. Within the Department of Co-operatives, it appears that an investigation was conducted on the reasons for the failure of the East Coast cooperatives scheme but it was mainly an internal exercise, confined to the department and inaccessible to other interested parties. Thus, valuable experience which could have been the basis for improved policy and effective administration was quickly forgotten and lost. That the government's inability to objectively carry out a selfexamination of its weaknesses and initiate the necessary policy changes weighed heavily on fisheries development can be gauged from the fact that when co-operative development in fisheries was encouraged again in the 1970S, the same problems which had dogged the earlier efforts at co-operative establishment were treated by the authorities as if they were entirely new ones.
5.4 A decade of trawling development, 1960-1970
The next critical development in the fisheries industry was to expose more glaringly the shortcomings in government policy towards the sector of small-seale traditional fisheries. During the 1950s and 19605, despite the absence of a leadership role by the fisheries department, the fishing industry had seen much technological change. These changes centred on the increased use of powered craft, synthetic fibre nets, and more efficient gear and had important results on the structure of the industry. Some indication of the impact can be inferred from Table 5.I, which shows that although the number of craft in the peninsula declined by 15 per cent between 1957 and 1967, the quantity of fish landed increased to almost three times.
The story of how the increased production was achieved is more complicated than the statistics suggest. Prior to the 1950S, although the fishing industry was characterized by a diversity of gear and craft, the greater proportion of landings had come from the traditional small-seale sector of labour-intensive fisheries which mainly relied on unpowered craft with limited fishing range and simple gear. In the 1950S and early 19605, increasing numbers of fishermen in the traditional sector, many with credit obtained from financier-traders, began to invest in powered craft and synthetic nets which helped raise their productivity. In so far as this development represented an upgrading of the technological levels of small producers, it was certainly to be welcomed as it resulted in greater efficiency, higher productivity, and an increase in income trends. A properly organized government programme providing deserving fishermen with ready access to new but more expensive inputs could have ensured that the distributive effects of the new technology would be more widespread. However, as pointed out earlier, the failure of co-operatives which the authorities had intended to use as focal points for the distribution of government assistance prevented this from happening, so that most of the financing for the new technology came from the ubiquitous financier-traders, who extracted a high price for it.
The absence of government assistance would not have had such adverse effects on traditional fishermen had not trawler fishing been introduced at this crucial period. Introduced from Southern Thailand into Malayan waters in 1959/60 (there is some dispute as to whether it was first introduced into the East or West Coast), trawler fishing was a major technological advance over all previous fishing methods found in the country. Carried out by dragging large, machine-winched trawl nets along the seabed, the method required heavy capital investment in bigger boats, largercapacity engines, and expensive nets but it justified its high capital costs by proving highly efficient and productive in comparison with the passive traditional methods of fishing which mainly relied on stationary gear. Trawling quickly established itself as the most lucrative fishing method and attracted the attention of a large number of capitalists who were lured by the prospect of quick profits. According to one report, about 400 trawlers were operating mainly in Perak, Selangor, and Johore by 1965 but another source estimates that there were as many as 200 large trawlers and 700 small ones operating by 1963. The example above of conflicting information about how many trawlers were found in the peninsula and where they were operating points to the failure of the authorities to mount a close watch on the industry during the early period of its development and monitor its seale of operations and impact on fish resources, which could indicate more precisely the economic and social benefits and disadvantages of the new technology.
TABLE 5.1 - Number of Powered and Unpowered Boats and Catch by All Boats in Peninsular Malaysia, 1957-1967
|Year||Number of Powered Boats||Number of Unpowered Boats||Total Boats||Total Landings (tonnes)|
Source: Anonymous (1968), pp. 215-16
Despite the absence of information on the early development of the trawler industry in the country, there is much evidence to show that its impact on traditional fisherman interests was immediate and adverse. Although fisheries in Malaysia, as elsewhere, are a common property resource in the sense that there is open access to it, there has arisen over time some notion of fishing boundaries and prior rights over fishing areas among the various traditional fishing communities. Few serious conflicts seem to have arisen in the past on the crucial matter of rights over fishing areas partly because of the small size and limited power of traditional boats which restricted their range of operation, so that communities were mainly confined to working the waters closest to them. The advent of powerful boats with longer fishing range and with crews drawn largely from outside the traditional fishing industry who had no knowledge of or respect for long-established rights of fishing villages quickly upset the previous stability. Although equipped with more powerful engines which could have enabled the boats to operate much further offshore, trawler fishermen preferred to work within the inshore waters where the more profitable demersal fish resources and prawns were located. This often meant intruding into the established grounds of fishing villages in pursuit of profitable shoals and damaging the nets and other gear of traditional fishermen when these came in their way. Less immediately provocative but also a cause of concern to traditional fishermen was the resource-damaging nature of trawler operations, in which small-mesh nets were dragged along the seabed, damaging breeding grounds and sweeping up young fish, prawns, and other marine life before they were commercially valuable.
It was inevitable that bad feelings between trawler fishermen and traditional small-seale and inshore fishing communities should grow and take a violent turn. By the early 1960S relations between the two fishing groups had worsened and bloody conflicts began taking place regularly. Between 1964 and 1976, a total of 113 incidents involving 437 trawlers and 187 inshore vessels were reported, mainly along the West Coast, with 'considerable loss of property and life (Goh, 1976: 19 These figures are official estimates and probably represent only a small part of the total number of clashes, with many clashes either going unreported or failing to make their way into the official records. Besides the threat to law and order, there were other good reasons why strong government intervention in regulating relationships between inshore small-seale and trawler fishermen was required. Almost all the trawlers were owned by non-fishing capitalists who recruited largely Chinese crews comprising mainly unemployed urban youths. Many inshore fishing villages, on the other hand, contained predominantly ethnic Malay populations, although there was a fair sprinkling of mixed communities. In the clashes between the trawler and inshore fishermen, there was a potential danger of ethnic conflict which could affect the wider society.
TABLE 5.2 - Estimated Landings per Trawler Unit, Peninsular Malaysia, 1966-1972
|Year||Estimated Trawlers in Operation||Landings by Trawlers (tonnes)||Landings per Trawler (tonnes)|
Source: Jahara Yahaya (undated), p. 7. Table I.
Another compelling reason for government action was the danger to fish resources that unregulated trawler operations posed. Although no accurate statistical data is obtainable, it is now generally agreed that the rapid build-up in trawler numbers and the expansion in their operations have been the main factors contributing to the present situation of overfishing, which faces some species in the inshore waters of the West Coast. By 'overfishing' is meant that catches were exceeding the maximum sustainable yield of species, thus bringing about the depletion of the resource. The problem of overfishing was not only an outcome of the increase hi the number of trawler boats and their operation in inshore waters but it was due also to the illegal use of small-mesh nets which resulted in a high proportion of the juvenile marine-life being caught in the nets. Some indication of the overfishing can be deduced from Table 5. 2, which shows the declining productivity of trawlers as measured in landings per unit, between 1966 and 1972. At the same time, the proportion of 'trash' fish (which includes juvenile fish and prawns) increased considerably. For example, Yap (1980 :29) estimated trash fish to comprise 60 per cent of the total increase of travvler landings between 1973 and 1974. In Perak, which had the largest increase in trawers, increases in trawler fish landings accounted for 99.5 per cent of the total increase in fish landings.
As a result of the depletion in fish resources, trawler fishermen have had to increase their catch effort to maintain a level of production that ensures profitability. More seriously affected were the inshore fishermen, who were caught in a vicious spiral of smaller catches which reduced their incomes and inadequate capital to increase their catch effort or purchase bigger boats and engines. By the mid-1970s, the outlook for small fishermen was gloomy, with 'uncmploymellt and underemlployment in the fishing village' teeing grim, daily realities' (Golf, 1976: 22).
The government's response to this crisis, which mainly affected fishing along the West Coast, has been studied by other scholars and what is provided here is a summary of some of the main findings (Gibbons, 1976; Yahaya, undated; and Yap, 1977 and 1980). The initial government response to the introduction of the new technology in gear and engines had been to welcome it. This can be seen from the thrust of policy objectives in the First Malaysia Plan which was towards greater productivity in fishing. By 1965, the country had transformed itself from a net importer of fish to a net exporter for the first time since it obtained independence, and the authorities were optimistic of greater returns from further development.
The Fisheries Division's programme of activities strongly reflected the production-oriented approach of the First Plan. Among the priorities were the training of fishermen to man larger, more powerful, arid more sophisticated vessels, the provision of financial assistance to the industry to modernize, and the expansion of researeh and fisheries extension services to support the development. Although it had no firm data as to the size of fisheries resources in the country, there was a strong belief amongst fisheries officials that the country's waters were under-fished and trawler fishing was assigned a major role in fisheries development since it was regarded as the most productive method and had the greatest potential for expansion. In 1968, a report produced by the Division of Fisheries on the position of the fishing industry declared that it was the policy of the government 'to encourage trawling' and 'steps had been taken to encourage this objective' (Anonymous, 1968: 221).
These steps consisted in part of the government's resistance to the strong pressure exerted by inshore fishermen on the authorities to ban trawler fishing. In 1964 a ban on trawler fishing was imposed by the government in response to the esealating violence between the two fishing groups but this ban was short-lived. In 1965 the government reversed its decision and agreed instead to give out trawler licences through co-operatives, subject to various regulating conditions such as minimum mesh size, fishing hours, specific landing centres' and a prohibition on fishing inside the 12nmi zone. In 1967, the regulations were relaxed to permit smaller trawler boats to participate and to expand the areas officially permitted for trawler fishing. On the surface, it appeared that government policy had taken a correct position by curbing the activity of individual trawler entrepreneurs and by paving the way for the poorer small-seale fishermen who were to be organized into co-operative societies to participate in the more lucrative fishing method. Also, restricting trawler fishing to beyond the inshore waters and during daytime would ensure that trawler boats did not intrude into the traditional grounds of the inshore group or operate undetected. In this way, both production and social objectives would be attained.
However, the limitations of these policy decisions were quickly exposed. There was an almost immediate increase in the number of trawling co-operatives and the granting of a large number of trawler licences with the liberalization of the previous restrictions. But, contrary to expectations, inshore fishermen continued to be largely excluded from the industry. Findings from Gibbons' study investigating the impact of public policy on fishing development in Penang and Kedah reveal that the trawler co-operatives were dominated by non-fishermen entrepreneurs who joined the cooperatives solely to obtain its substantial financial and preferential benefits, a development which should not have been surprising to the authorities since co-operatives were the only means through which licences for trawling were given. These entrepreneurs who provided the boats and working capital worked closely with the local-level elites and state- and federal-level politicians who facilitated their obtaining the trawler licences and membership in the co-operatives. Not only did genuine fisherman participation in trawler co-operatives fail to materialize, the great mass of inshore fishermen also failed to obtain substantial employment benefits from the development of the trawling industry, contrary to the hopes of the Fisheries Department. This was because most of the trawling positions were taken up by new entrants to the industry. Also, trawlers generally require less labour per unit of catch compared to traditional gear and did not create as many employment opportunities as their numbers would lead one to expect.
Number of Licensed Trawlers, Penang and Perak, 1966-1972
Source: Goh (1973), p. 19.
Clearly, the decisions taken by the in 1965 and 1967 to permit trawler development were short-sighted, especially given the inadequate resources it could muster to ensure that the regulations on trawling were properly observed and its inability to ensure that large numbers of small-seale fishermen could share substantially in the benefits arising from the relaxation in anti-trawling policy. What is surprising is why the situation was permitted to continue unremedied for so many years and why the government tolerated the political interference which permitted a small group to reap substantial benefits to the detriment of the larger inshore fisherman interests. One would have expected that the loss of political credibility, if not damage to national interests, would have produced pressure for decisive remedial action from the more responsible ranks of the government, but this did not happen. As one puzzled high-ranking government member (who was not yet in power when the policies were formulated) puts it: 'By the 1960's, it was already known that the inshore waters of the West Coast were being over-fished and the marine resources were being fast depleted. Yet the situation was allowed to drag on and grow worse for another decade until the mid 1970's ...' (Goh, 1976: 23). It was not until 1975 that the government arrived at the decisions not to issue new trawler licences for boats of below 25 gross tons except in the East Coast, to ban night fishing by small trawlers, and to renew only liccnccs which had no previous record of violation of regulations. These decisions restricting entry into the industry left it too late to alter the pattern of ownership and control in the trawler industry or to arrest the declining productivity of the West Coast waters, especially since the new rules were not accompanied by any great increase in the government's enforcement capacity. Moreover, a new generation of illegal mini-trawlers have managed to evade the efforts of the Marine Police and Fisheries Department at implementing the new regulations. Various estimates put the annual landings of demersal finfish for the West Coast at 125 000-178 000 tonnes for 1973-80 with a substantial proportion coming from the trawler landings. The estimated maximum sustainable yield, however, is estimated at about 110 000 tonnes per annum, leaving a tonnage of overfishing of between 15 000 and 68 000 tonnes annually. In fact, demersal fish landings had peaked by 1977-8 and begun to decline thereafter. Other evidence of overfishing include the increasing incidence of trash fish in the demersal landing and the decline in the value of catch per unit effort. In the coming years, the full impact of the substantial overfishing of the 1970s was to be felt more severely.
Contents - Previous - Next