Webinar on “Suffering Covid-19 and Climate Change: Can Malaysia’s Fishermen, Fisheries and Seafood Survive?”

In this webinar, Dr Serina Rahman discussed the status of Malaysia’s nearshore fishermen, drawing on a more-than-a-decade-long ethnographic study of a fishing community in the western Tebrau Strait.


Wednesday, 8 September 2021 – Dr Serina Rahman, Visiting Fellow at the Malaysia Programme of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute spoke about Malaysian fishermen and fisheries, in particular traditional small-scale fishermen and the impacts of both climate change and Covid-19 on their livelihoods and communities. Dr Lee Poh Onn, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute moderated the webinar.

Dr Serinah Rahman
Dr Serinah Rahman identified the necessary factors that small-scale fishermen needed to survive. Dr Lee Poh Onn moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Serina Rahman began the session with an overview of general climate change impacts on Southeast Asian coastal communities, highlighting specific difficulties that would be incurred on fishermen in general. She then demonstrated how all coastal communities across Southeast Asia will be severely affected, especially since many are in the bottom economic percentiles of their nations. She subsequently moved into a general discussion of Malaysian fishermen and the fisheries sector, explaining the differences between artisanal fishermen and larger trawling boats. She also identified the necessary factors that small-scale fishermen needed to survive. Aside from merely healthy marine habitats, these include access to or ownership of boats or fishing equipment and petrol, use of jetties and safe navigation, and access to buyers or the distribution chain. Institutional or local support (or the lack of it) and debts to middlemen or loansharks can hamper their success.

In her discussion of climate change impacts, Dr Serina Rahman pointed out that a commonly overlooked effect on traditional fishermen is how increasingly common and severe weather events increases the dangers they face as well as reduces the number of days they can spend at sea – which then translates into less income. Changes in water temperatures, currents and hydrology affects fisheries species’ movements, behaviour and seasons. Also often unnoticed is how much (and how severely) the weather can change in a day, instead of how winds and weather would be more consistent throughout a day or a season. Sea level rises not only affect coastal homes, but also results in saltwater encroachment on land used for subsistence crops, which fishermen often use to offset declining fishing incomes.

Covid-19 has also had severe impacts on fishermen across Malaysia, regardless of scale of equipment or catch. The pandemic and its subsequent movement restrictions have severely disrupted supply chains, meaning that a lot of unbought seafood were thrown away rotten or simply given away. In already trying conditions, not being able to earn a cash income to buy necessities that cannot be harvested added to fishing community burdens. The closure of restaurants and borders (especially in Johor, where the economy relies heavily on Singaporean tourists), meant less buyers, even if they could travel beyond the distance limits. Now that the economy is re-opening, people can travel, but have less disposable income to spend.

Market closures as a result of Covid-19 infections (including that of the Jurong Fishery Port in Singapore) had many knock-on effects as seafood headed for export to Singapore ended up stranded in Johor. This resulted in an over-supply in markets across Pontian and Johor Bahru, driving down prices and demand. This especially affected rural small-scale fishermen as their markets are much harder to get to and further away from the main town and population centres.

Dr Serina Rahman ended her seminar with a reminder that the best seafood is artisanally-caught because of its sweet freshness and lack of chemicals. However, because these fishermen are as (if not more) endangered as the marine species that they catch, there needs to be more done to preserve their unique cultural heritage and invaluable generational ecological knowledge. One of the ways to improve their ken is to include this wisdom in climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, as well as to ensure that alternative income ideas are created with their expressed needs, wants and goals. Effort also needs to be taken to solve the many issues surrounding fishermen’s licenses, ensuring that they are held by genuine full-time fishermen who depend solely on fishing for a living.

The Q&A session included queries into the vaccination status of fishing communities (more are overcoming vaccine hesitancy and asking to be vaccines given the spread of Covid-19 to rural communities), creation of specialized policies for the fishing community, intergenerational transfers among family members in the community, reversals in economic decline of the fishing industry after demand recovers post-pandemic, elaboration of organizations that help represent fishing communities’ interests and their awareness and interest of the going-ons in federal politics (they were more concerned with the state of the economy, bread and butter issues and their ability to earn a stable income).

The seminar was attended by 48 participants.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)