Friday, April 26, 2019

Nine predictions of Singapore’s fishing future in the next century or so

Fishing has always been a hobby and a way of life for many Singaporeans. Proud fathers have brought their sons (or daughters) out to catch their first big fish and their children have brought their own children out as well. My own father brought me on my very first fishing trip to Bedok Jetty at East Coast Park and when I caught my first tambans, I could see my father being quietly proud. I never knew what it meant back then until recently when I brought my dad and younger brother on an offshore fishing trip. Such a sweet role reversal and a subtle positive feeling that.

Singaporeans as a community have been talking about the future of Singapore – jobs, infrastructure, quality of living and so on, but has anyone thought about the future of fishing in Singapore? Looking at how the Singapore Government treats fishing in general, I really doubt so. The future of fishing would probably be the last thing in their yearly desired achievements.

Below, I predict some of the key trends that will affect the Singapore fishing scene (in general) in the next century or so. Some are positive but some are negative. Hey, someone needs to do the predictions right?
1. Declining fish stocks
I predict that fish stocks in the island (freshwater) and around the Island (surrounding waters) will continue to decline if nothing is done. Serious discussions have been created by the local fishing community – legal policies like fishing licenses and fish restocking were some of the ideas mooted. These have not gained any ground though and looks like it won’t any time soon.

Focus on development at the sake of an authentic healthy environment* has seen land reclamation and habitat destruction kill off many of our fish stocks. The land reclamation in the past has claimed many coral reefs but recently, Singapore has also sealed (dammed) up most of her large natural and manmade estuaries. The areas at the Singapore River, Serangoon River (used to be a super spot for crabbing), Yishun Dam, Kranji and Lower Seletar Dam are now all freshwater. Thousands of fishes have died (I personally witnessed groupers and pelagics floating up dead at the Singapore River). Perhaps the greatest pity comes not from the fish stocks but that possible breeding grounds and migration routes for some inshore species have now disappeared. Our rivers are too small (in the authority’s eyes) to warrant any research but scientific evidence does suggest that many species such as the Barramundi, Threadfin require a working saltwater to freshwater system for spawning and survival. I won’t really write much about the land reclamation in the past because it would make the whole situation more pessimistic.

* My definition of authentic and healthy is different from the one our authorities usually endorse. One does not have an authentic venue just because things are made nice (for example, damming up Serangoon River and building boardwalks and bridges and all may seem like a really cool trade off but it’s not. It’s the destruction of a perfectly healthy environment.   

2. Singapore as a sportfishing utopia

This prediction really is the opposite of the prediction above. Assuming that our authorities do eventually contribute positively to the future of fishing and that the fishing community can come together to make legal fish restocking and licenses work, the above prediction will definitely just be a next step in the whole scheme of things.

Why? Our current freshwater reservoirs do hold some of the most ridiculously sized Peacock Bass and Temensis Bass in the world. You can do a search in some of the fishing groups online and you’ll see why. In fact, the reason why I even put this up is that I do have primary evidence to show increasing demand of foreigners wanting to fish in Singapore (some have contacted me, one has fished with me, some have contacted fishing groups). Casting for toman in our reservoirs via a motorised boat and hearing our Mandai Zoo lions at the background – the stuff of dreams.

Besides, Orto, Anglers Playground and Pasir Ris Farmway 3 do offer some of the best catch and release fishing in the region (a far stretch to compare it with Thailand’s Bungsamram Fishing Park though) and these can be good “filler” venues for sport fishermen around the world to spend their time at when they’re not doing wild fishing trips.

I won’t comment on saltwater fishing due to the inconsistencies in catch sometimes.

3. The last of the ‘bumboat fishing boatmen”

One hardly starts offshore fishing without trying one of the “bumboat fishing boatmen” of Changi. It’s one of the easiest ways to pick up the hobby and to also get a fairly consistent catch because of the sheer experience that these boatmen have (they don’t even need a fish finder!). Almost everyone in the offshore fishing community will know Ah Chong, Ah Long, Ah Chai and Ah Fong and co. They’re probably the last of their kind. These boatmen were originally from Pulau Ubin and they literally grew up as people of the sea. Their descendants will likely not take their place when they retire and it’s easy to see why. Bringing people out fishing is not only a tough job, it requires years of experience in reading the tides, knowing where the fishes are at and adapting to different expectations of anglers. I once spoke to one of the boatmen (won’t reveal out of confidentiality) and he mentioned that his children have no interest in following in his footsteps because they have successful careers outside. In fact, he also reasoned that these bumboats that they had were on special licenses and privileges (because of relocation benefits from Pulau Ubin) and that the government would likely never renew the licenses or grant new applications.

The thing is this… A century or so from now, anglers might never see these fishing bumboats out in Changi again. All we’d be seeing are those sports fishing charters on their fancy fibreglass boats using their state of the art fish finders.

4. Payponds will now encourage catch and release

If you follow Singapore’s demography, this wouldn’t come as a surprise. Anglers are now very well to do and many of us can afford to fish for pleasure instead of for food. As the different generations pass on, there will be less of the “baiting ah laus” and “PTK uncles” around. The high purchasing power also means anglers are now able to enjoy expensive fishing methods (luring, jigging, aji and so on) that are highly associated with catch and release.

I predict that the drop in demand for catch and keep fishing will drop drastically. Payponds will have to cater to this demand shift or to risk not being viable in the long run. Paypond operators know this and some of them have even moved into this business model either fully or partially.

5. Tackle shops will be increasingly modern and cater more to modern age sport fishing

This prediction and the above one on encouraging catch and release are really the same points. As anglers have higher purchasing power, we’re going to be investing and using expensive fishing methods to catch fish. More emphasis will be placed on modern sport fishing techniques like jigging, luring, popping and so on. Overseas fishing trips will also be increasingly popular and tackle shops will cater to this change in demand. There could also be a shift in owning a fishing kayak especially since there are so many models and types available now. There are already quite a few tackle shops that have continued to do well in this niche area and they will likely be sustainable in the long run.

6. The East Coast of Malaysia fishing industry to collapse

A victim of exceptional demand and poor fishing conservation policies, I predict that the sport fishing industry in the east coast of Malaysia will either collapse or face irreparable damage.

There are many facets to this problem and one cannot simply describe it accurately over a few sentences. I try my best to give my own opinion below.

Fishing stocks have been declining rapidly in the east coast of Malaysia over the years and this has forced fishing charters all along the east coast to push further into the seas in search of “pristine” fishing spots. Many fishing charters are now pushing into areas around restricted areas and marine parks (Pulau Tioman (Rompin) and Pulau Tinggi (Sibu)) because the nearby reefs are already barren from overfishing. In recent years, fishermen and fishing charters have also been fishing for squids on an intensified level. Of course, one would ask how we predict squid population levels. Well, I’m sure any fishing charter or individuals that have fished the east coast will tell you that squids catches are so much worse now compared to about five years ago.

Besides venturing out further and squid fishing, fishing charters have also been targeting migratory sportfish (Pelagics such as Spanish Mackeral, Ebek, Dorado, etc.) relentless. Much of these fishes are migratory so the consequences of this are yet to be seen but the difference in numbers caught these days are pretty alarming. The shift in this is due to the increasing popularity of targeting these pelagic but also because resident fish (groupers, snappers etc.) are so few in numbers now that it’s not acceptable for the purpose of fishing charters.

I won’t comment much on the Sailfish season and conservation efforts in Rompin because I think they have been doing the right thing, all things considered. I do wonder though how the decline of squid population levels will affect these fish.

7. More females will be into fishing 

As Singapore continues its march towards gender equality, more females will show up to the fishing scene the same way more females are in the workforce now. We can already see this happening in the local fishing community. And why not? Fishing can now be cute, cool and fun (instead of being boring and for old people) and the boys love it!

8. The “fishing sanctuary” fishing Condominium or “fisherman’s estate”'

This one is more wishful thinking than prediction. I hope that a super-rich property developer (who loves fishing) will develop the very first property geared towards fishermen. If it’s a Condominium, it should have a dedicated catch and release pond, a prawning pond, 24 hours tackle & bait shop, fishing reels & rods servicing shop and a restaurant that cooks your fishing catch.

9. A form of fishing being lost or dead 

In the worst case scenario, we cannot discount that fishing may really become extinct in Singapore. If these trades are under threat, then why not fishing? As Singaporeans become more engrossed in the rat race (less time for fishing) and fish stocks continue to dwindle, will we see a day when fishing is a lost skill? Maybe. In reality though, one of the most likely things that may happen for this prediction would be certain forms of fishing dying. Traditional fishing methods like net casting, putting out fish or crab traps are getting less popular these days so they may really be at risk of being lost. People hardly dig for clams these days so this possibility is quite real.

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