Days numbered for Bagan Jermal fishermen

bagan-jermalGEORGE TOWN: Meet Bamoung Toolseram, who started fishing off the waters of Bagan Jermal, a coastal area north of Gurney Drive in Penang, in the late 1950s. He was only 11 then, and he has not stopped since.

Raised in a family of 12, the Penang-born Burmese said being in school did not interest him, so he took to the seas to help his family earn a living.

Today, he is 69 years old, fit as a fiddle, but can only feel nostalgic about a place where he first began fishing – the Bagan Jermal fishermen’s jetty.

He says it is not the same anymore.

Fisherman Bamoung Toolseram, 69.
Fisherman Bamoung Toolseram, 69.

“Back in the day, my friends and I used to leave from this very point and catch small fish and prawns. We used to rake in five to 10 kilogrammes of catch daily.

“But that changed when they started reclaiming land in the 1990s,” Toolseram told reporters yesterday.

After the reclamation project, he said, sea creatures naturally deserted the place.

Reclamation works off Gurney Drive.
Reclamation works off Gurney Drive.

That forced Toolseram and 20 other fishermen to move to a spot towards the end of Gurney Drive to make a living.

Years later, however, the fish returned to Bagan Jermal, meaning that Toolseram and his friends could come back to fish in the area.

Toolseram pointing out at the mangrove trees that will go.
Toolseram pointing out to the mangrove trees that will go.

Mangrove trees

Today, the coastline is different from what it was some 15 years ago, he says.

Authorities planted mangrove trees in the area, following the December 2004 tsunami, and those trees, now fully-grown, protect the coast from tall waves.

While the jetty area fell into disuse, Toolseram said he and his friends cultivated a large fruit orchard at a piece of land next to the jetty, growing jambus, longans, bananas and coconuts.

The produce from the farm is then savoured by the families of the Bagan Jermal fishermen, most of whom are now aged between 50 and 70.

K K Cheng, a fellow fisherman shows a pink guava from the fruit farm outside the jetty.
K K Cheng, a fellow fisherman shows a pink guava from the fruit farm outside the jetty.

Toolseram fears that history could repeat, with another reclamation project about to change the landscape of the Bagan Jermal waters.

A wharf is being built there, through reclamation efforts along the coast of Gurney Drive to Bagan Jermal.

Toolseram says the reclamation means their beloved jetty will be torn down, too.

“This means the mangrove trees must go, too. That is sad. Schools of fish and prawns sought refuge at the roots of this mangrove trees during high tide.

“Looks like our jetty must go, too,” Toolseram said, adding that he and his friends had also built a shack overlooking the scenic mangrove trees at the jetty.

The mangrove trees will be gone once reclamation works begin. Rubbish from the high seas often end up here, brought in by tides.
The mangrove trees will be gone once reclamation works begin. Rubbish from the high seas often end up here, brought in by tides.

He said reclamation projects had caused many fishermen to head to deeper seas to make a living.

But doing so in small boats meant for the coasts was dicey as they were often hit by giant waves and flipped over.

“If only those reclaiming gave us bigger boats rather than a pittance as compensation, we could still make a living in the high seas.

“Not even one government official had approached us on the reclamation project.

“What is there to say about the government, now or then? When they are new, they are good. When they are around for too long, the become ‘c’huah’ (Hokkien for snake)”