FISHING WILD SUMATRAN RIVERS INDONESIA
Rahcmat paddles his small wooden canoe up the narrow tributaries of the mighty Kampar River, tall dense walls of thick Sumatran jungle tower on either side of him, with sounds of chirping birds and the high pitched cry of a fish eagle. Slowly, he paddles his way towards the tall reeds to retrieve his fishing trap. The local fishermen drop their fish traps amongst the tall reeds, checking their catch each morning. During the day it becomes too hot and humid. The trap is a large box shape framed with net. “Fishing and farming provide food for our families and brings in enough money to sustain our livelihoods,” said Rahcmat.
The Kampar River forms the backbone of the island of Sumatra along its west coast. Meandering through the Riau province, spilling into the Malacca Strait on the east coast of Sumatra. Restoration Ecosystem Riau (RER), works at making the forest and river sustainable for its inhabitants, guarding against illegal logging, arson, teaching sustainable fishing, hunting, farming methods and providing jobs for the locals, enabling them to live in harmony with nature. RER works with locals who live on the river to help sustain wildlife as The Kampar Forests are essential to village life.
Locals join RER as Rangers to help protect the reserve, plant native species to replenish the natural rainforests of Sumatra, and not to overfish the delicate ecosystem. Sustaining the fish species also sustains their livelihoods. Surrounding villages need to work with RER through engagement, education, and employment which is all part of the process, creating a revitalised landscape where the people can live in harmony with nature.
Drying fish is a great way to preserve large quantities, especially in a developing country such as Indonesia. The fish can be preserved between six to twelve months.
The elders stay in the fishing huts on the river and do all the fishing. Later in the day, the younger people will come to the fishing huts to collect the catch and take it back to the village and markets to sell. Often you will see locals on the side of the road with a makeshift wooden kiosk selling dried fish.
“In the past the fish was so large that one man alone could not lift a Wallago fish. I was strong and young then. Now none of those big fish exist,” said Rahcmat. His smile fading on his sun wrinkled face.
These fishermen and their families live in wooden houses on stilts due to rising tides, along the river’s edge. There are thirty households along Serkap River who have relied on this souce of income for many years. “We catch Bagrid catfish, sheatfish, minnows, Wallago, which are much smaller now, and there are many snakeheads,” said Rahcmat. “Women join in the fishing as well”.
“In the rivers of Sumatra giant catfish and stingray are still found and sold for their meat. When I see a very large shadow in my net or under my boat, I know it is the giant stingray.”
Rahcmat continued his story. “Giant stingrays weighing over eight hundred pounds live in these rivers. They grow much bigger than the giant catfish,” spreading his arms as wide as he could. This is larger than a mountain gorilla. Fishermen don’t target the giant stingrays, but occasionally they get caught in our nets. Giant stingrays are great fighters if they are hooked and can drag boats around the river for hours.”
To smoke fish, the locals use non-resinous hardwood such as malaswood, komodan, rambutan or coconut husk or shell. This will produce quality smoked fish. Softer, rotting, or mouldy wood produce smoke containing a chemical compound, that causes undesired aroma and smells.
On the wide rivers Gill-nets and hooks are used. The wide rivers wind their way through the jungles of Sumatra where they end up as narrow tributaries surrounded by dense jungle. They are so narrow that the wooden canoes can just manage to manoeuvre up them.
There are many freshwater fish in the wild rivers of Sumatra. Waders are tiny fish found in freshwater rivers, ponds, and reservoirs. Waders are quite popular in Indonesia, especially Java, and usually consumed by coating in a little flour then frying. Fried wader is crunchy, savory, and eaten with sambal and rice. Tilapia, also called Nila, are eaten by locals, and small crayfish which are delicious.
The male catfish are smaller and narrower than the female catfish. Its head is up to one inch larger and wider, and they have longer and brighter coloured fins. Female catfish can grow up to one inch larger than males and are wider and rounder than males by one and a half inches in the belly area for carrying eggs. Catfish are slippery and have a moustache. This fish has a soft, savoury flesh and is served with spicy chilli. The most favourite dish is Pecel Lele.
“In northern Thailand, on the Mekong, a giant catfish weighing six hundred and forty-six pounds was caught many years ago”. But there are a lot of much bigger fish out there,” smiled Rahcmat.
There are many other smaller freshwater fish such as Gurame Fish which live in rivers, ponds, and occasionally come to the surface of the water to breathe air. Cork Fish are also found in rivers, swamps, lakes, and waterways, eating various insects, small fish, frogs, and tadpoles. Often Cork Fish are carried away by flooding into the trenches around the homes or entering fish-raising ponds, becoming pests because they will prey on the pets in the pond.
“Our local communities and environment would be devastated if there were a decline in our native fish. Nearly forty per cent of the Indonesian people live below the poverty line, so fishing is a way of life and provides an important food source for millions of people. It’s difficult to say which species are being caught where and in what quantities. In Indonesia and many other tropical developing countries, useful fish data doesn’t exist. This makes sustainable management almost impossible” said an RER ranger
In 2014 a small bright red fish was discovered in the Serkap river which is thought to be endemic. It swims to the water surface only in the evening, feeding on algae and zooplanktons. During the day it swims to deeper waters. As some fish species disappear new species appear.
Let’s hope, with the help of Restoration Ecosystem Riau, the wild rivers of Indonesia will become full once again with local native fish. Who knows, these giants may reappear.