KUKUP, Johor: More than 1,400 people live in Kampung Ayer Masin, a quaint fishing village at the south-western tip of Johor.
The village is built on stilts on top of a muddy mangrove, facing dozens of fish farm platforms, or keramba, where most of the locals hold their catch.
The fishes and prawns here are sold to Singapore, Johor Bahru and Melaka, and the village is also popular among tourists who come to experience the rustic charm of a fishing village.
However, one of the fishermen in the area, Mr Ang Wei Xun, told CNA that he predicts the village would no longer exist within a decade.
“It’s getting impossible to catch enough fish to feed our families,” said the 28-year-old.
“Recently we all lost a lot of money because of sudden mass fish deaths. There are also a lot of development, which means the area for us to fish is getting smaller. This can’t carry on,” added Mr Ang.
The plight of the local fishermen has recently garnered national attention, with campaigning for the Tanjung Piai parliamentary by-election going on in full swing before voting on Saturday (Nov 16).
The six-cornered battle is tightly contested between front-runners Pakatan Harapan (PH) candidate Mr Karmaine Sardini and Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Dr Wee Jeck Seng.
The other candidates are Ms Wendy Subramaniam from Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia and Dr Badhrulhisham Abdul Aziz of Barisan Jemaah Islamiah Se-Malaysia, as well as independent candidates Dr Ang Chuan Lock and Ms Faridah Aryani Abdul Ghaffar.
Both PH and BN have spoken on the issues plaguing the fishing community, which makes up a significant portion of the constituents in Tanjung Piai.
Mr Karmaine, in particular, has plans to advance the economic status of the fishermen, if he prevails this Saturday.
MASS FISH DEATHS AND COASTAL DEVELOPMENT AFFECT FISHERMEN
Last week, Johor’s chief minister Sahruddin Jamal announced an annual "special aid" of RM1,000 (US$240) for 1,500 fishermen in southern Johor, including about 500 fishermen in Pontian and Tanjung Piai .
He denied that the gift was an “election goodie”, explaining that the state government was merely fulfilling a promise made previously.
Kampung Ayer Masin's Mr Ang, who farms barramundi, said the aid was insufficient to cover the losses of fishermen in the recent mass fish deaths in kelongs near Pulau Kukup.
He claimed his loss was valued around RM 20,000 in September.
“What is RM1,000 in aid after I’ve lost RM20,000 to mass fish deaths? It’s not enough, the government should instead do more to find out the cause of these deaths,” he said.
In October, opposition MP and president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) Dr Wee Ka Siong highlighted the issue in parliament.
He said 76 salted fish manufacturers at Pulau Kukup suffered huge losses when about 100 tonnes of fishes died due to pollution.
One of the manufacturers, Mr Chin Wee Keat, told CNA that he lost around RM15,000 this year from the phenomenon and expressed hope that whoever wins the by-election will conduct a study to prevent it from happening again.
“We hope that they can stop (the mass fish deaths) once and for all,” said the 54-year-old.
Another fishermen, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ang, told CNA that recent coastal development in the area has impacted the fishing space for locals.
The 60-year-old, who mostly catches prawns in deep water using large fishing nets, told CNA that the expansion of the nearby Tanjung Pelepas Port along the Pulai River meant his favourite waters to catch prawns are now out of bounds.
“I have to go elsewhere where it’s more difficult to catch. Most days I come home now with no prawns and my fuel is wasted,” he said.
“Maybe I will vote Dr Wee this time so that he can raise this issue in parliament and fight for us,” added Mr Ang.
PH CANDIDATE VOWS TO HELP FISHERMEN
During his walkabout to Kampung Ayer Masin on Tuesday evening, PH candidate Mr Karmaine assured residents that he would do his best to resolve their issues and represent them in the parliament.
He was warmly greeted by all residents, who are mostly Chinese. He shook hands, posed for photographs and also sat down with them in their front porches to chat.
The 66-year-old told CNA afterwards that he was planning to introduce new methods of farming, such as breeding oysters and catfish, to improve the livelihood of farmers.
This could mean changing the farming methods and type of keramba in Kampung Ayer Masin.
He explained how there is high demand for oysters and catfish, and this would make business more profitable.
Mr Karmaine added that he would conduct a study to ensure that the coastal area is suitable for this type of farming,
Additionally, he expressed concern over the condition of the homes in the village, pointing out that some of wooden structures could be unsafe.
“We want to make sure the homes here are safe to live in and the people here are insured,” he added.
However, Mdm Lee Chee Hoi, an elderly resident who had a chance to speak to Mr Karmaine, said her preferred candidate is BN's Dr Wee.
"I think the PH government has been given a chance and they have not delivered on so many promises. I would like to see if Dr Wee can resolve some of the issues we are facing," she said.