Sabah villagers lure back the fish

The fish in parts of Sabah are so tame you can hand-feed them. This is all thanks to an innovative community river management programme to protect fish stocks. Find out about it in the last of a nine-part series that brings to life the places and people of Malaysia many of us know little about.

The villagers have learnt to train the skittish fish to become friendly by feeding them regularly, and not harming them.
The villagers have learnt to train the skittish fish to become friendly by feeding them regularly, and not harming them.
The river at Babagon village is popular with families, especially children. There are also visitors from nearby cities. Ecotourism activities have become an important source of income to the village. ST PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

It is not often wild fish are so tame they feed from your hands and swim at your feet.

Their fearlessness is all the more amazing when you realise these fish are highly prized for their silky flesh. Called pelian in Sabah, or mahseer in English, the fish sell for RM80 to RM100 (S$30 to S$38) per kg in town.

Not surprisingly, its numbers soon declined as this slow-growing species takes up to three years to mature. Attempts to rear the fish in farms have not been very successful.

But in many parts of Sabah - 523 sections in more than 200 rivers and tributaries, to be exact - the fish is safe. Fishing is banned, or limited to small quantities for the local villagers only.

This is part of a Fisheries Department-initiated programme, started in 2000, which has helped boost fish numbers, cleaned up rivers and restored their ecological richness. It has proved so successful that it has been adopted elsewhere in Malaysia and could be a model for other nations.

The system is named tagal, adopting the native Dusun word for prohibited.

Under this system, the Fisheries Department and communities work together to manage rivers. Each community supplies the manpower to run the programme while the government provides law enforcement and some funds.

Certain stretches of the river are designated as red zones where fishing is prohibited. Green zones mean fishing is allowed within limits only for the villagers, while yellow zones are areas where the local community can harvest the fish during set times.

The zones are determined through discussions with the community, and also based on fish behaviour. For instance, fish spawning areas are off-limits, and no fishing is allowed at all during spawning season.

Fishing using poison and bombs is also banned.

It took a while for villagers to accept tagal. But it has proven to be so successful that neighbouring Sarawak has adopted it, with about 70 sites operating there. There are two such sites in Pahang in Peninsular Malaysia and more sites in Sabah are planned.

Convincing villagers to stop fishing was not easy but for many there was little choice. Many villagers reported lower and lower fish catches and increasing clashes with outsiders.

From the start, the Fisheries Department had to refrain from imposing total bans as this would just encourage poaching.

It also had to allow some leeway and sometimes close one eye in cases of breaches, while pushing ahead with the programme until the benefits became evident.

Mr Joti William Johnioh was among those who strongly opposed the system when it was introduced in Babagon village, about an hour from Sabah's capital Kota Kinabalu, in 2000.

It was the pioneer programme and he felt it was too restrictive.

"We are farmers, and I wondered where we would get food to eat if we are not allowed to fish in our river," he said.

The programme went ahead and, after a while, he began to support it as he saw the fish returning. Today, he heads the village's fish management committee.

The people have learnt to train the skittish fish to become friendly by feeding them regularly, and not harming them.

Today, in many parts of the river, the fish swim right up to your feet and nibble the dead skin. Many visitors come from nearby cities, boosting ecotourism activities that have become an important source of income.

Babagon village collects a small fee from each visitor but anglers pay a steeper amount of RM75 each. Recreational fishing is allowed in the red zone but only "catch and release" is permitted.

The village earns RM6,000 to RM7,000 a month, enough to upgrade and maintain the river banks. Money earned from tourists goes into a village fund. Villagers also profit from operating food stalls and working as guides, or earning RM30 to RM50 a night to patrol the river.

On sunny weekends, Babagon's once-neglected riverfront comes alive; children splash in the shallow waters and families picnic on the grassy banks.

Babagon's riverfront is now well maintained, with a clean sandy bank that gently slopes to the river. Steps have been built on the steeper stretches.

"If not for this system, we wouldn't have this," said Mr Joti.

Mrs Sakinim Gueh, from nearby Kampung Notoruss, is just as enthusiastic. The tagal system has been enforced since 2008 along a stretch of the Tinopikon river that passes through her village.

As chairman of the river management committee, Mrs Sakinim credits the programme for the river coming alive with fish swimming in the clear water that flows from the Crocker Range.

Previously, there were hardly any fish in the river, she said. The village sought help from the Fisheries Department.

"We cleared the forest here to make facilities for tourists. We did the work as a community, with an allocation from the Fisheries Department," she said.

The river bank now has a wood-fired cooking place and a seating area, and draws as many as 100 visitors on sunny weekends. Even foreign tourists have begun to discover the place and conservationists from overseas have visited to study the tagal system.

Not all the tagal programmes are as successful. Some villages struggle with community cooperation, and may not be lucky enough to have scenic views to attract tourists. But there is enough success to show that community- based resource-sharing can work.

The key is effective enforcement.

This is left to the local community to manage, with the weight of the law lent by the Fisheries Department. Every new scheme begins with fanfare to announce the details of the scheme to the community and, importantly, it signals it can be enforced by law. Often, the local police will be present, too.

For easy monitoring, the red zone is usually located closest to the village.

The rivers are patrolled by locals every night. Anyone caught fishing in a prohibited area will be fined by the village, based on the price of a small pig, or roughly around RM500. The local community derives its power from native law.

Offenders can also be taken to court under the fisheries law, but this is rare.

Mr George Kuting, who is on the patrol team for Kampung Notoruss, said they take turns to patrol every night, especially between 9pm and 2am. They go in groups of three or four, women included.

So far, they have not caught any poachers, although they have occasionally spotted men fishing illegally. However, the men always disappear into the night before they can be caught.

Besides enforcement, the locals feel that the success is also due to the flexibility built into the system. A total ban will only trigger resistance. Controlled fishing works better.

Sabah is looking to expand the system to 600 sites next year, and it has extended tagal to sea areas to protect crab fishing and sea cucumber areas. It has also started breeding fish fry to release into the rivers.

The scheme shows that when communities unite to share, there is plenty for everyone.

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