Homepage            February 2010
Fishing in Borneo
by Ann Backus, M.S.
Ann Backus, MS is an Instructor in Occupational Health at Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Ave., Boston MA 02115, 617/432-3327, abackus@hohp.harvard.edu

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, not counting Australia, boasts both marine and fresh water fishing. I have just returned from a three-week trip to the two provinces of Malaysia that are on the island of Borneo: Sabah and Sarawak. On the map or the globe, look for Borneo below India and west of Indonesia, nearly on the equator.

The 5.6 million people who live in these two provinces consist of three distinct ethnic groups: Malaysians including Filipinos, ethnic Chinese Malaysians, and the tribal groups. The Chinese are the major business people and entrepreneurs. They run the marketplaces and own the logging companies that now over-harvest the tropical forests and are causing the rivers to become a silty beige. The Malay may work for the ethnic Chinese, or be engaged in agriculture. The spoken language is Malay and the unit of currency is the ringgit.

In terms of fish, the black bass, a fresh water sport fish can be found in rivers in the tropical forests. The barramundi, found in fresh and salt water, is commercially important especially in Australia. Apparently the demand for this fish is so great in Australia that it is imported from other locations in the Indo-Pacific region.

Basic wharf in tidal river waters. Black sea bass is a major market fish. Photo courtesty of Ann Backus

Mangrove jacks come in many different colors depending on their age and the environment they inhabited. Mangrove swamps predominate in the estuarine, brackish waters such as those at the delta of the Batang Rajang River in Sarawak Province. The other name for this fish is Mangrove red snapper, but it should not be confused with red bass.

In the markets, the fish looked fresh and well-kept. They were presented in shallow pans on ice and could be filleted as you waited.

On the Batang Rajang River which runs from the South China Sea east and inland along the southern side of Sarawak, Borneo, we saw a number of people fishing using different types of gear. Those who pole-fished used long slender boats made of three wooden planks. These boats were somewhat rem- iniscent of the hollowed-out Sago palm tree canoes of Papua New Guinea.

Most fishermen had an outboard motor. All boats had a strange over-sized handle-like structure on the stern, which I am told was useful to lean against when servicing the motor. Others fastened large plastic nets on poles or sticks just off the shore and collected their catch every couple of days.

Throwing nets from shore for small fish remains a viable gear in some parts of the world. Borneo is experiencing the interface of the culturally ancient, and the futuristic industrially extractive. Photo courtesty of Ann Backus

The most unusual gear was a small weighted seine thrown like a frisbee into the shallow water from the shore and gathered-up a short while later. The fishermen, sometimes with their children or friends, walked leisurely along the shore casting this net into the water and gathering it back every few meters.

Families and the Iban long-house communities raise tilapia in concrete fish ponds. In addition to being good eating, tilapia eat plants and algae and may also eat mosquito larvae. In that sense, tilapia serve as a good natural insecticide in tropical climates.

For Malays, fishing is both a subsistence activity and a commercial activity. Fish and chicken seem to be the main source of protein and a staple in the diet of Malaysians. Both are plentiful in the fresh-air markets.

The sellers I spoke with in the market along the Batang Rajang River, told me that many of the fish were from the South China Sea to the west of Borneo; if that is true, there is a considerable distribution infrastructure that moves fresh fish quickly inland from the ocean.

I hope you enjoyed this vicarious trip to warm, tropical Borneo in the midst of our chilly winter!