Traditional Fishing Along the Kahayan River

Fishing is an activity that runs in the blood of people living along the Kahayan River in Central Kalimantan, and this is especially so in the peatlands to the south of Palangkaraya, the capital city of the province. Most of the people who live in the villages along these river banks usually fish to meet their daily needs, and many of them still catch fish using traditional fish traps.

Unggi (left) and Kumala (right) with some home-made fish traps
Unggi (left) and Kumala (right) with some home-made fish traps

In fact, our 2019 livelihoods study in Tumbang Nusa village showed that as much as 80% of the population were engaged in fishing as a primary source of livelihood.  Seeking more information, on 21 December 2021, some of our team visited the community to explore their techniques and find out more about Indigenous Technical Knowledge related to peatland fisheries.

Going with the flow

On that day, Unggi (57) had just finished putting up fish traps near his house. He did not rest when he got home. Instead, he started making more fishing equipment, with the help of his wife, Kumala (58). The couple have been fishing together for a long time. They usually set their traps in the river in the morning. Then, in the afternoon, they check to see if any fish got caught.

They both learned how to assemble fish traps from their parents. “People here usually start fishing when they are children. Since we got married in 1981, we have also learned from our neighbors and by seeing how other people make traps,” said Kumala.

“Here all sorts of fish can be caught. But it is seasonal and fishing nets (rempa) are only used in the dry season. But our bamboo traps can be used to catch fish in all seasons,” she explained.

“When there is a flood, even more fish can be caught. We have been catching fish here since the 1970’s. And there are still plenty of fish to be caught,” she added.

She then showed us the various kinds of fishing equipment they make. One of these was a long circular trap that allows fish to enter into it easily. Only once inside, they find it hard to escape again. This type of bamboo trap (Bubu) is used to catch Papuyu (Anabas testudineus) and Kapar (Belontia hasselti) – both local species of Gourami that have good potential to be developed as freshwater aquaculture species.

This ‘Bubu’ trap is made of bamboo and wrapped with wire
This ‘Bubu’ trap is made of bamboo and wrapped with wire

Adopting new materials

“In the early days, we only used rattan and bamboo. But in 1990, my neighbor showed me how to wrap the traps with wire,” said Unggi. He then began to use wire instead of rattan with much better results.

“A 10-metre roll of wire costs around $10 (Rp.155,000) and seven traps can be made from one roll,” he explained. “The wire can last for up to four months. Bamboo and rattan are not very durable in water and can also be damaged by nuisance animals such as otters.”

Other local fishing techniques include hanging large nets (rempa) in lakes and canals, and walking in shallow waters using small nets (lelangit) held with bamboo sticks.

These low-impact fishing practices have sustained Dayak river communities for centuries. However, increasing damage to aquatic ecosystems, – the result of fires, canals, logging, dams, and an increase in the use of harmful fishing methods such as electricity and poison – are causing a decline in the abundance of fish populations and making fishing livelihoods more difficult.

Unggi also catches fish using a small net called a ‘lelangit’
Unggi also catches fish using a small net called a ‘lelangit’

Protecting peatland biodiversity

The waters in peatlands are very acidic and have low oxygen levels due to a lack of circulation. Despite this, peat swamp forests are home to unique fish species that are specially adapted to live in these tough conditions. The biodiversity of these ecosystems also includes many species that could be farmed and harvested commercially, such as snakehead, catfish, and carp.

A catfish caught in a trap
A catfish caught in a trap

Developing inland fisheries

While all this natural abundance prevails, there is still great potential to develop inland fisheries in peatlands. Although people living in these areas do still rely mainly on harvesting wild resources, the tremendous potential for development of inland fisheries surely points the way to a more sustainable and economically-powerful future for fisher-folk like Unggi and Kamala.
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