Why a ban on marine foraging will affect the lives of Ubin islanders

At left, beach-goers digging up marine life with tongs and sticks yesterday morning and a pail full of fish and crabs, at right. Photo: Daphne Ting/Facebook
At left, beach-goers digging up marine life with tongs and sticks yesterday morning and a pail full of fish and crabs, at right. Photo: Daphne Ting/Facebook

A large group of Singaporeans foraging at Changi Beach on Sunday sparked an uproar among nature lovers. But one man is afraid that the negative reaction could lead to a ban on such activities, which may be bad news for indigenous islanders.

Syazwan Majid, 24, whose family used to live on Pulau Ubin until the ‘80s, is afraid that the criticisms could lead to more restrictions on marine foraging and further affect the lives of those living on Pulau Ubin, where more than a hundred are said to be living. On the island, foraging for marine life is both a lifeblood and a cultural practice that has existed for decades, he said.  

“From what I managed to learn so far, islanders and coastal dwellers all around Singapore’s coasts depended heavily on the seas for their daily sustenance. Fishing and foraging for clams and the like used to be a daily affair for most families,” he told Coconuts today.

Dozens of people were photographed yesterday morning at Changi Beach – a few minutes’ boat ride from Ubin Island – carrying buckets full of crabs and clams at low tide, sparking backlash among wildlife enthusiasts who largely criticized them for treating the beach like a seafood buffet. 

“After all the talks and intertidal walks, does Singapore really need a law in place before our people realise the beach is not a free seafood buffet to be pillaged as a weekend morning activity for the family?” the Ocean Purpose Project said today.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re not supposed to bring back marine creatures from the beach right? Much less dig up many, many holes searching for these marine creatures and wrecking the entire shore?” a woman named Daphne Ting posted to the Singapore Wildlife Sightings Facebook group yesterday.

Foraging helps teach the younger generation about marine life but it has already been somewhat restricted on Pulau Ubin, according to Syazwan, with some areas considered off-limits to residents for the sake of marine conservation. His family moved to the Singapore mainland after their home was demolished, and now reside in Tampines, he said. 

“Unfortunately, as more rules and regulations were enforced along the coasts, there are very limited places that these people can bring their families to, to teach and show them how to forage for these clams and other intertidal marine life,” he said, adding: “Ultimately, at the end of the day they would bring home their harvest and also teach their children how to best prepare them for cooking (roasted, cooked in soy sauce, green chilli, or sambal etc.).”

Fishing is not allowed at Pulau Ubin’s Chek Jawa Wetlands and the adjacent Pulau Sekudu, according to the National Parks Board, which manages 12 coastal parks and areas. Fishing is also not allowed at Sisters’ Islands Marine Park, Coney Island Park, Admiralty Park, and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 

If the authorities were to consider further rules to curb marine foraging, at least consider the opinions of those living on Pulau Ubin, Syazwan said. 

“By totally banning the act of foraging for clams and other non-endangered intertidal marine life on our shores completely, it would restrict the already limited places we have left for the indigenous people of Singapore to teach future generations on their traditions and cultural practices, potentially eradicating it in an already rapidly urbanising Singapore,” he said.

A map showing fishing spots at Pulau Ubin. Photo: NParks

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