Muar oyster divers a dying breed
In the aquaculture sector, oyster diving in Muar River - Muar’s prominent landmark - is categorised as a sunset vocation with less than a dozen oyster divers today.
Muar oysters are believed to be among the highest quality in the world and are highly sought after by seafood lovers especially among Singaporeans. The fishermen here still use the traditional method to collect them, which is to dive into the river with no breathing apparatus.
The tradition, which has been brought down from past generations is losing its lustre as oyster divers have aged and only a handful of young people taking up the physically taxing and dangerous work which demands great strength and endurance.
At the crack of dawn, there are men at work, braving the elements. Amid the fresh morning breeze blowing across the sky, Muhammad Nashrul Nizam Abu Rani, 22, is already at Kampung Pangkalan Tilam jetty as early as 6 am to observe the water condition before getting ready for a day’s work as an oyster diver together with several others whose livelihoods rely on oysters.
Dressed in t-shirt and track pants, Muhammad Nashrul Nizam and several other divers began to start their day by moving towards the shoals (Iong and narrow ridges), a stone’s throw from the jetty, to hunt for oysters at the river bottom.
"This is our daily routine as oyster divers and there is no fixed time for work, only when the water is calm (between high and low tide) and it is not really easy to determine the water pressure. Oyster divers can easily find themselves in dangerous situations when diving in strong current, especially when we collect oysters by diving in the riverbed using the traditional method,” he told Bernama, as he adjusted his goggles on his head.
Bottom river oyster farming at the estuary of the Muar River is a famous heritage, brought down by past generations over the last 100 years, with the traditional method still practised to this day by the oyster divers at Kampung Pangkalan Tilam, about 1.5 kilometres from Muar, also known as Bandar Maharani.
In the past, many fishermen were attracted to oyster catching to generate income compared to life as fishermen given that Muar River is known for its white oysters or scientifically called Crassostrea (Magallana) saidii species. Research has shown that these soft, juicy and white creamy oysters are only found at the estuary of Muar River.
However, despite the continuation of these traditions, the number of oyster divers is dwindling as many of the "old hands” who are enfeebled with age, no longer go out to work, while other have since died.
"It’s not easy to be an oyster diver as it requires the energy, and he has to be strong and highly skilled to be able to stay down at the riverbed. This is not a job for the faint-hearted with numerous challenges, and only the fittest will survive,” he said.
"This explains why today’s younger generation are not attracted to oyster diving; less than 10 are actively involved with only a handful like me are youth.
"I don’t know for how long (I can work as an oyster diver), but I am committed to protecting this legacy for future generations,” said Muhammad Nashrul Nizam, who started working as an oyster diver after completing his form five education.
RISK OF DYING OUT
Despite his five-year experience as an oyster diver, Muhammad Nashrul Nizam still has the jitters every time he dives deep to the riverbed to collect oysters to provide income for his family.
This is because of the potential risk of drowning while collecting oysters underneath, with divers having to dive six to nine metres deep into the river bed.
There is a risk of the 6.1 metre-long mangrove wooden pole that is piled into the riverbed next to the boat, would collapse when divers dive down adjacent to the wood and pick up oysters at the riverbed by hand.
The technique of using the long poles to guide them down and up the oyster bed is inherited from their ancestors since the 19th century to avoid from being swept away by the current.
"Not all of us including myself can swim and that’s the reason why our legs are wrapped around the pole as we dive down into the river as we look for oysters and collect them by hand to be filled in a bicycle basket that is manned by other divers.
"In a fast-flowing river, we fear that we are unable to balance our body while clinging on to the pole as we risk being swept away while the pressure and strong current cause our ears or nose to bleed besides having to deal with poisonous creatures including the jellyfish,” he said.
Despite working full time as an oyster diver, he has yet to acquire the skills of holding his breath under water for at least four to six minutes as other experienced divers.
For every dive, he can hold his breath under water for one to two minutes only and would then resurface to catch his breath before diving back into the river.
And, for every endeavour, which takes about three to four hours a day, he is able to collect not less than 90 oysters, to be sold to middlemen as well as restaurant operators from the district for RM2 each.
"Foreign tourists are also attracted by the traditional method used and while here, they are given a hands-on experience at oyster diving with this activity generating an alternative income for us.
"However, the younger groups especially those from the village here are not interested in this field, and my concern is if we fail to retain a new generation of oyster divers, this oyster diving activity could vanish in the future, ‘ he said.
MUAR’S RARE OYSTER SPECIES
Muar River’s white oysters are high in demand among oyster lovers as the fresh oysters can be eaten without a squeeze of lemon juice compared to Crasssotrea belcheri (Axe Oyster) species. The axe oyster species has a broad shell while the meat is grey, brown.
The research collaboration between Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Queen's University Belfast confirmed that the white species from Muar River is not found in other parts of the world.
The research findings as well as comparative data conducted by researchers with collections of oyster related data found in museums in Europe and species found in Asia, found no DNA records similar to white oysters in the estuary of the Muar River.
The species caught the attention of Dr Nur Leena Wong from the International Institute of Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences (I-AQUAS), UPM and fellow researcher from Queen’s University Belfast, Dr Julia Sigwart who were surprised that after more than 160 years of the oyster being known and harvested commercially at the estuary of the Muar River, it still had no scientific name.
In fact, the oyster was once a delicacy reserved for the royals and high-ranking officials and later exported to Singapore in the early 1900s.
The oyster species was named Crassostrea (Magallana) saidii in recognition of the efforts of a Muar resident, Md Saidi Mohamed, for promoting research and conservation of the species since 2013.
The white oyster, also known as premium species, is believed to be among the world’s 10 best marine life species.
"In fact, fresh, white oysters are highly sought after by oyster enthusiasts and are usually served at leading hotels and luxury seafood restaurants,” said Nasir Kassim, who has been working as an oyster diver over the last two decades since he was 16 years old.
The father of three also shared that there is difficulty in attracting the younger generation to be involved in this economic activity which has been brought down from past generations.
Sharing his experience, Nasir said he once tried to breed the white oysters in other state, but was met with failure when only two out of 10 oyster seeds sown, survived.
This is because the oysters feed on plankton (a diverse collection of organisms in water that provide the base for the entire marine food web), and they are not found in other rivers except the Muar River.
Besides that, studies conducted by Nur Leena and Julia found that the white oyster only lives in the estuary of the Muar River with a water salinity range of eight to 25 parts per thousand (ppt) and it cannot live in seawater.
ONLY IN MUAR RIVER
Noting that oyster diving is not an easy job, Nasir however harboured hopes that the younger people would take up the challenge by filling the void left by the older generation by continuing with the tradition.
"Without the next generation of oyster divers continuing this legacy, its population will also vanish as the species, which is highly sought after by oyster lovers, cannot live elsewhere.
Today, less than 10 oyster divers remain in this profession. Many of them are third or fourth generation inheriting their oyster diving skills from their forefathers. The oldest among the divers are 70 years of age with the majority aged 50 and above. The oyster population has been on the decline and oyster diving is no longer seen as a lucrative profession.
"I understand this is not an easy job as it requires the strength and resilience by diving to the riverbed to collect oysters with our bare hands in a fast-flowing river but something must be done so that this job will not die out, perhaps, with continuous training, emphasis on security aspects as well as wider exposure on the profession,” said Nasir.
Another oyster diver, Abdul Rani Bahari, 57, who has been in the profession over the past 17 years, said one needs to master the technical skills in diving.
At the same time, some parents also discouraged their children from pursuing this career due to the high risks involved, while many job seekers prefer to work in the city rather than in the kampung.
"”They (job seekers) should have the determination, if others can do it, why can’t we. My own son (Muhammad Nashrul Nizam) is working in this field but my advice to him: you’re your own boss and you’re free to create your own schedules; you just work two hours a day, after that you’re free to take up other jobs,” said Abdul Rani.
Given his age, Abdul Rani now works together with his son in collecting oysters, noting that the job becomes easier when they get to share the workload such as preparing the long wooden poles, controlling the engine, as well as diving for oysters, hence reducing the risks associated with the profession.
EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Of concern is the negative impact of climate change on the diving community, who are heavily dependent on oyster catches as a major source of livelihood. Climate change is found to have increased risks for such activities, especially during floods.
Recalling the major floods which hit Segamat in 2016, Abdul Syukor Bahrom, 57, said the disaster had affected oyster divers at the Muar River when they were not able to catch oysters.
"During the major floods, 100 per cent of the oysters have died and there was no new growth as no seeds were sown. We could hardly look for oysters then but after two years, these marine creatures started to reproduce on the riverbed.
"However, early this year another major flood inundated Segamat with 85 per cent of oysters estimated to have died. Our oyster catching activities are usually disrupted whenever a major flood occurs,” he said.
The heavy flooding, said Abdul Syukor who has been engaged in oyster diving for over 10 years, proved deadly for many of the shellfish. Oysters thrive in slightly saline water - any imbalance in that environment can damage their health or even wipe them out.
These oysters need brackish water for survival and this situation has caused them to die or the oyster meat to change its colour, which shows that the oysters have been contaminated and are no longer fresh for consumption.
"During floods, the oyster population declines, hence the oyster catches are also reduced. On the other hand, thousands of oysters were collected daily during non-flood seasons. Among others, the sedimentation process or the temporary deposition of fine sediments after the floods also caused the oysters to die,” he explained.
Towards this end, I-AQUAS researchers are currently working to increase the oyster population through an aquaculture approach.
Nur Leena, who is among the researchers, was quoted to have said, the focus of the research now is on the seeding of oysters through the aquaculture approach to reproduce them.
The research was also conducted to identify the most suitable water quality and salinity rate of the water for breeding the white oyster or premium oyster.
"The conservation of this small population of oysters is essential to ensure its sustainability," she added - BERNAMA