Kelongs vanishing fast in Singapore

From a high of 45, there are only 14 now due to increasing costs, the lack of new licences and more fish farms
Jessica Lim, Straits Times 28 Sep 09;

THE kelongs that once dotted the coastline of Singapore are becoming a rare sight.

Once numbering 45, these offshore fishing platforms anchored into the seabed on long wooden poles have dwindled to just 14 in the last 30 years.

And the kelong population is likely to sink further, said a spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which administers Singapore's kelong community.

The reasons: New kelong licences are not being issued, and prices of the poles used to prop up the platforms have surged tenfold.

In the 1960s, the AVA stopped issuing new licences because the trade was deemed 'not viable and and not sustainable'. This, said the AVA spokesman, is in line with what is happening in the rest of the world, where 'capture fishery production is expected to decline as overfishing continues'.

In its place are fish farms, which import fry and rear them until they are large enough to be sold at markets.

Aquaculture farm numbers have been multiplying here in place of the traditional netting methods of the kelong. There are currently 106 farms, up from a third of that three decades ago.

'In the past, we had a few neighbours. Now, I have only one,' said Mrs Maureen Ng, a kelong owner for four years, gesturing across the sea from her kelong off Pulau Ubin.

The 61-year-old is looking into fish farming, but wants to keep her kelong for as long as possible. 'It is even more precious now because it is so rare,' she said.

Many owners have given up over the years as the costs of maintaining the kelongs have landed their businesses in the red.

The cost of nibong, the rare palm imported from Indonesia which is commonly used in kelong construction, increased from $35 a pole in 1993 to $60 in 2007, said kelong owners. Then, imports ceased due to shortages, forcing them to switch to other hardy woods priced at more than $400 a pole.

These increases have emptied the pockets of kelong owner The Aik Hua.

It now costs him $22,000 to replace 55 poles annually - the average amount needed to maintain his kelong - up from $2,750 two years ago.

Other costs, like installing the poles, have also doubled, said Mr The, 55, who loses about $150 a month and is keeping the business alive by ploughing in cash he earns as a mechanic on land.

Mr Lim Kok Meng is not as fortunate. His kelong off Pulau Ubin collapsed in December last year when the poles gave way.

He decided to 'just let it be' because it was too expensive to repair. 'I have no choice; it just isn't worth it,' said the 61-year-old, who is venturing into fish farming instead.

He is likely to get some help.

The AVA has launched a fund for fish farmers looking to increase their yield. The agency is also working to identify faster-growing breeds to supply to local fish farms.

Its aim: to raise the percentage of local fish in the national supply from the current 4 per cent to 15 per cent in the next five years.

Ms November Tan, who runs environmental workshops islandwide, acknowledges that aquaculture is a popular solution for food sustainability: 'Food security will be easier met with fish farming,' she said, but added that there are environmental problems with aquaculture.

'There are issues with water pollution due to faecal waste and risk of disease due to fish overcrowding.'

The best solution, she said, is to cut down on consumption so the natural population in the sea can replenish itself.

'It boils down to consumer choice,' she said. 'Singaporeans almost never ask where our fish come from. We seem to think there is a never-ending supply. That is not the case.'

In the meantime, 63-year-old Thomas Tan laments the demise of the kelong. 'It is sad. The younger generation might never know what a kelong is,' said the retiree, who used to visit them in his younger days and even took his girlfriend, now his wife, for meals there.

'But Singapore cannot continue in the old way in a changing world.'

Differences between kelong and fish farm

# What is a kelong?

A kelong is Malay for an offshore platform built predominantly with wood and propped up by tree trucks or wooden poles of about 20m in length.

Wooden poles are also used to construct a funnel-like structure to guide the fish into the net in the centre of the kelong. The net is lifted daily and the fish collected for sale.

Young fish, or fry, are usually bred till they become large enough to sell.

# What is a fish farm?

Fish farming involves breeding fish commercially in tanks or enclosures.

Farms comprise a series of net cages slung on a rectangular framework of floating walkways.

Fry are imported from places such as Indonesia and Taiwan, and reared for about a year - depending on the species - before they are large enough to be sold.

They are usually fed pellets, stale bread or chopped-up small fish. Popular species raised by fish farms here are cobia, sea bass and mullet.

Kelongs' useful connection to the past
Straits Times 29 Sep 09;

I REFER to yesterday's report, 'Kelongs vanishing fast'.

I am upset that the kelong in Singapore is vanishing fast. This shows that Singapore is losing its 'pioneer culture'. Why?

According to history books, Singapore started as a Malay fishing village. Fisherman plied their trade at sea, rearing fish. That is what I learnt from history books when I was a student some years ago.

I have yet to see what a kelong looks like.

School outings take students to places such as City Hall, Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam as part of the learning journey covering Singapore's history.

These feature buildings which will stay as they are part of Singapore's heritage, but what about the kelong?

I urge the authorities to work together to enable students to catch a glimpse of the kelong before it vanishes altogether.

Tan Shao Ken