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Disquieting times for Malaysia's 'fish listener'

SETIU, Malaysia--One hand clinging to his boat's gunwale, Harun Muhammad submerges himself, eyes and ears wide open underwater as he “listens” for fish sounds emanating from the blue depths.

Harun is one of Malaysia's last “fish listeners,” and he and his apprentice son Zuraini are believed to be the only active practitioners of this mysterious and dying local art.

“When you listen, it is like through a looking glass — you can see mackerel, sardine,” said Harun, 68, who has fished the Setiu lagoons on Malaysia's rural east coast his whole life.

“For us, we only look for gelama (a type of croaker). But in the schools of gelama, there will be other fish. The gelama is the king of fish.”

Other fish listeners have passed away, retired or turned to modern fish-detection technology as the traditional practice has retreated in the face of dwindling catches and proliferating undersea noise.

Studies show Malaysian waters lost 92 percent of fishery resources between 1971 to 2007 due to overfishing.

“You can't copy our technique. You must gain the skill and learn the lay of the waters,” said Harun.

“The wholesalers tell me, 'if you're gone, there will be no more gelama,'” which fetches up to 10 times the price of similarly sized fish.

Sounds Fishy

“Pak Harun,” as he is known locally — “Pak” is a Malay honorific similar to “Uncle” — finds it hard to describe exactly how fish sound, but likens it to pebbles being dropped into water.

“They have a voice. This sound is this fish, that sound is another. When someone is new, they can't tell one fish song from another.”

Harun and his crew of a dozen can go nearly a week without hearing gelama — which invites skepticism about the claimed fish-listening ability.

But experts in sonifery (fish sounds) say sailors have long heard sounds of whales and fish through boat hulls.

“Scuba divers often do not hear anything because their breathing and bubble exhaust makes so much noise. However free divers, or divers using quiet re-breathers, can hear much better,” said U.S.-based marine ecologist Rodney Rountree.

Former fish listeners describe a range of techniques. Some claim they can feel changes in water temperature.

For Harun, it is a multi-sensory experience requiring eyes wide open.

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In this picture taken on June 8, 68-year-old fish listener Harun Muhammad clings onto his fishing boat at sea near the Setiu lagoons of Malaysia.

(AFP)

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