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The “Loss” of Fish Culinary Traditions in South Sumatra

A number of hamlets in the wetland area of ​​Ogan Ilir [OI] and Ogan Komering Ilir [OKI] Regencies, South Sumatra, are centers for fresh water fish. Changes in the landscape make fish populations continue to decrease. A number of fish culinary traditions are also in danger of being lost.

“It’s been difficult to make sale ikan [smoked fish] from ikan baung and lais. Now, many people here make sale fish using catfish or pond catfish,” said Lithan [68], Head of the Farmers Group in Muara Penimbung Ulu Village, Ogan Ilir District, South Sumatra, January 27 2023.

In fact, “There are even salted fish that use pond fish, such as tilapia,” he said.

“But the taste is different and the fans are few. So, can this tradition disappear along with the loss of freshwater fish?”

Lithan explained, Muara Penimbung Ulu Village, which used to be a fish center in Ogan Ilir Regency, began to experience a fish crisis. “In the past, finding baung, lais and seluang fish in the Kelekar River was so easy. During the season, every day we get 10 kilograms of lais or baung fish. Now three kilograms is amazing.”

Baung fish and lais fish are sold by the people in Muara Penimbung Ulu Village for around IDR 70-80 thousand per kilogram. “The price is decent, but the fish are hard to come by, so that the people whose livelihoods depend on freshwater fish are far from prosperous,” he said.

Of the 408 heads of families or 1,482 inhabitants of Muara Penimbung Ulu Village, there are around 20 heads of families who depend on fish.

“In the past, almost every family here looked for fish, in addition to paddy fields [ebb and flow]. But those who no longer own paddy fields, their lives depend only on fishing.”

Fish galore

Muara Penimbung Ulu village covers about 621 hectares. Most of the area is wetland, in the form of peat swamps.

“In the past, people here lived from rice and fish. Live in prosperity,” said Hermalia [63], a resident of Dusun IV, Muara Penimbung Village.

The abundance of fish produce makes residents use it for a number of culinary delights. Such as sale fish, salted fish, pekasam [fermented fish], and crackers.

“While for daily consumption boiled pindang.”

“So the residents’ income is not only from selling fresh fish, but also from managing fish such as sale fish, salted fish, pekasam and crackers,” said Hermalia, who has migrated to Malaysia for dozens of years.

“All the fish that are processed into a number of culinary delights are the rest of the catch, after being sold and eaten. It means nothing is thrown away.”

For example, baung fish and lais. Fish that are found in certain seasons in the river, namely during the dry season, are processed into sale fish. Meanwhile, fish from paddy fields and swamps, such as sepat and cork, are used as salted fish.

“Small fish that are difficult to sell, are made into pekasem, fermented fish using rice,” he explained.

Destruction of natural landscapes

Bunyamin [50], a river fisherman in Muara Penimbung Ulu Village, estimates that the reduced fish population in his village is due to the fact that many swamps or swamps have turned into oil palm plantations or settlements.

“Besides that, the upstream area of ​​the Kelekar River has become a sugarcane plantation,” he said.

“In fact, the valleys have been the places for fish to lay eggs and find food,” he continued.

The existence of the [Palembang-Lampung] toll road that crosses several wetland areas in OI and OKI Regencies, has cut off the flow of water in a number of swamps.

“Many fish can no longer go home [upstream] here. This is because the route is cut off by the toll road pillars. It is true that there has been a decrease in the number of fish in the last two years,” said Bunyamin.

Candra [42], a resident of Menang Raya Village, Pedamaran, OKI District, said that since the toll road was built, the rawang [peat swamp] where purun grows, the water has not moved. It doesn’t ebb and it doesn’t overflow.

“It is quite noticeable that the number of fish is decreasing, especially the big fish that live in rivers such as baung and lais.”

Candra, apart from being a palm fruit collector, also catches fish in the Sejuang area, Pedamaran. He used dozens of powders to find fish.

“Range April or the dry season, fish are obtained.”

Candra explained that the conversion of the peat swamp area to an oil palm plantation in Seujung made fish populations continue to decrease. “Including around our hamlet [Menang Raya].”

Based on monitoring, most of the toll roads that pass through wetlands use poles. But the poles are not driven directly into the swamp, on a mound of earth. This mound of land that cuts the flow of water in a number of swamps. You can even see a number of swamps drying up during the rainy season like today.

“Many residents in the hamlet who live from fish are currently developing ponds. The fish in the ponds are not local fish, such as catfish, carp, catfish and tilapia,” said Candra.

Ryan Syaputra, Head of Menang Raya Village, said that in the past most of [people’s] income in Pedamaran came from fishing. Apart from being sold alive, if excess is made into sale fish, salted fish, pekasem and crackers, which can also be sold.

“However, since many peat swamps have become oil palm plantations, such as the Sepuh area, this culinary tradition has begun to diminish.”

“It’s not the knowledge that’s lost, but the fish that’s hard to come by. Now it is very difficult to find sale fish, pekasem, including eating pindang river fish,” said Ryan who was once an administrator for the South Sumatra Indonesian Forum for the Environment [Walhi].

“Currently we are only trying to maintain the remaining raw areas, including the purun location in Sejuang,” said Ryan.

Pond fish

Ogan Ilir Regency, which covers 266,670 hectares, about 35 percent is in the form of waters and peat swamps. It is estimated that the production of fresh water fish from this district is 8.9 million tonnes per year . 

But most of the fish production is not from nature [rivers and peat swamps] but from aquaculture, including non-endemic local species, such as pond catfish [3.4 million tons], pond tilapia [1.9 tons], pond catfish [3, 8 tons], carp [27 thousand kilograms].

Meanwhile, fish production from nature, such as cork, is only 1,500 kilograms and toman fish as much as 200 kilograms per year.

“The low production of fish from nature, such as cork and toman, proves that many of the rivers and swamps in Ogan Ilir have been damaged or changed,” said Yulion Zalpa from the Social Sciences Faculty of UIN Raden Fatah Palembang.

“The only effort to maintain fresh water fish is to maintain and repair the remaining peat swamps,” he said.

Yulion hopes that the peat restoration program run by the Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency [BRGM] will also prioritize restoration in OI Regency.

So far, the peat restoration program in South Sumatra has only prioritized OKI, Banyuasin, Musi Banyuasin and Musi Rawas districts.

While the wetlands in South Sumatra are around 3.5 million hectares, of the 8.9 million hectares of the province’s land area known as the “Nine Batanghari”.

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