Tuba fishing — banned but fresh in memory


The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.

John Buchan, former governor-general of Canada

In the 60s, we youngsters in the hinterland of Saratok, in the Melupa basin, a tributary of middle Krian, had enjoyable moments and good catches of tuba fishing.

Those years were about a decade prior to that fishing method being banned officially via an edict signed by then State Secretary Datuk Abang Yusuf Puteh on March 15, 1976 — a reminiscence of the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar on “ides of March” in 44 BC.

The official memorandum (Ref number 115/PKM/1688) was extended to all Residents and district officers with the subject entitled ‘Tuba Fishing’. 

It reads: “I am directed to inform you that with immediate effect tuba fishing in the state is completely banned. Therefore, from now on, No licences under the Minor Offences Ordinance (Cap. 56) or under the Fisheries Act (No. 8 of 1963) are to be issued under any circumstances.” (c.c. to Commissioner of Police; Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Community Development; director of Agriculture and director of Marine Fisheries.

By the time it was issued in that year, several tuba fishing events (nubai in Iban) were held in our beloved Melupa. But a large-scale event was held at Krian River circa 1960 involving all longhouses and villages of middle and lower Krian.

I recall our Kedap longhouse — the only longhouse reachable by tide in the Melupa — joined in using at least five longboats. Being an ardent fishing enthusiast, I was in one of the boats with my father plus three others, all adults — then aged six, I was already able to swim quite well, typical of longhouse kids.

During the event I remember we caught a good number of fish, including at least four very large carp ikan tunggal, considered as among the tastiest of the ‘tidal fish’. There were some big baung catfish too. Dad manned our boat while my uncle Ampoi (dad’s younger brother) and another uncle used special collecting net tabir to catch the fish onto our boat. All the different types of fish were easily caught as most of them surfaced to gather air as the water was filled with the poisonous tubai (tuba) suffocating them. Some big prawns also jumped into our boat.

I noticed smiling faces everywhere.

Some years later, Kedap folk also held a ‘trapping’ session with two stretches of Melupa between Lubuk Tedung and Lubuk Jelapa slightly further upriver from the longhouse. The session involved the use of small amount of tubai creeper (slightly crushed and slightly oozing the poisonous fluid) not to fully kill the fish but only to stir or stimulate them so that they would escape from their deep hiding places and go up or downriver where nets were put in place.

Some of us used boats while some just came on foot as the two stretches were easily accessible and just a short distance from the longhouse.

I was using a boat with my elder brother Jon and another cousin. Jon was busy dispensing the tubai creeper to initiate the stimulation for the fish to escape from their hiding abodes while our cousin Geraman manned the boat and I handled the tabir but with little success.

Nevertheless, the catch was shared equally and each family received at least four big ikan tunggal carp plus some baung catfish.

All went home happy with no untoward incident throughout the half-day session — those were the days when that part of the river was free of the river reptilian kings that are plentiful these days, thus making Melupa not as safe as it was four decades ago.

Since 1962, my family resided further upriver above the local primary school. At our Bukit Tinggi rubber plot where our humble hovel stood, my dad planted the tubai that developed into a mammoth creeper within two years.

During school breaks in 1964, I was joined by my two cousins Madil and Kimbui to experiment the creeper’s prowess at nearby Sungai Tapang stream. It was certainly an anxious moment after crushing the tubai creeper from the upper part of the stream. But after 10 minutes one would see the fish suffocating and are easily caught using the tabir or woven basket in the knee-deep stream. But one must refrain from urinating in the water as urine neutralises the poison emitted by tubai.

The three of us held at least three nubai sessions at Sungai Tapang over the years and enjoyed good catches. Held in the upper part of the stream, by the time the water reached its estuary or river mouth, the poison was history. The act is history but our nubai memory remains intact.

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