An Interdisciplinary Project: Fish and the Importance of Fish(ing) to Human Communities in Sabangau, Indonesia

In this fortnight’s blog-post, Sara Thornton, a member of the UK TPWG and PhD student at the University of Leicester, gives us the low-down on her doctoral research, looking at fish diversity and much more, in the Sabangau peatlands of Indonesian Borneo.  Her important work is also captured by a set of beautiful photographs that she took whilst on fieldwork (see the press release images).

A family of fishers checking their catch on the Sabangau River. Photo by Sara Thornton

A family of fishers checking their catch on the Sabangau River. Photo by Sara Thornton

My PhD takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the socio-ecological system of the Sabangau, Indonesian Borneo. In particular, I focus on the relationships between human fishing communities, nonhuman fish communities and other nonhuman aspects of the ecosystem (including abiotic aspects and spiritual nonhuman beings) and how these relationships lead to certain emergent properties (e.g. resilience). I also consider human perceptions of environmental change, and how fire, dams, human population growth and fishing diversification/intensification impact fishing and human livelihoods. To do this, I used the following methods:

  1. Surveys of fish communities and water quality in the Sabangau River and the Sabangau Forest
  2. Questionnaires, interviews and focus groups in two local communities: Kereng Bangkirai (situated near to the intact Sabangau peat-swamp forest) and Taruna Jaya (situated in an area of severely degraded peatland)
An unedited photo showing fishermen fishing on the Sabangau River during the catastrophic haze from forest and peatland fires in 2015. Photo by Sara Thornton

An unedited photo showing fishermen fishing on the Sabangau River during the haze from the forest and peatland fires in 2015. Photo by Sara Thornton.

Some notable results included:

  • A final fish species list of 54 species! Making Sabangau a notable area for peat-swamp forest fish diversity
With my research assistants, we trapped over 60,000 fish over a year of monthly fish surveys. Here one assistant measures the Standard Length of a Belontia hasselti. Photo by Sara Thorn

With my research assistants, we trapped over 60,000 fish over a year of monthly surveys. Here one assistant measures the Standard Length of a Belontia hasselti

  • With the water quality data (e.g. pH, water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels) I am able to recommend improvements for future fish sampling
  • The fish and water quality data provides a baseline for future monitoring
  • Fish was considered in both locations to be the most important nonhuman forest species to people’s lives. This is not surprising considering the economic importance that fish has locally, and that it is one of the main sources of protein:
    • I found the average annual fish consumption in Sabangau is nearly three times the global average!
Learning to make a traditional fish trap (Dudin on left and Sara on right), photo by Julie Lasne

Learning to make a traditional wire trap, tampirai, used for the fish surveys (Dudin on left and Sara on right). Photo by Julie Lasne.

  • The human communities expressed important cultural values, aesthetic and experiential values when discussing many of the nonhuman forest species (e.g. fish, orangutans, gibbons, hornbills). There were strong spiritual beliefs related to fish and the river in the Sabangau area
    • This included taboos related to eating or cooking certain fish species, the presence of various river and forest spiritual beings and the use of offerings to improve fish catches
    • These cultural perspectives are vital to include in considerations of values associated with ecosystems and biodiversity
    • Spiritual beliefs can play an important role in determining how some people in Sabangau relate to the river, to fish and thereby the ‘environment’

Lastly, while fish may not be the most charismatic of peat-swamp forest species like great-apes or felids, they provide one of the clearest faunal links between people, livelihoods and their ‘environment’ in the Sabangau. In areas with high dependence on fish for livelihoods, fish research and conservation projects could be a great opportunity to increase the relevance of environmental research to local communities and thereby potentially increasing local support for conservation projects.

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