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The Graveyard Shift

Trawlerman

semi-overcast 30 °C

Well I think it's safe to say that the glamorous side of the trip has officially come to an end. I said last time that I was expecting to be up in Kudat, the fishing town, for the best part of a week. However, as seems to happen all the time over here, plans were changed at the last minute and we were now likely to be staying for one to two nights maximum. We were heading up to fix the TED onto one of the fishing boats so we could learn how to do it for ourselves and then attach a couple of video cameras to the net so we could obtain some footage of what goes on to show to the fishermen that they wouldn't be losing any catch. The TED basically comprises of an aluminium grid before the cod end of the net, with bars that are 10cm apart. The idea being that anything smaller than 10cm (prawns) pass through the grid and anything larger (turtles) do not. There is a flap at the bottom of the net just before the TED, which allows turtles or anything else deflected by the TED to be released from the net. This then closes back up due to the flow of water afterwards. The video was just to show how the TED works and that the flap wasn't constantly open, causing catch to escape. Nick was going to try to negotiate with one of the boats to run trials for 3-4 weeks before he headed off to the USA on tuesday for two weeks. It was thought that this task was not going to be easy as it needed the consent of both the boat owner and the captain and crew before it could go ahead. So it was likely to take a few days to mull things over and discuss before anything was agreed to. So.....I packed for a couple of days.

The drive up to Kudat was mostly long and dangerous. It's around 3 hours away and single carriageway the whole way. Lots of dodgy overtaking round bends was quite common and you really have to be careful. I was glad to arrive safely in Kudat at the end of the journey. We checked into the same resort as last time and started work on the video cameras. We had to find a way to attach them to the net so that they were stable. This involved screwing them down to some PVC board and cable-tying it to the net. It sounds like a botch job but is actually very effective! We went out that night for dinner with this Chinese guy, Johnny, who owns an ice factory and his cousin Desmond, owns a lot of fishing boats. They are sort of celebrities in Kudat and very well respected. Nick took them to the USA last year on a trip to show them about TEDs for a couple of weeks and now they are fully behind the project and give us a lot of help. This is a good point to note that a lot of people in Malaysia give themselves English names (like Johnny & Desmond). I'm not totally sure why to be honest and I would have thought that they would have picked names like Wayne, David or Cristiano or something, as everyone is heavily into football. However, they all have weird English names. The guys who work behind the desk at the resort are called Ivan, Leonard and Alfred. Lord only knows why they pick these names, I should find out.

So saturday started slowly- the boats get back in to port around 6-8am so bit unfair to rock up at 9 and start using the crew for things. We ended up attaching the TED about 3 o'clock or something and it takes around an hour to sew into the net, if you're an expert sewer (we got the crew to do it). It would have taken me all day. We then went for a spin and attached the cameras. We went back to port and dropped Nick off as he was going back to KK and then headed out for the first night of five in a row on the trawler. This is the reason why I came to Malaysia and the project that I'm going to be writing up for my MSc. The aerial survey stuff and anything else I do is just me being lucky I guess. But this is going to be my life for the next 3 weeks at least. The idea behind the project is to run comparative trials between a boat fitted with a TED and one without. The most important end result being that the TED does not result in any statistically significant catch loss. This is the main point- if it does then the fishermen won't be interested in it. They honestly could not give a rats arse about turtles. And to be honest, I don't hold it against them. Per boat they only catch 1-5 turtles a year and the vast majority will be around the 1 figure than the 5. So why should they care? Well perhaps they shouldn't, but someone has to because when you look at all the boats in the region, there could be 3,000-4,000 turtles being caught as bycatch every year. The vast majority of which die (trawls last approx. 6 hours and turtles can hold their breath for about an hour in stressful situations such as being caught in a net). This is why it's important. But as one fisherman said- he'd never even heard of the word conservation before he met us. So this is not our selling point for the TED, in fact we barely even mention the word turtle ("penyu" in malaysian). There is an awful lot of rubbish in the sea, however. And this can do an awful lot of damage to your catch if it gets into the net- crushing it and decreasing the quality. You also use a lot more fuel when towing it all around. Luckily the TED does a fantastic job of not only removing turtles, but also removing rubbish. So this is our main selling point to the fishermen. To give you an idea, this huge log was caught in the net the other day (it hangs a good 6 foot over the right hand side of the photo and even more over the left; it was a phenomenal effort getting it out the net. Now this didn't even get down to the TED, but it gives you an idea some of the rubbish that is going to get caught up in a 6 hour trawl.

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So that's the idea of the project and how we're selling it at grass roots. Now I'll speak a bit of my routine over the last 5 days and in the following weeks to come- I may not have much to talk about anymore! We've been doing out early every day- most of the boats leave about 6pm, but we've been leaving about 3.30-4 to get some time in filming before the light dies at about 5 o'clock. It took a few days to get all the angles right on the cameras. We have one behind the TED filming the flap on the floor and one hanging upside down in front of the TED, filming the catch passing through. These cameras cost about USD $350 so imagine our horror when the net is hauled in one time and one of them is missing. Luckily it had passed through the TED and was in the cod end with all the catch and had not escaped out the flap. A lucky escape! We managed to get some good footage but unfortunately we noticed that the flap was hanging open the whole time! We could clearly see catch escaping from it and had to totally rethink our plans. We could not show the footage to the fishermen as they would be horrified- and we could hardly keep on fishing with a net with a great big hole in it- it would have distorted the data and cost the crew money in lower catches. So we had to do a quick think and change the flap. Nick had said it was likely too heavy, so we looked for some smaller, lighter mesh to replace it. It's just been me, mel and gill up there since Saturday night and we don't have any experience when it comes to the technical side of TEDs like this. But one of the crew members worked out exactly what to do and replaced the flap in a couple of hours. Absolute legend- amazing skills and really saved us. We put the cameras on this morning and the new flap seems to be working well, although the light wasn't great so isn't too clear. We had a bumper catch last night though which is very promising.Video below is a clip of the gap in the net- the flap should be sitting flush against the bottom of the TED, but it can be clearly seen that it is not.

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Well I realise I've been writing for ages now and I hope it all makes some kind of sense, apologies if it doesn't. But basically, I've been on this bloody trawler from 4pm to 8am the next day, sleeping on cooler boxes at the front of the boat (modelled below by Gill). It's been relatively uncomfortable, although not drastic. Have taken pillow and huge blanket from the hotel room to aid in comfort. I think they're a bit confused as to why we go out in the afternoon then come back in the following morning looking like total shit. Oh well. The boat hauls at midnight and it takes about an hour to get the net in and sort the catch out. We have to record pretty much everything to do with the catch and then I can get back to sleep until the second haul at 6am. As you can imagine fishing for prawns isn't very selective and there are all sorts of bycatch even with a TED. However, the vast majority of it gets put to use, which is good. Any unwanted fish are sold for fertilizer and the only thing that really goes back into the sea are unwanted inverts such as sea cucumbers and juvenile crabs. I got a pretty cool photo of some bycatch before it's shoved through the hatch, straight back into the sea.

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The first night we slept on the roof of the boat as there are significant amounts of cockroaches and other creepy crawlies on the deck, although they do tend to hide away quite a lot. I've also seen a few rats now and again, which isn't overly cool but I'm trying not to think about it. Lots of hand washing! Unfortunately we didn't know that the top was made of fibre glass so were pretty much cut to shreds, even though they were tiny. Learnt our lesson quickly though. So we get back to the hotel in the morning, I go for a dip and then a shower and then start looking through the video. We have to put all the data into the computer about the catch also. Cameras need recharging and we place them in these containers with silicon something or other to dry the air out so they don't mist up in their underwater casing when filming. We normally go eat before we get on the boat about 2-3 o'clock and have been living like that for the last 5 days. Quite surprised how easy it is living off 1 meal a day, a lot better than I thought It'd be. The fishermen cook some of the catch at night but cook all the weird stuff that I just really don't want to try at all. There is a canned drink over here called 100 plus that I'm slowly becoming addicted to also. It's an isotonic drink and is a real pick up for when you're feeling tired. It tastes like lilt but it's only semi fizzy so it's really good to drink.

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The port itself is interesting. Kudat doesn't get many visitors and me and Gill are literally the only white people (or 'Mat Salleh') in the town, and definitely in the port. 90% of people can't speak a word of english here and the rest can just about get out "hello my friend" or "where you from?" but even so we are sort of celebrities round the port apparently- it's that strange to see us there. Everyone stops what they are doing when you walk past. At first it was very weird and unnerving. It was uncomfortable to say the least. But it's getting better now people are getting used to us being there. The thing with the port is there are a hell of a lot of boats as can be seen from below, and not much space to moor. So if you get a spot by the jetty you are very lucky- otherwise you have to moor up to the nearest boat. and then jump from boat to boat until you get to the jetty. It can be 4 or 5 boats away. The jumps are normally fine but some can be a little scary- more just because I don't want to be the buffoon who misses, which I can certainly see coming if you give me long enough. Fingers crossed though. Anyway, I think that's enough!! Will write again soon- probably tuesday or something as that's when I go back to Kudat. Back in KK for some R&R- diving the next 2 days and got a MARXAN course I managed to get on on monday with WWF. Should be good experience! Some more photos below. x

Oh I went to see Inception last week- very good film although will need to watch it again, makes you think a lot. Only cost £1.50 at the multiplex too- bargain!

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Posted by mburgass 23:39 Archived in Malaysia Tagged events

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