Today the modest profession has not only been overshadowed by giant industries and attractions, but is also facing the most critical period in its untold history. Confronted by rampant development and pollution, some 6,000 inshore fishermen still defiantly ply along the coastlines amid depleting marine harvests and wanton seawater degradation.
The future is hardly promising for the fishermen, many of whom use sampans equipped with small motor engines. The last two decades have seen unprecedented levels of pollution and contamination that have struck alarm bells ringing in the community.
And spectacularly enough, the small rag-tag army of inshore fishermen is now rising to move to the very forefront of a battle to protect Penang's fragile coastal environment.
Leading the movement is the Penang Inshore Fishermen's Welfare Association (PIFWA), led by the soft-spoken but highly dogged veteran Haji Saidin Hussain, currently the group's secretary. Supported by researcher P. Balan who acts as the association's advisor, Saidin and his colleagues are grappling laboriously against bureaucracy and commercialisation to save Penang's waters.
Few places can be as symbolic of the community's struggles as Gurney Drive, where one of the earliest known fishing settlements once existed. Today, a massive reclamation project looms over the seafront promenade where a gigantic bridge connecting the island to the mainland is already on the drawing boards.
Saidin is not just concerned about marine life that would be inevitably wiped out by the more than 2.5 million square metres of reclamation. There are other, more worrying, environmental implications.
"Few people realise this, but by removing so much sea space, tidal patterns can be drastically affected," he said in an interview. Inshore fishermen have in the last four years complained of giant tidal waves that have actually smashed small coastal buildings on both sides of the Penang channel. Such a phenomenon had hardly been seen before.
In fact, the Gurney Drive area was at the centre of a stormy controversy about illegal mud-dumping by commercial barges. The issue may sound trivial, but barges have illegally dumped into Penang's seas literally tonnes of mud from coastal development projects.
Mud dumping has been one of the biggest annoyances for local fisherfolks. According to Saidin, at least 54 species of fish have been endangered due to muddy waters along the northern coastline. Marine species such as the milk-fish (Lactarius lactarius), catfish (Arius sp), otek (Tachysurus utik), leather jacket or ikan lembu (Ostracion cornutus) and even the swordfish (Xiphias) have been severely depleted, he said.
"What makes the problem worse is that the mud, dumped indiscriminately into the deep waters, is pushed onto the shore by coastal tides," Saidin said.
The situation had once become so bad that the Penang International Hoteliers Association had actually lodged a complaint with the government. Beach hotels were understandably frustrated that the muddy waters were affecting business.
Penang has a very sorry record of coastal pollution. And inshore fishermen have been badly hit with declining harvests.
Most of the island's polluted rivers that flow directly to the sea are located on its eastern side where population density is the highest. For instance, research findings have shown an alarming amount of urban waste in Sungai Pinang, one of Penang's most prominent, and most blatantly contaminated, rivers.
In 1997, Sungai Pinang was recorded to have more than 17,000 kg of pollutants thrown into it everyday. Of this amount, 13,539 kg consisted of pig farm waste and 2,929 kg of household waste.
In fact, household garbage and animal waste are the state's main waterway pollutants, followed by industrial discharge. In fact, the 1996 Environmental Quality Report showed high levels of pollutants in Penang's seawaters, with solid waste materials exceeding 50% of the level set by international marine standards and mercury - yes, mercury - by an alarming 20.2%.
The report also revealed high amounts of oil and grease (47.15%) cadmium (2.5%), lead (10.1%) and copper (12.6%).
Local authorities have been concerned that excessive pollutants, including nitrogen-rich sewage, may have catalysed unusually high growths of micro-organisms that consume immense amounts of oxygen in deep waters. Such reduction of oxygen levels can cause marine animals to suffer from anoxia, a condition where there is insufficient supply of oxygen to the tissues.
Two years ago, Penang's coastal areas were reported to have seen thousands of fish dying. The situation may have been provoked by rising sea temperatures related to the global El Nino weather phenomenon. Inshore fishermen were heavily concerned that unusually large numbers of expensive fish, including the siakap (sea-perch), pomfret, senangin (threadfin) and the tengkerong were found dead in Penang waters.
One of PIFWA's strongest ongoing environmental struggles has been to save the island's last remaining mangroves. The fishermen have in bold defiance consistently worked to re-plant mangrove saplings on a controversial 120 ha wetland area at Kuala Sungai Pinang in Balik Pulau. The area has long been earmarked for development in spite of a federal government directive to all states to stop development and agricultural activities in mangrove areas.
The fisher folks' efforts have been lauded by environmental groups and even highlighted by both the local and foreign media. But the community's struggle is far from over.
At the time of writing, tensions are brewing between the fishermen and modern trawler operators who illegally encroach into restricted fishing zones designated only for inshore fishermen. But trawlers are rampantly operating in the zones that cover all 5 nautical miles from the coastline, scooping with their giant nets horrifying quantities of marine life.
"Mother Earth has given us so much richness. But we shamelessly destroy it all without any regard," Saidin said. "The sea means everything to us. It provides our very living.... We will fight to protect this sea that has fed us."
The fishermen's struggle is unique because it arises from a practical, living dependence on nature. The community's effort hits at the core of Penang's environmental future, and the very destiny of its people. It may well be a "fight" that every Penangite has a stake in.