He is one of Malaysia's last "fish listeners".
Mr Harun Muhammad and his apprentice son Zuraini are believed to be the only ones practising this mysterious and dying local art. With one hand clinging to his boat's gunwale, Mr Harun, 68, submerges himself, eyes and ears wide open underwater as he "listens" for fish sounds.
"When you listen, it is like seeing through a looking glass - you can see mackerel, sardine," said Mr Harun, who has fished the Setiu lagoons in Malaysia's rural east coast his whole life.
"For us, we only look for gelama (a type of croaker). But in the schools of gelama, there will be other fish. The gelama is the king of fish."
Once he pinpoints a school of gelama, his crew, who have hung back with engines off, motor forward, drop their nets and strike the sides of their boats to spook the fish into the mesh trap.
Other fish listeners have died, retired or turned to modern fish-detection technology in the face of dwindling catches and proliferating undersea noise.
"The wholesalers tell me, 'if you're gone, there will be no more gelama'," which fetches up to 10 times the price of similar-sized fish. "Pak Harun", as he is known locally, finds it hard to describe exactly how fish sound, but he likens it to pebbles being dropped into water.
"They have a voice. This sound is this fish, that sound is another. When someone is new, they can't tell one fish song from another." Former fish listeners describe a range of techniques. Some claim they can feel changes in water temperature. For Mr Harun, it is a multi-sensory experience requiring eyes wide open.
"After a while, it is as if you can see. Even though the fish is very far, you can sense it is in that direction and you go there. Only when you get close, you can hear the fish clearly," he said.
"You think it's just stupid fish, but they can see you coming. When they hear the sound of the boat, they flee. The fish cry or shout and then their friends swim away," he said.
But Mr Harun's catch is increasingly unpredictable. Studies show Malaysian waters lost 92 per cent of fishery resources between 1971 and 2007 due to overfishing.
Mr Harun averages about RM6,315 (S$2,500) per week, leaving little left after paying the crew, fuel, maintenance and other costs. Said Mr Zuraini, 44: "Each year, the catch reduces. But I'm not good at anything else, so I still have to do this."
Inter-governmental industry researchers Infofish said that Malaysians eat an average of 56.5kg of seafood per person annually, more than even the Japanese. The global average is 20kg.
WWF-Malaysia chief Dionysius Sharma said that overfishing threatens to leave Malaysian waters "vast and barren" and he warned that Malaysia's waters could run out of seafood by 2048.
But Mr Zuraini hopes to train one of his own sons someday, adding: "I don't want to see this practice die off."
This article was first published on August 20, 2014.
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