Cockles are indispensable in mouthwatering dishes like sour and spicy assam laksa, rich and redolent curry mee, as well as aromatic and delicious char kuey teow. Its tender flesh has the glowing scarlet of blood, tasty to eat whether simply being boiled or stir-fried in spicy sauce. However, cockle farming is an industry with high risk levels and dependent on ecological environment. Pasir Penambang, a century-old Chinese fishing village located at the western part of Selangor, was famous for cockle farming in the 1990’s, also renowned for its abundance of fresh seafood and marine products.
Pasir Penambang has natural advantages in soil characteristics, with muddy seabanks along the coast, brackish water which is a mixture of freshwater and seawater, as well as plentiful planktonic organisms for cockles to feed on, therefore an ideal breeding ground for juvenile cockles. In addition, diligent care by breeders helped ensure high survival rates as well as plumpness, the breeding scale and output is preceded only by “the capital of cockles” Kuala Sepetang in Perak. In contrast to Kuala Sepetang which mainly exports outstation and overseas, the cockles of Pasir Penambang only cater for local wet markets.
Having started out as a fisherman since 9 years old, then turned to cockle farming in 1989, Mr Kok Chong Beng (transliteration) is an authority figure in blood cockle farming techniques around Pasir Penambang and even within West Malaysia. Ten years after his retirement, Mr Kok still talks excitedly about blood cockles while sharing his experience in managing breeding sites throughout the years. From juvenile to adult, it takes 14 to 18 months for cockles to mature, in the meantime periodical checks are performed on their growth status, as well as dispersing clustered cockles.
The insightful Mr Kok acknowledged that in order to be profitable, the survival rates of cockles should be at a minimum of 30%. A fruitful harvest combining quantity and quality ensures impressive profitability. The pinnacle of Pasir Penambang cockle yield was 1995 with an annual supply of 40,000 tonnes, yet steeply declined to around 3,000 tonnes in 2015. Back in the glorious 90’s there were dozens of family-run cockle farms in Pasir Penambang, now only a handful remain.
In recent years, marine pollution such as plastic waste and chemical contamination caused severe harm to the survival of cockles, huge amounts of mud and debris from sea-based construction are washed into breeding sites causing cockles to die from suffocation. Climate changes also raise risks faced in cockle farming, for instance the tsunami which occurred towards the end of 2004 not only brought upon stormy waves but also seabed displacement and erosion, inducing mortality rates of cockles. Moreover, natural cockle spawn are getting increasingly difficult to come across, breeders are forced to import cockle spawn from neighbouring countries, resulting in mortality events due to inability to acclimatize hence unfortunate loss of capital.
As rising breeding costs induced soaring market price of blood cockles, profiteering occurred through illegal fishing and smuggling, dealing yet another heavy blow to cockle breeders. Suffering from dwindling supplies and severe losses, several cockle breeders across Malaysia chose to switch career paths or close down. Mr Low Kock Seong who continued to strive despite facing various challenges, had to do everything on his own in order to reduce operation costs. Being 42 years old, he is already the youngest cockle breeder in Pasir Penambang.
Once illustrious, cockle farming in Pasir Penambang met with inescapable complications, how would cockle breeders cope with unpredictable possibilities and threats? Dubious whether they could or not prevail, as cockles become increasingly rare, the future of the cockle farming industry is like a candle flickering in the wind, glimmering with uncertainty.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Michael Lerk
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : For A Moment from YouTube
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