Milk fish and cockles bring returning prosperity

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Mumtadar called from the pond where he was setting nets.  Life was good since they planted the mangroves along the dyke, he said.  He caught more fish in his pond, and they grew bigger and quicker.

A decade ago, these ponds – close to the northern shore of Aceh a couple of hours drive from the capital, Banda Aceh – were wrecked. The tsunami had washed over the dykes and filled the ponds with sand.

The villagers had been grateful to aid agencies and the government reconstruction agency for digging out the ponds, and getting them started again. But now they thanked Wetlands International and its partners for setting up a project to plant the bare and treeless ponds with mangroves.

It was a counter-intuitive idea. After all, only a decade before, the fishers in the small community of Grong-Grong Capa, near the town of Ulim, had been removing the existing natural mangroves to create the ponds in the intertidal waters. But it had worked. The mangroves now harbour lots of wildlife and have proved super-productive.

Mumtadar said white herons were returning, looking for food in the ponds. But he didn’t mind.

The ponds had originally been dug to help villagers get rich growing shrimps. That idea soon faded when white-spot syndrome, caused by a virus, started to kill the shrimps. After much experimenting, they started to grow milkfish instead.

Mumtadar said he rented the two-hectare ponds from the village. He hauled 1.2 tonnes of milkfish from it twice a year. Selling the fish at roughly a dollar per kilo, he made a good living, even after buying larvae and renting the pond. He said the mangroves were part of his success.

Planting the mangroves had been a substantial task. Villagers formed a group of 30 people, one person from each village household. That was the rule, said Nurbaidah, a member of the organising committee. “We planted 16,000 trees altogether,” she said as we talked outside her home beside one of the ponds.  “They are getting thicker and thicker now.

The mangroves provide shelter and nutrients for the fish in the ponds. But that wasn’t all. “They protect our homes from the wind and waves, and reduce erosion of the dykes,” she said. “And we found that we get lots of cockles around the roots now, too.”

She picked up a bucket from close by her wooden home. It contained several hundred large cockles caught that morning. “Every day we can pick that amount,” she said. Traders come to her door and pay ten dollars a bucket. They will soon be for sale on street stalls as far away as Banda Aceh.

Many other villagers did the same. As the tide receded I watched others clamber over the dyke and plod through the mud carrying large buckets.

This village and its neighbours were lucky during the tsunami. Being on the eastern shore of Aceh, they did not get the full force of the wave. Everyone survived in Grong-Grong Capa. But it was a close thing.  “We heard a roar from the sea,” remembered Nurbaidah. “I had a 14-month old daughter, and I was pregnant. But we just ran. We ran about a kilometre and by that time the water was round our knees.”

One man died in the next village because, after the first wave retreated, he noticed huge numbers of fish on the shore and went to pick them up – only for the second wave to drown him. But memories are fading. Neither of Nurbaidah’s children are old enough to remember the disaster that day. For them perhaps the biggest legacy is the mangroves planted to rebuild after the mayhem.

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