We found three large fish traps at Terumbu Pempang Tengah last Saturday. One held a few blue-spotted fantail rays and copperbanded butterflyfish. More chaetodontids, Chelmon rostratus as well as Chaetodon octofasciatus, shared a nearby cage with two yellowtail angelfish. The trap, fixed in place near the reef slope by several chunks of live rock and coral, is a modern reinterpretation of a traditional basket; thin wire envelops a steel frame that tapers at one end. Across the other side, the edges converge to form a funnel that surrounds a long cone, which facilitates entry but restricts, with its narrow gape, escape by stricken captives. A third prison housed several rays, groupers, tuskfish and a red egg crab, the last of which is a meal unfit for human consumption.
The proximal ends of a few playschool clippers, driven with rusty force and sore digits, were happily sharp enough to slice through the thin mesh, allowing the fish to make a break for the chasms between these patch reefs west of Pulau Hantu. There is no guarantee of freedom, though, should they succumb a second time to the appetites of boatmen who know, far better than most of their compatriots, the abundance of a straits under siege yet prefer to keep this to themselves and add to its depletion. Horseshoe crabs and other inhabitants of northern mudflats also fall prey to immortal filaments that refuse to let go of their victims, even when those who set them up lose their bearings and allow the nets to drift, phantoms with a fatal touch to every fin and foot. Here, in the shadow of islands trapped between smoke and ash, these snares of plastic and metal threaten an underwater world of colours and creatures with no peers in walls of glass, where life struggles to stay afloat and survive the depredations of an age in which wisdom stops short at the water's edge and sinks out of sight.