Is a property boom in Malaysia causing a fisheries bust in Penang?

Environmentalists and fishers fear plans to expand the coastline and build artificial islands off Penang will irrevocably change the local ecology.

Fisherman Liew Hock Choon, 50, cut the outboard engine and explained that we have arrived at the position of one of his fish traps. “No GPS,” he said.

Using a method called triangulation, his keen eyes pinpointed natural markers on the shoreline and used these bearings to locate his traps with incredible accuracy.

With an anchor thrown down, he snagged his trap and hauled it up. The deck was soon awash with flapping fish. These are grouper — prized in the restaurants of Penang and beyond, they fetch a premium price and can only be caught with hooks or traps, Liew explained. He said customers travel from as far as Hong Kong to buy these prized delicacies.

“Look at this mud in the traps,” Liew complained as just two of his four traps contained a catch worth keeping. Still, it was a good day under the circumstances.

This area is very rich with mud crab, shrimp, snapper, and grouper, but soon it will all be gone.

Liew Hock Choon, fisherman in Penang

One phone call later and the 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of grouper were snapped up by a restaurant owner eager to purchase them for over 500 ringgit ($113). They were still alive when Liew delivered and weighed them while hungry customers looked on.

“I know this area very well because in my school days I followed one of the fishermen,” said Liew, from Tanjung Bungah a village North of Penang Island’s capital Georgetown. Now the days of his fishing grounds are numbered because of a land reclamation project by a local property developer.

“This area is very rich with mud crab, shrimp, snapper, and grouper, but soon it will all be gone,” said Liew.

An island in transition

The island of Penang, which lies off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, is famed for the British colonial era architecture that won its capital, Georgetown, an inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list. These days, though, soaring land prices mean most of the development is high-rise. 

Housing 2,372 people per square mile as of 2010, the island is the most densely populated place in Malaysia. With demand for real-estate high and land scarce, developers have ambitious plans to build out into the ocean by reclaiming coastal land and building islands made of sand — a drive supported by the Penang State government.

Reclamation projects have already been completed next to the second Penang bridge, which stretches 24 kilometers (15 miles) to the mainland from the island’s Southeast coast.  

Another reclamation scheme, known as the Seri Tanjung Pinang Project has also launched. Stage one, referred to as STP1, was completed in 2006: the 97-hectare (240-acre) extension to the shoreline northwest of Georgetown is filled with luxury housing and an upscale mall.

The project’s second phase (STP2), which involves the construction of a new island as well as additional coastal reclamation, is currently underway.

When STP2 is complete, it will bring the project’s total amount of reclaimed land up to 404 hectares (1,000 acres) of condominiums, shopping malls and leisure facilities. The project will also reclaim a 131-acre coastal strip for a government park.

Plans are also afoot for an even bigger reclamation project on the South of the island at Permatang Damar Laut.

All of these plans have been contested by environmentalists concerned about the impacts on dwindling mangroves, fisheries and birdlife – not only at the construction sites themselves, but also at the mine sites supplying vast amounts of rock and sand.

As Liew and I motored back to shore, we were escorted by a security launch. Guards on board shouted a warning for us to leave the construction area.

On our port side, a rock bund wall was being filled in with sand by diggers, indicating the edge of the new reclamation island. On our starboard, out to sea, tug-boats, pontoons, dredge-ships and sand transport barges filled the sea with heavy construction traffic.

“That is Rat Island” said Liew, pointing to an outcrop of boulders and mangroves that houses a cemetery. A pair of white-bellied sea eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) took off from the rocks as we approached, one carrying a fish in its talons.

According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the second phase of Seri Tanjung Pinang, these eagles are one of ten bird species that are “Totally protected” under Malaysia’s 2010 Protection of Wildlife Act, among a total of 73 bird species found to be inhabiting the project area.

“Those are the only mangroves left,” said Liew pointing to a few isolated trees. Because they provide essential habitat as fish spawning grounds, Liew is especially concerned about their loss, explaining that mangroves used to line the coast all the way to Georgetown six kilometers away. These will disappear with the planned coastal expansion under STP2.

The Seri Tanjung Pinang project

“We have another 760 acres to go,” said Jonathan Yeoh, manager of group corporate strategy with Eastern and Oriental, the development company whose colonial-era flagship hotel graces the waterfront of Georgetown.

It will retain its waterfront view, said Yeoh, but many other buildings will overlook the new island, known as STP2, to be connected by two bridges. E&O subsidiary Tanjung Pinang Development is coordinating construction of the project.

Mageswari Sangaralingam, a research officer for Friends of the Earth Malaysia in Penang questioned whether this style of development is appropriate for Penang:

“There is almost like a glut of residential condos with many lying empty. What we need is low cost: medium-low cost housing projects which are affordable for the people. But then they are building these luxury condominiums which are not affordable. Most are vacant because they are owned by foreigners.”

Yeoh said his company could not comment on the master plan, which remains confidential. However, he was keen to stress that the island developers will set aside “30 percent” to cater for low-cost local housing.

A Chinese contractor, China Communications Construction Company Ltd is undertaking the works, via its wholly owned Malaysian subsidiary.

The company, which claims to be the “world’s largest dredging company,” has considerable experience. As well as working on the 24-kilometer long Penang bridge, it was also involved in construction projects at the Hong Kong and Macao airports. A representative told Mongabay that while it was overseeing the works, it also employed local workers.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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