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No more fish to catch in our seas in 35 years?

Malaysia may have no more fish by 2048 - a mere 31/2 decades away - if fishermen continue to utilise illegal and destructive methods to fish.

This dire warning was made by Fisheries Department director-general Datuk Ahamad Sabki Mahmood recently, but most Malaysians appear unfazed.

Ahamad said local fishermen using the banned pukat rawa sorong (drag nets) are trespassing into fish breeding areas meant to boost fish population. Such an invasion has seen the fish population declining rapidly in the past 40 years, from 2.56 to 0.21 tonnes per sq km.

“Marine resources will surely become extinct when the banned equipment is used.

“Fishermen should be more responsible and aware that their action would cost the country and the people dearly in the long run.”

Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Wira Mohd Johari Baharom said the use of “crocodile nets”, which have been found to be a threat to marine life, may also be banned.

He said the crocodile net, a drag net modified to expand its width and length, would stay afloat when it was dragged.

Fishing boat operators use this net at night in Kedah to avoid detection by the authorities.

“Since last year, many boat operators in Kedah had been found using such nets to haul tonnes of small fishes to be used as fish fertiliser.”

Threats to sustainable management of Malaysian fisheries are both terrestrial and marine-based, and some of the immediate threats include:

Overfishing — where the fish resource harvested is more than the sustainable level;

By-catch — where the use of non-selective gears such as trawl nets catch non-target species (non-commercial fishes, juveniles of commercial fishes, turtles, dolphins and others). This practice will deplete fish resources, as well as affect the food chain and marine biodiversity;

Destructive fishing practices — many fishermen use cyanide, bombs and electric gears to stun and catch fish easily, but the impact of these practices on the natural habitats of coral reefs, sea grass and the marine environment is devastating; and,

Clearing of natural habitats — which include mangrove forests, mudflats, freshwater swamps, inland water bodies and wetlands. This causes significant deterioration of surrounding ecosystems and in turn deplete natural fish populations that use these areas as breeding, nursery and feeding grounds.

Perak Fisheries director Sani Mohd Isa said each person in Malaysia was expected to consume 55kg of fish per year by 2020, based on the increasing demand for this source of protein.

“A study carried out in 2000 found that the fish requirement for each person per year was 45kg, and this increased to 50kg in 2005. The increase in population each year also creates a higher demand for fish-based food.”

The situation worldwide is also far from rosy. A study by scientists in 2006 found that the loss of ocean biodiversity was accelerating, and that 29 per cent of the seafood species humans consume had already collapsed.

If the long-term trend continued, in 30 years there would be little or no seafood available for sustainable harvest.

As for Malaysia, despite an increase in revenue over the years, the situation on the ground is worrying. Fisheries resources have depleted since 1970, so much so that the fish biomass has declined as much as 90 per cent between 1971 and 1997 in some fishing areas.

This is based on the department’s resource survey to assess demersal fish biomass, growth, mortality, yield and catch-per unit-effort which concludes that the demersal resources for the west coast and east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak was already over-exploited in 1997.

Puteh Mohamad Habib, 72, from George Town, Penang said for Malaysia, the writing was on the wall since the 1970s when certain species of fish were no longer available at markets.

“Among these were ikan serumbu, ikan kurau, ikan ubi and ikan kedera.

“Kedera would sometimes be available once in a long while when it would fetch a high price as it had become a rarity.”

Housewife Rohal Akmar Yahya of Shah Alam, Selangor said species such as ikan belanak, ikan kikik and ikan tamban were now hardly seen in local markets.

Sulaiman Ibrahim, from Penang, said he had not seen ikan kurau, ikan lembu, ikan gerut-gerut, ikan sebelah and ikan gelama at local markets for many years.

“In the 1960s, one could always easily get a lot of ikan gelama off Pesiaran Gurney. Today, one cannot even get ikan pedukang here. It could be due to heavy pollution.

“As for ikan terubok, there is an interesting story from the 1950s.

“There was such an abundance of ikan terubok till the price fell to rock bottom.

“Teluk Bahang fishermen then started throwing the fish back into the sea, and it seems the terubok took offence and totally disappeared from local waters since then.”

Sahabat Alam Malaysia president S.M. Mohamad Idris said SAM and the Consumers Association of Penang have today been vindicated as both had been bringing up the subject of fisheries conservation since 1974, to persuade the fisheries department to conserve mangrove swamps and protect coral reefs, and to avoid big aquaculture projects, “but our efforts were largely ignored”.

“Today, the department has conceded that the country’s fish resources lie in a precarious situation — a deterioration which began almost 40 years ago.

“So what can we do about the situation?

“We cannot just sit back and wait for doomsday to come.

“We cannot also go on allowing the unscrupulous among fishermen to go on using equipment that ravage the seabed day in and day out and wantonly destroy fish habitats. Fish also need time to grow.

“In some countries, a total ban on fishing is imposed during the fish breeding period of between 2 and 3 months.

“Perhaps, we should adopt the same approach,” Idris said.

It has been learnt that the department will continue conducting awareness programmes to educate fishermen on the best methods of fishing and the best equipment to use.

The number of fishing boats in Malaysian waters was maintained at 47,000 while the number of fishermen is 129,000 nationwide.

Mohamad Arisi Mat Nor from Kota Baru, Kelantan said it was high time the department stopped pussyfooting about this crucial issue and realise that it cannot be solved without strict enforcement.

He said the department would be regarded as being naive if it merely continued to expect fishermen to become aware and responsible even after seeing no improvement after almost four decades.

“In Kelantan, we are quite fortunate in that we can still get whatever species of fish we favour. Perhaps this is due to the fact that our supply is largely augmented by Thailand. The lack of ikan tamban for instance, would certainly cripple the keropok industry.”

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