RM600 billion Forest City project behind mass fish death, say farmers

forest city johor
An artist's impression of the planned Forest City development project in Johor. Image: Country Garden Pacific View via The Malaysian Insider

Silence now hangs over the dozen fish farms in the Tanjung Kupang waters in the Johor Strait, near a massive land-reclamation project for the RM600 billion Forest City development, which fishermen and farmers suspect contributed to the mass fish deaths in the area earlier this month.

Once a bustling hive of fishing activity, the area near Kampung Pendas, Gelang Patah, is now quiet, the stillness broken only by the sound of the waves lapping against the wooden stilts of the farms, barking of dogs and fish farm operators packing up their items.

Yusaini Majid, 35, has worked at one of the fish farms for more than three years, but he said the farm’s owner wanted to close it down as he was unable to recoup the losses.

“This will be our last month operating. The boss is upset, he doesn’t want to farm fish any more because they keep dying.

“I don’t know what will happen to the farm, the cost of repairs would go up to hundreds of thousands of ringgit,” Yusaini told The Malaysian Insider, adding that he was unsure what to do once the fish farm closed down.

Yusaini was luckier than other farmers. He had acted quickly and managed to save over half of his stock. But he said the remaining fish were of the cheaper kind, which could only fetch up to RM50 a kilogramme.

From afar, I could see the dead fish begin to float to the surface. At first I only saw small fish, but when I went deeper in the ocean, I spotted big ones such as groupers, barramundis, also floating up.

Kamaruzzaman Mohd Yunus, a marine coordinator

This is not the first time the area has been hit by mass fish deaths. In the past, locals have blamed Forest City’s land-reclamation works for the deaths, although the developer, Country Garden Pacific View (CGPV), has denied it.

Previous episodes have also been attributed to plankton blooms, brought about by rapid changes in water temperature, poor water circulation, and higher than usual nutrient levels in the water.

But the deaths in early March were massive, bringing up sea creatures from the depths such as sea horses and moray eel. A BBC report on March 6 said the scene on the beach looked like a “mass grave” and even after the first batch was cleared up, the next high tide brought in a new wave of dead marine life.

Forest City will see four man-made islands built in the waters in Tanjung Kupang between southwest Johor and northwest of Singapore. The mixed-development project will include residential and commercial lots and is expected to take 30 years to complete.

The four reclaimed islands will cover 1,386ha and will lie close to Singapore. In June last year, it was reported that the republic had voiced its concern over the project to the Malaysian government in two diplomatic notes.

In January this year, the Department of Environment (DOE) approved the project’s detailed environmental impact assessment report (DEIA), despite Tanjung Kupang villagers arguing that it would lead to the loss of their land and livelihood.

During a public dialogue on September 21 last year, residents accused CGPV of bulldozing the project through. Fishermen complained of shrinking catches since the reclamation works started.

CGPV is expected to make a profit of nearly RM290 billion over the next 30 years through the project. The company is a 66 per cent-34 per cent joint venture between China’s Country Garden Holdings Ltd and Esplanade Danga 88 Sdn Bhd, whose main shareholder is the Sultan of Johor.

State company Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor (KPRJ) is also a partner in the project.

Residents near the area said this year’s mass fish deaths had even claimed bigger and more resilient fish, such as groupers and catfish.

“From afar, I could see the dead fish begin to float to the surface. At first I only saw small fish, but when I went deeper in the ocean, I spotted big ones such as groupers, barramundis, also floating up. This went on until late in the night,” said marine coordinator Kamaruzzaman Mohd Yunus, 56.

Kamaruzzaman, who preferred to be called Man Pendas, said unlike last year, when only farmed fish were affected, this year’s wave of deaths had also claimed the wild fish in the sea.

“It could be due to the weather or the land-reclamation works, which have polluted the waters… there is definitely a link there,” he said.

“Things are terrible now, it would take years for everything to recover… but what can we do when faced with development? This tiny area is to be developed into something that is beyond our imagination right now.”

The Forest City project is not the only threat to marine life in the Johor Strait. The state government is now developing an area spanning 2,217 sq km, including coastal areas, under the South Johor Economic region (SJER), known as the Iskandar Development Region (IDR), and it is expected to be completed by 2025 at a cost of more than RM47 billion.

Fishermen around Pendas, which is famous for its crabs, told The Malaysian Insider their haul had also reduced considerably.

“At that time, I lost RM1,000 in two weeks as I didn’t catch anything,” said Aziz Sulaiman, 67, who is usually able to earn up to RM2,000 a fortnight from the 20 traps he sets up.

Another fisherman, who only wants to be known as Jai, said he normally catches 50kg of crabs a day, but his haul was reduced to 1kg to 2kg during that period.

“A bucket of crabs is worth only RM15. When the fish died, I was only bringing back one bucket,” he said.

Meanwhile, water taxi driver Azhar Muhammad, 40, said his income had also been affected during the period, as fewer fishermen could use his services to go out to the sea.

“We would inform customers whether the sea’s condition was suitable for fishing. During that time, we told them all the fish had died and advised them to come back in a week or two,” said Azhar, who charges around RM50 for a boat ride.

In January, CGPV claimed that the Forest City project would diversify incomes and improve the quality of life of local communities.

CGPV executive director Datuk Md Othman said workshops and training would be provided as well as infrastructure like a new access road and water reticulation systems, and locals would benefit from the investments the project brought into the area.

He also assured that the firm would work closely with all stakeholders and regulatory authorities to ensure that the needs of the communities as well as the environment would be met.

The company that had prepared the DEIA report had, however, apparently raised caution about the dredging and sedimentation caused by the project that would impact on the seabed, according to the New Straits Times, which had obtained a copy of the report.

The paper said despite the mitigation measures to cushion the environmental impact, including the use of a “silt curtain” around the reclamation area, experts noted that more damage could be expected.

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