11 January 2009

Disappearing fish and prawns in Malaysia

Half the fish sold in Malaysian markets today may disappear if measures are not taken to protect mangroves, seagrasses and reefs.
A pot full of fishes
Hundreds of Malaysian coastal fishermen struggling to fill their nets have this stark warning: address pollution, mangrove loss and destructive fishing methods or coastal fisheries that supplies over half the fish sold in markets today will end.

Two major groups of fishermen sent a memorandum to the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Ministry in November, along with a list of fish that they say are becoming scarce. It includes several varieties of shark, rays, groupers and popular threadfins like senangin and kurau.

The groups call for an end to policies that push inshore fishermen towards deep-sea fishing and aquaculture.

Instead, the groups ask the government to focus on halting the destruction of mangrove ecosystems, which fishermen depend on for their livelihood, for development and aquaculture projects.

Fishermen blame the declining catch on development and trawlers that encroach into their fishing zone, netting all the fish and leaving them little. Pontian fishermen also share their crowded waterway with giant cargo ships. Ships plying the Straits of Malacca navigate through Pontian waters before reaching the Port of Tanjung Pelepas -- Johor's busiest cargo port.

"It has reached a point where sometimes, even fishermen do not have fish to eat." said one fisherman.

Coupled with the pollution and unpredictable weather, inshore fishermen have been hit hard. "Mangrove forests, corals and artificial reefs in the sea have also gone down," he said. "Fishermen must be taught that they cannot destroy these reefs and mangroves. Agencies, on their part, must be firm in enforcement."

An Asia-wide study by the World Fish Centre and Fisheries Research Institutes of Malaysia among others, found that over a 20-year period since 1971, the total biomass of fish at shallow depths along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia has plunged by about 90 per cent.

Prawns also disappearing

In a paper presented at the National Fisheries Symposium in 2006, Universiti Malaya's Professor Dr Chong Ving Ching drew a link between mangrove loss and falling prawn catches.

Between 1980 and 2004, he noted that Malaysia lost about 23 per cent of its mangrove forest reserves. Then he compared it with landings of Penaeid prawns and Acetes shrimp over the last 30 years. After the 1990s, Penaeid prawn yields plunged to 65 per cent of its potential yield by 2003. Similarly, Acetes (another kind of shrimp) catches fell by 50 per cent.

The causes are manifold and complex, she explains, ranging from environmental to enforcement. But of greatest concern, says her colleague Tan Kim Hooi, is mangrove loss.

Between the 1970s and 2005, the country lost about 20 per cent of its coastal mangroves. Senangin, promfret, kurau and prawns depend on these coastal ecosystems. While government policy discourages conversion of mangroves, the wetlands are still making way for aquaculture, housing and oil palm plantations, says Tan. They laid part of the blame on destructive fishing methods like modern trawlers, mechanised push nets and traditional bagnets or pompang.

"We need practicable solutions that cover ecosystem protection, enforcement, pollution and illegal gear control. We must implement special species recovery plans and protect broodstocks."

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