For the Love of Fish

By Shantini Guna Rajan, WWF-Malaysia Marine Programme Senior Policy Officer
In conjunction with World Fisheries Day, 21 November 2015

Are you a seafood lover? Are you a responsible member of the esteemed fishing community or industry which is worth almost RM9 billion? Do you love marine creatures and implement restraint in your seafood choices? You may be a contributor to the sustainable management of our living marine resources. You may even be a considerate and concerned Malaysian who wants to ensure that future generations can enjoy our marine resources.

Love and dependence upon something should translate into adequate management and protection but unfortunately, our national fisheries are under threat by air, sea and land. Whilst our seas are plagued with overfishing and destructive fishing methods, land-based pollution and unsustainable coastal development, and the looming severity of global warming intensify the pressure on our already collapsing fisheries.

Seafood at What Cost – Is Demand Driving the Collapse of Our Fisheries?
Malaysians are the biggest consumer of seafood in Southeast Asia and consumed 1.57 billion kilograms of seafood in 2013. Driven by our insatiable demand for seafood, Malaysia’s fishery resources have been over-exploited and almost 90% of Malaysia’s bottom-dwelling fish stock has declined due to unsustainable fishing practices, such as the use of trawlers. Fishery resources are pushed to the verge of collapse and the environment is being damaged in the process.

Scientists predict a ‘global collapse’ of species being fished by 2048 (Worm et al., 2006). WWF’s Living Blue Planet report (September 2015) shows some fish species have declined by close to 75 percent, all of which have impacted the fishing industry while depriving people of an essential protein supply. Furthermore, government subsidies seeking to ensure food security by increasing fishing capacity in turn increases fishing costs and reduces fishing efficiency.

The marine fishery of Malaysia is in an unhealthy state as majority of fish stocks have been overexploited. With increasing number of vessels equipped with modern technologies used in fishing (echo sounders, bigger fishing nets and advance refrigerator system), more and more marine fish stocks are facing the pressure of excessive exploitation. According to the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, in the last 40 years, fishery resources in Malaysian waters had declined significantly from 2.56 tonnes per sq km in 1971 to only 0.21 tonnes per sq km in 2007.

Fish is being caught at the expense of marine biodiversity resulting from use of destructive and harmful gear which also haul in high numbers of juvenile fish and threatened species as bycatch (or unintended catch that make up trash fish).  According to surveys conducted by WWF-Malaysia in 2015, trash fish usually represents 70% to 80% of total catch of trawl net fishing.  Most of the trash fish is a variety of undersized commercial fish species. These species are killed before maturity and so have not yet reproduced to ensure continued stock.

WWF-Malaysia’s surveys also found that coastal fishermen have lost more than half of their fish catch due to limited fish stock resulting from unsustainable fishing practices, including encroachment from trawlers. Furthermore, these fishermen have to increase fishing effort in order to maximize the fish catch. They now have to travel further distances and fish for longer durations.

We should appreciate the difficulties endured by all fisher folk, especially the small-scale fishermen as they have to endure numerous battles ranging from effects of encroachment into their fishing zones to that of climate change and haze in their strive to sustain their livelihoods. Also, in the event of an actual collapse in our fisheries, these fishermen will likely be the first victims as their livelihood as well as food security are directly impacted. During the recent spell of haze, small-scale fishermen were reported to be unable to fish in Kuala Perlis due to poor visibility of less than 500 metres, which affected their livelihood. (The Star, Haze: Perlis fishermen’s income affected, 5 October 2015).

Farmed seafood can be a solution to wild-caught but it can come at the expense of unsustainable aquaculture practices. Good aquaculture practices are still not being implemented in most of the fish farms in Malaysia. Many farms are located in mangrove areas, discharge untreated water, rely heavily on trash fish as feed and misuse antibiotics.

We may also need to consider the extent to which our current standard of demand for seafood is facilitating the occurrences of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) within our waters. In addition to our demand for seafood, we must also be conscious of the impact our general aim for development has on fisheries, namely coastal development which include mangrove conversion, pollution resulting from land based pollution and so forth.

There is a need to immediately preserve, and in the long term recover fish stocks and marine biodiversity to ensure food security, sustainable livelihoods and sustainable development of the fisheries sector in Malaysia by adopting sustainable consumption and production measures. Consumers, businesses and governments have significant parts to play in reversing the fate of our national fisheries.

Knowledge is Power and With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
As each Malaysian consumes approximately 52 kilograms of seafood annually (Department of Fisheries Malaysia, 2013), it is important for us to start thinking about our seafood consumption patterns and how each of us can play a role to conserve our marine resources for future generations. WWF-Malaysia’s key findings based on a 2009 awareness study showed that only 27% of Malaysian consumers are aware of the alarming decline of fish supply in our seas. Additionally, consumption of endangered marine species, such as sharks and stingrays, is still very high.

To promote responsible consumption, WWF-Malaysia launched a Save Our Seafood (S.O.S) Campaign to focus on creating awareness amongst consumers about the current status of our fisheries, as well as to promote sustainable seafood choices through a seafood guide. This seafood guide was developed by WWF-Malaysia and the Malaysian Nature Society in 2010 (revised in 2013) to help consumers and businesses make responsible choices when buying or eating seafood, and to encourage them to choose sustainable seafood certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) as the accepted gold standard. WWF-Malaysia and students of INTI International College Subang Jaya recently developed a mobile application game called ‘Ocean Redemption’ (download to help raise public awareness on the importance of choosing sustainable seafood.

“Every dollar you spend . . . or don’t spend . . . is a vote you cast for the world you want,” said L. N. Smith. We need to start taking an interest in knowing and asking where the seafood we consume came from and how it was obtained. We need to make informed choices, either in our consumption of seafood or in our pursuit of developmental goals. We can and we need to make a difference.

Leading by Example
The Malaysian Government, in setting the tone for green growth with the 11th Malaysia Plan, calls for fundamental changes across major dimensions which include how policy is determined, how institutions are regulated, how responsibilities are shared, and how people value their environment. In aspiring to achieve a successful green growth trajectory for our fisheries industry, government policies and investments should ensure amongst others the reduction of detrimental impacts of fisheries and aquaculture on marine and other ecosystems, and that natural capital, which includes marine organisms and ecosystems, is valued and sustainably managed.

Consistent with this, it is very encouraging that the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro based Industry (MOA), through the Department of Fisheries (DOF) Malaysia and the Department of Fisheries Sabah, has been working hard on transitioning towards a new fisheries management measure named the Ecosystems Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM). It is also crucial that government investments be channelled towards encouraging sustainable fisheries and aquaculture practices as opposed to incentives which lead to overfishing and overcapacity.

Other notable initiatives undertaken by the MOA include proposing the ban on serving shark fins soup at government events for the purpose of protecting shark species and marine biodiversity conservation, which was endorsed by the Cabinet in May 2014. Another initiative by MOA was the proposal to ban trawling in Zone B by 2016.

As a signatory to the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF),  the Malaysian Government is also committed to implement activities supporting the Malaysian National Plan of Actions. Malaysia is also committed to the Aichi Biodiversity Target of at least 10% marine areas being protected and managed by 2020. Towards this target, the Sabah State Government was recognised by WWF International in April 2015 for its effort to establish Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), the largest marine park in Malaysia. The gazettement of TMP is a globally significant action that will boost the conservation and biodiversity of the area measuring almost 1 million hectares. Effective management of TMP will ensure the viability of the area’s fisheries resources, a key economic driver in the northern coastal area of Sabah with approximately 100 tonnes of fish – valued at US$200,000 – caught each day.

Building upon Standards
With respect to businesses, WWF-Malaysia highly recommends business owners to adopt sustainable fisheries and aquaculture practices and to continuously strive to improve upon such standards. WWF-Malaysia is currently involved in implementing the Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) and Aquaculture Improvement Project (AIP) to help businesses move towards certification. These projects also ensure that seafood is being caught or produced sustainably through best fishing and aquaculture practices.

If we don’t all take immediate action collectively, irreversible damage and the speculation of collapsed fisheries by 2048 will become a reality. This will severely affect the fisheries industry, such as the fishing sector, tourism and seafood restaurants, leading to significant loss of business and job opportunities. Therefore, for the love of fish and people, please cast your vote for the kind of tomorrow you want with every fish you buy, every fish you choose not to buy, and better still, with every Ringgit you spend.

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