The fishermen and farmers of Malaysia upon whose blood, sweat, and toil the nation was built, deserve better, says Khoo Salma Nasution.
We read with great interest recent media reports on how off-shore sand mining and reclamation have jeopardised the livelihoods of thousands of coastal fishermen.
It was also reported that the destruction of mangrove forests and the encroachment of foreign fishermen have damaged marine habitats and further worsened these fishermen’s already tenuous existence.
We welcome the statement made by Muhammad Faiz Fadzil, chairman of the Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia (LKIM), highlighting sand mining activities and its destructive consequences. But we would like to point out that coastal land reclamation activities have had similar deleterious, if not worse, impacts on Malaysia’s marine habitat.
Reclamation projects in the Penang waters have led to markedly reduced catches by our coastal fishermen. This grave situation calls for concerted and coordinated rehabilitative strategies by the authorities and stakeholders to halt this trajectory of destruction of the environment and continued hardship on these affected fishermen.
Interviews with inshore fishermen from Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah, Gurney and Paramount during a complaints session for fisherfolk organised by Sahabat Alam Malaysia, the Consumers Association of Penang and Penang Forum, pointed to a significant decline in their catch in terms of volume and diversity following the start of reclamation projects of Seri Tanjung Pinang (phases 1 and 2) and Gurney Wharf in 2016.
The fishermen said that large prawn catches have dropped from 15kg daily before reclamation to a mere 1-2kg a day. Some fishermen say that clams, pomfret and ikan sembilang (eel catfish) have virtually disappeared from the area while other fish have also reduced drastically.
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Nearly all of those interviewed mentioned the deterioration of sea water quality after reclamation. A fisherman who previously earned RM2,000 a month before reclamation now makes RM600 a month.
Almost all the fishermen interviewed say that while they had a relatively comfortable existence before reclamation, their lives are now one of hardship and uncertainty.
In the fishermen’s complaints session at Bagan Ajam, the fishermen interviewed said that the Butterworth Outer Ring Road reclamation project that was completed in 2005 badlyaffected the quantity and diversity of the catch in the area.
Up till now, the sea and marine catch has not recovered from pre-reclamation levels. One fisherman said that at one time, he could catch between 50 and 70 pomfrets (ikan bawal) a day but after reclamation this has dropped to two a day.
The fishermen in the Bagan Ajam interviews also said that the sea water is now dirty, muddy and turbid in the area. Some even said the polluted sea has caused them skin problems. Others complained that they often pull out jellyfish (obor-obor) and sea urchins (landak laut). The increased debris in the sea frequently damage their nets; which are expensive to replace.
The sea between Butterworth and Tanjung Tokong was famous for ikan kembung (Indian mackerel), which used to be so affordable it was fed to cats. It is rare to find significant amounts of ikan kembung these days, and therefore the local people are deprived of the “people’s fish” (ikan rakyat).
It is worth noting that these fishermen are amongst the most reliable stewards of the sea, because any change to the conditions of the sea will have direct bearing on their daily income. They know what are the optimal marine conditions that will attract the most fish; they know the areas near the coast where the fish come to breed.
They know profoundly when the sea is burdened by pollutants and sediments because of the reduced number of fish they catch, or the very absence of any fish. They do not have a myopic zero-sum perspective because traditional fishing is an economic activity that thrives on sustainable and sensible handling of fish stock, the sea and the coastal environment, for the long term.
The pollution resulting from reclamation, sand-mining and dumping may also affect the billion-ringgit marine aquaculture industry. Penang was recently hit by Typhoon Lekima, which was said to have stirred up pollution from the seabed, resulted in a fish kill of 50,000 fish and caused great loss to the aquaculture industry. Recently, several other pollution events were recorded in Batu Feringghi, Teluk Bahang and Teluk Kumbar.
There could be several causes of pollution but with reclamation works in progress, pollution in the seas of Penang has reached saturation point.
With all this in mind, we would like to propose that LKIM and/or the relevant government ministries and departments immediately commission an in-depth study by an independent institution of unquestionable reputation, on the impacts of reclamation.
From these findings, they can then make informed policy recommendations to the government on how to rehabilitate the affected areas both on land and sea. If the study finds that full rehabilitation is impossible then there should be a moratorium on any future reclamation.
We know that reclamation and/or sand mining projects are being planned in Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johore and Sabah, with no regard whatsoever for the inshore fisherfolk community.
The fishermen and farmers of Malaysia upon whose blood, sweat, and toil the nation was built, deserve better as we celebrate the 62nd anniversary of Merdeka.
Khoo Salma Nasution is a Penang Forum steering committee member.