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Memo to Penang chief minister: You are not qualified to teach fishermen about fishing!

Do you think the fish will be comfortable to remain in the area or even close to it, once reclamation work starts?

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Dear Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow

Surely you know Malaysia was once the world’s biggest tin producer. What happened after all the rich deposits were mined one way or other – using floating dredges or open cast mines?

After the areas rich in tin ore were mined and it became unprofitable to mine the areas with very little ore, the mines closed shop.

Suppose tin ore were something that kept “reproducing” itself so that the supply never exhausted, wouldn’t the mines still be operating?

In comparison, the bay of Teluk Kumbar has an unending supply of fish and prawns. The inshore fishing industry here has been operating for centuries without suffering the fate of the tin mines, which operated for only a small fraction of the time that inshore fishing has operated. This is for the simple reason that fish keep reproducing themselves all the time, so long as they are left alone to do so in their habitat where there is ample food and good shelter for them.

What do fish like the kembung (Indian mackerel) and other shallow water species need in order to keep reproducing? They need an area of the sea that is shallow, well sheltered from strong currents, has plenty of food, is quiet and peaceful, for fish also need rest and sleep! Sea grass meadows are the perfect place that provide all these.

There is no human input needed to feed the fish. What is needed is good sunlight to keep their food chain running on ‘autopilot’. The sunlight keeps the underwater sea meadows in shallow waters lush to provide all that the fish need for living and reproducing in an unbroken cycle. Sea meadows are akin to fields of underwater ‘lalang’ in shallow mud flats.

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Now, your grandiose fantasy reclamation project is going to destroy permanently the sea grass meadows that cover the whole of the mud flats that make up the bay of Teluk Kumbar. I am wondering whether you are even knowledgeable about this or are just regurgitating what your ‘developer experts’ have educated you about dumping about 189 million cubic meters of sand and rock to bury the sea grass meadows and create a fairy-tale city to make tons of money.

With tongue-in-cheek, you say, “We would like to assert here that we do not have to choose between PSR [Penang South Reclamation] and safeguarding the fishermen and food security. We can do both because fishermen will still be able to fish when the reclamation begins.

“During that period, fishermen will still have unobstructed access to the sea. Therefore we disagree with the deputy minister that PSR will be a disaster to fishermen” (Buletin Mutiara, 13 June 2021). (“That period” refers to the 20-year reclamation period.)

This only shows how naive you are about the subject. Having access to the sea is not the be all and end all of inshore fishing, as you nonchalantly state. There must be a sufficient stock of fish in an area of the sea to make fishing there worthwhile.

Once work starts, with machinery dredging out the mud and the sea grass, transporting the dredged material a few miles away and dumping it into another part of the sea, and more machinery bringing in sand to dump in the dredged area, do you think the fish will be comfortable to remain in the area or even close to it?

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It is foolhardy to fantasise that the fish will just move a little further out to the sea and loiter (or ‘lepak’) there for the fishermen’s harvest. Is there any scientific study done to show this? Otherwise what is the basis for you to say so? Saying so without any solid data is just a flight of fantasy, a false representation.

Fish are as much disturbed as humans by any nuisance around their habitat. Do you know that the houses fronting Green Lane (now Jalan Masjid Negeri) were a coveted residential area. But when the road was widened and traffic increased, it so disturbed the peace and ambience of the residential area that residents moved out. Almost all the houses are no longer residential, but have been turned into commercial premises. The place is just not conducive for human residence. The situation for the fish in the bay of Teluk Kumbar will be worse as you are going to totally destroy the whole habitat of the fish.

When construction work disturbs the fish in the bay of Teluk Kumbar what with the noises of the machinery; the murky waters due to very fine particles of mud that would make breathing difficult (fish also breathe), like heavy diesel smoke affects human breathing; and no similar mud flats covered with sea grass to set up a new home, where do you think the fish will go? Will they just hang around outside the reclamation area where the fishermen can still go “unobstructed” by the construction works to harvest them? What a daydream!

Dr Jillian Ooi, an expert on sea grass, marine scientist and senior lecturer with Universiti Malaya’s Geography Department refers to sea grass meadows as “the unsung hero of the marine world” and explains that they play a very important part in our lives, ie they serve as a form of nursery for fishes and also attract a lot of the fish we consume on a daily basis.”

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Dear CM Chow, you have no personal experience in inshore fishing or of where and how fish breed in the wild (ie not in cages, but the open sea). So please do not try to be a teacher to the fishermen, who have had decades of on-the-job experience, which is the best form of experience. Their experience has been passed down from generation to generation and has stood the test of time solidly. It is not a dying industry as the state government has mischievously tried to portray, but an evergreen or self-sustaining industry that is thriving and feeding tens of thousands of Penangites daily.

So, please do not continue being in obstinate denial that the bay of Teluk Kumbar is an irreplaceable sea grass meadow, home and breeding grounds for fish and other sea life and an important source of fresh seafood – cheap protein for the middle and lower-income people.

Food security does not consist of preserving only the paddy fields in Penang as the state has stated, which is appreciated, but also of preserving other sources of food. So why is preserving the sea grass meadows in the bay of Teluk Kumbar not only not in the state’s agenda of FOOD SECURITY, but conversely in the anti-food security agenda of the developers? – The Malaysian Insight

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