Fishy decision: Sector

(Daily Express) Kota Kinabalu: The local fishing sector is puzzled over the decision to allow foreign vessels to fish in Sabah waters when no less than the Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia (LKIM) had expressed serious concern over the steep decline in catchment.

United Sabah Fisheries and Boat Owners Association (USFBOA) Chairman Arsani Arsat said the decision only added to the burden of Sabah's fishermen who are already facing many difficulties, besides low catch.

"To allow these foreign fishing vessels to come into our waters means we now have to compete with them. Yet, we have never applied to fish in their countries' waters," he said.

Arsani was commenting on sightings of a number of foreign fishing vessels right in front of the State Capital waters, which turned out to be from Vietnam and had been given permits to fish in Malaysian waters.

Arsani said members of USFBOA had hoped that the Government would have considered priority to local fishermen before letting in others and wants an explanation for the move.

Daily Express understands that while the approval is granted by Federal, however, the recommendation (C2) must come from the State Fisheries Director.

State Fisheries Director Rayner Stuel Galid, when contacted, said the licence was issued by the Federal Fisheries Director-General based on the recommendations of the State Fisheries Department. However, he did not elaborate on the Department's reasons for the approval.

The Sabah Anglers Association also found it ironic for the Federal Government to say one thing and do the opposite where Sabah is concerned and asked whether the Vietnamese have also been allowed to do likewise in Sarawak waters.

Its President Datuk Wilfred Lingham noted that Federal Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Shahrir Samad recently spoke of the need to "study" or "investigate" reports of a steep drop in fish catch both in Sabah and West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia "purportedly to identify the reasons as if this is a new problem."

"Why study the obvious," he asked, also noting LKIM Chairman Datuk Abdul Rahim Ismail's recent call for complaints of dropping fish catch to be investigated. "It's not time to study but time to act," he said.

Lingham scoffed at talk that the move may have to do with teaching local fishermen how to fish better. He said it had been clear through numerous court convictions that many Vietnamese fishermen had been caught fishing for protected species like turtles, etc, off Sabah and Labuan.

"Besides, it is common knowledge that wherever these Vietnamese operate, there is almost always a 'mother ship' lurking nearby where most of the catch is transferred to."

He said notwithstanding these fears, it may also become another issue for the opposition since the livelihood of Sabah's fishermen, most of who comprise poor Bumiputras, is bound to worsen.

Lingham said marine scientists have studied the dwindling fish stock issue for the last 30 years and reasons for fish stock depletion have been widely published everywhere for anyone who cares to take note.

Citing the Asia-wide study, he said the total biomass of fish, that is, its abundance at any one place and time in terms of weight at shallow depths along the West Coats of Peninsular Malaysia has fallen by about 90 per cent!

Lingham cited Vietnamese Representative of the UN Environment Programme Vo Si Tuan, who warned that the South China Sea has taken an "environmental battering" which threatened future food supplies.

Vo said governments have failed to factor the marine environment for active protection in their head long rush to industrialise. He said they also turned a blind eye to both overfishing and use of destructive fishing methods from small time fishermen to industrial deep sea trawlers, both fish stocks and coral reefs, coastal mangrove forests and seagrass which breed, house and feed these fish stocks had depleted or lost at an alarming rate to pollution and habitat destruction.

"The key issue on a basin scale (South China Sea for instance) are habitat degradation and loss, overfishing and land-based pollution," said Lingham, quoting Vo, in addition to methods like drift-nets, long lines, trawling, pakang, bombing, use of poisons etc.

" There will be virtually nothing left to fish from the sea by the middle of the century if current trends continue " Lingham quoted a November 2006 article by BBC environment journalist Richard Black who warned that "this century is the last for wild seafood."

In this regard, Lingham said Malaysian leaders should start taking home opinions of ordinary fishermen who have gone to the press complaining their plight.

The paradox is that while these fishermen are crying out about their problems, the issuance of licences for long line fishing – one of the deadliest and most depleting fishing methods – is still considered.

In Sabah, the excesses of fishing methods are also damaging to the marine food chain. Lingham cited the hundreds of "Pakang" or platforms over the sea with nets below for catching anchovies in Cowie Bay, Tawau.

This is "destructive" on at least two counts, Lingham asserted.

One, it routinely makes 20 to 30 per cent throw-backs of dead fish (unwanted fish) back to the sea because these guys are so singularly focused on anchovies that they consider any other fish a nuisance.

"The other point is that big and valuable fish like travalley, snappers, ikan tenggiri, etc, rely on small fish to sustain their populations and overfishing of small anchovies will disrupt their food chain.

Lingham quoted one veteran angler saying that 10 years ago, coming back with 50kg from any single line and hook fishing trip be it the west or east coats of Sabah was "sub-sub-sui (easy)" but nowadays, one is lucky to be able to land just 6kg.