Malaysia is rich in an assortment and plethora of seafood-based culinary delights such as tom yum broth, laksa, budu, fish head curry, keropok lekor and many more. Agriculture and Food Industries Minister Datuk Seri Ronald Kiandee said that Malaysia’s per capita consumption of fish and seafood in Malaysia has been 46.9 kg annually and ranks second in Southeast Asia behind Cambodia’s 63.2 kg annual consumption (see “Self-sufficiency level of fish resources at 92pc, says minister”, Malay Mail, July 28, 2020).
It goes without saying that Malaysians are heavily dependent on seafood – which means primarily commercial catches and landings, i.e., from our waters.
However, it’s reported a few months ago that the sighting of fish in Malaysia had decreased, especially in the north of the peninsula, by up to 70%, as highlighted by the Chairman of National Fishermen’s Association (Nekmat) Abdul Hamid Bahari (see “Fish in the ocean has been depleting since seven years ago”, Getaran, May 24, 2022).
According to an unnamed source from the Fisheries Department, the issue of the decrease in fish sightings started in 2015 due to the enormous number of catches every year, with illegal fishing as one of the primary causes.
It’s part of the broader global trend as noted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) which reported in 2018 that almost 90% of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted (see “90% of fish stocks are used up – fisheries subsidies must stop”, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development/Unctad, July 13, 2018).
Despite recent claims that fish stocks are recovering, scientists warn against overly optimistic global fisheries evaluations based on individual diagnostics that fail to represent the complexity and uncertainty of global fisheries datasets (see “Recovery of assessed global fish stocks remains uncertain”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences/PNAS, July 26, 2021).
It’s no surprise then that the South China Sea, home to “half” of Southeast Asia’s main fishing hotspot (the other being the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea), is also facing the same predicament.
According to the research report “Sink or Swim: The future of fisheries in the East and South China Seas” (2021) by research scientists from the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, by the end of the century, the South China Sea’s main commercial species would have critically declined by 90% in weight (biomass) due to overfishing and the consequences of a severe climate change scenario.
“Overfishing” refers to capturing fish at excessively high rates, causing fish populations to become depleted and unable to recover.
Source: Blueprint for Fisheries Management and Environmental Cooperation in the South China Sea (as cited in “The threat of overfishing”, The ASEAN Post Team, 17 September 2018)
This is because in this region, overfishing occurs due to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
For example, the total catch per unit effort in the Gulf of Thailand – which is adjacent to the South China Sea – has decreased by 86% since 1966 (see “The threat of overfishing”, The Asean Post, September 17, 2018).
According to the FAO, the yearly effect of IUU fishing In Indonesia is between USD10 billion and USD23 billion (see “Calculation Model of Economic Losses Due to Illegal Fishing Activities in Indonesian Territorial Waters”, Conservation Strategy Fund, 2018).
In Malaysia, we lost RM6 billion to IUU fishing in 2016, and even though enforcement and monitoring were tightened, we still lost RM4.2 billion in 2019 (See “MP SPEAKS: M’sia should ratify treaties to protect our fisherfolk, oceans”, Malaysiakini, October 20, 2021). Again, overfishing and poaching – which includes harmful fishing techniques such as fish bombing or blast fishing, the use of dragon traps and push nets, bottom trawling, etc. as well as encroachments by foreign fishermen – have all contributed to the decrease in our fish stocks.
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Malaysia reports that bottom trawling which sweeps up everything on the ocean floor, is one of the most destructive fishing methods and is responsible for the destruction of thriving marine ecosystems, including coral reefs. Some of the fish species that fishermen used to capture 30 to 40 years ago are no longer being seen in the oceans (See “Tackle overfishing to halt depletion of resources – WWF Malaysia”, New Straits Times, November 23, 2021).
Source: Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMAA) as cited in Crime Statistics Malaysia 2021
Last year, the investigative journalism team R.age reported that the decline in fish stocks under our Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) facing the South China Sea has been noticeable since the influx of foreign fishermen, especially Vietnamese trawlers.
Crime statistics provided by the Department of Statistics (Dosm) indicated that Vietnamese fishermen are the most frequent violators (please refer to the graph above). These Vietnamese trawlers have caused damage to coral reefs in our waters.
Our fishermen too aren’t spared the claims of illegal fishing in our neighbour’s waters.
In 2012, Malaysia and Indonesia ratified an MoU (memorandum of understanding) on common guidelines for the protection of fishermen. The MoU was renewed in 2020 to establish a joint fishery development area.
However, in 2021, R.age reported that harassment of our fishermen by the Indonesian authorities continued. This would be due to the territorial disputes between the two countries some areas on the other “side”, i.e., the Straits of Malacca.
There have been occasions when Indonesia’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry’s patrol ships cornered vessels with Malaysian flags in the Natuna Sea only for the fishing crew to turn out to be Laotians.
Natuna Island is known to be blessed with an abundance of marine resources. According to data gleaned from the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry in 2020, there was a potential of 327,976 tonnes of pelagic fish there. There are also demersal fish (159,700 tonnes), squid (23,499 tonnes), crabs (9,711) tonnes, crabs (2,318 tonnes), and lobster (1,421 tonnes) per year.
More than that, Indonesia is known to be one of the top tuna producers in the world. The country has a 15% share in the world’s output of tuna, skipjack tuna, and mackerel tuna. The average rise in the output of tuna in Indonesia was 3.66%, greater than the global average increase of 3.32%.
Since fisheries is a regional issue, there’s a need for stronger and more concerted regional cooperation among Asean member states (AMS).
At the bilateral level, Malaysia and Indonesia this year have agreed to host joint-patrols along the Straits of Malacca and North Natuna Sea which connect both countries with the aim of reinforcing maritime security against illegal fishing. The Indonesian Marine Affairs and Fisheries Minister Sakti Wahyu Trenggono said that illegal vessels are usually the ones that harm the sustainability of fish stocks due to their overfishing and destructive fishing practices (see “Indonesia, Malaysia to hold joint patrols against illegal fishing”, Mongabay, February 1, 2022).
Joint patrol should also be done together with other AMS to combat IUU in the South China Sea – which can build on the policy contents under the Development of an Asean General Fisheries Policy (AGFP) Feasibility Study Report (2020).
Some of the key objectives of the AGFP are:
rebuilding depleted fish stocks;
managing environmental and climate change risks to the fisheries sector; and
combatting IUU and related activities.
As of February 2022, Thailand has imposed a temporary moratorium (ban) on commercial fishing in the Gulf of Thailand until mid-June this year to rebuild marine resources in the meantime.
The prohibition is being implemented in two stages. The first which covers 27,000 square kilometres and the second covering 5,300 square kilometres (see “No commercial fishing in the Gulf of Thailand from 15 February until mid-June”, The Nation, February 12, 2022).
This policy measure should also be considered as part of an Asean action plan to promote the recovery of fish stocks in the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca, etc.
Currently, Asean only has a Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Cooperation on Fisheries 2021-2025 which has six strategic thrusts.
To take Strategic Thrust 1 as an example: Among some of the areas identified for implementation are:
Stock-take on the infrastructure investment and technology requirements of the fisheries and aquaculture sectors;
Conduct regional assessment on the efficient utilisation of fisheries resources and in reducing post-harvest losses; and
Promote the implementation of the Regional Guidelines on Cold Chain Management for Seafood.
Strategic Thrust 6 talks about:
Conduct pilot testing of ASEAN Catch Documentation Scheme for Marine Capture Fisheries (ACDS) in selected in AMS;
Assess the implementation of ASEAN Regional Plan of Action to Manage Fishing Capacity; and
Establish the ASEAN Network for Combating IUU Fishing (AN-IUU).
Notwithstanding, we should still strive for a Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – similar to the EU (European Union) where we can set quotas on the total allowable catches (TAC) and the concomitant of landing obligations (i.e., the number or amount of fish netted or deducted against the TAC quotas), enforce the ban on destructive fishing practices more effectively and on a sustainable basis, enable and empower systematic joint-action on a regional basis, etc. with the exception of freedom of movement, i.e., of fishermen and fishing vessels.
After all, Asean has already sought the technical assistance of the EU for its fisheries policy framework under the Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument (E-READI).
Instead, as proposed in an EMIR Research article entitled, “Regional and Bilateral Solidarity, Cooperation and Coordination in Food Security Policy” (April 22, 2021), we also suggested that Asean’s version of a CFP be used to support massive aquafarming projects in border regions (e.g., run by cooperatives in both countries) that “capture” and re-designate the smooth cross-border movement of fishes within the zonal limits for the purpose of commercial breeding.
This not only promotes joint/cross-border investment from the private sector but also a more viable alternative to deep-sea fishing which can often result in an unfair playing field, among others.
Jason Loh and Anis Salwana Abdul Malik are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.