Ban trawl fishing now to prevent the collapse of our fisheries


Malaysian fisheries are facing a collapse as the plunder and mismanagement of our fisheries resources over the decades are depleting our fish stocks.

According to the World Fish data there is a decline of 80-90 % of fish in our waters. One of the main culprits is trawling, which involves dragging huge, heavy nets along the sea floor. Large metal plates and rubber wheels attached to the nets move along the bottom and crush nearly everything in their path.

The Consumers Association of Penang calls on the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro Industry to immediately ban the destructive practice of trawl fishing in our waters. Concurrently it should stop the misguided promotion of aquaculture which uses trash fish as feed. Aquaculture puts demands on the increased supply of trash fish and consequently more trawl fishing.

Trawling is a fishing method which uses nets being pulled through the water behind one or more boats, gathering up fish of various types and sizes but also damaging the ocean floor. Among the countries that have imposed a ban on trawl fishing to protect their fishing resources are Hong Kong, Indonesia, Palau and Belize. In November 2004, the United Nations General Assembly urged nations to consider temporary bans on high seas bottom trawling to allow fish populations to regenerate.

Trawl fishing is allowed in Malaysia. The Fishery Act 1985 (Act 317) only forbids trawlers from fishing in Zone A (5 miles from the shore reserved for small fishermen). This zone however is frequently encroached by trawlers due to poor enforcement. This leads to the depletion of our fisheries resources and threatens the livelihood of small inshore fishermen.

Trawl fishing in Malaysia is increasing rapidly due to the growing demand of trash fish for aquaculture. The major use of trash fish is for coastal aquaculture, since almost 90% of cultured marine finfish involve direct feeding of trash fish. As a result bottom-trawl catch in Malaysia nearly doubled, reaching over 60% of our marine catch. Trawl fishing produces over 90% of our trash fish.

Aquaculture is very inefficient in terms of the use of fisheries resources. The Food Conversion Ratio (F.C.R.) for major aquaculture species varies from 8-15:1, depending on the quality of the trash fish. This means that 8 to 15 kg of feed is needed to produce 1 kg of aquaculture fish. The trash fish which is made up mainly of small fishes also depletes our fish stocks as it does not allow them to grow into big fishes.

In a recent survey conducted by CAP in Kuala Kedah and Sanglang we found that our fisheries resources were being plundered by trawlers as they were bringing in trash fish by the tonnes.

At a fishmeal factory, trawlers brought in their catch directly to a landing berth nearby. The bigger fishes were sorted out and processed into fish paste for human consumption. While the smaller ones were processed into fish meal which is used for aquaculture or added to animal feed to increase its protein content.

We took about 1 kg of the trash fish and separated the different types of fishes in it. We found that there were hundreds of juvenile fishes of 10 different types in the sample.

Some of the juvenile fishes, prawns and squids are of commercial value if they are allowed to grow to maturity. Many of the fishes were smaller than a finger, as tiny as 1 inch in size.

According to a local fisherman over 50 species of fish are either extinct or on the brim of extinction. Overfishing has resulted in difficulty for matured fishes to find a mate to breed. Popular fish species, especially the valuable ones have been caught indiscriminately causing the numbers to plunge dramatically.

As it is the season for the spawning of Ikan Kembong (Rastrelliger kanagurta), a large proportion of the trash fish were made up of it. Some were so small that 900 of these fishes only weigh 1 kg. When matured, 6 Ikan Kembong weigh a kilogram. This means if the 900 juvenile Ikan Kembong from the 1 kg were allowed to grow to maturity they will weigh 150 kg. In other words, we may potentially lose up to 150 kg of fish from 1 kg trash fish.

The habitat for young fish, or fry, is also shrinking because the mangrove swamps, which provide food and protection, are being obliterated by coastal development including tourist resorts.

According to the Malaysian Department of Fisheries, landings of trash fish in Malaysia had increased from 318,695 tonnes in 1995 to 353,810 tonnes in 2003. In the 1980s, the Government intended to require a 40 mm minimum mesh size for trawling nets but it relented and allowed trawlers to continue to use 25 mm (about 1”) meshes, resulting in a very high proportion of juvenile fish being caught by trawlers.

Under the Third National Agriculture Policy, aquaculture production in Malaysia is targeted to reach 600,000 tonnes annually which include 200,000 tonnes freshwater fish, 120,000 tonnes marine fish, 150,000 tonnes marine shrimp and 130,000 cockles and mussels. This multi-fold increase in production from its current level will place a growing demand on the supplies of trash fish.

The issue on the diminishing fisheries resource was first brought up by CAP in a seminar in 1977 entitled The Malaysian Fisheries  — a Diminishing Resource. Even at that time, fisheries stocks depletion, destructive trawling fishing methods, trash fish problems and the encroachment of inshore fishing grounds were highlighted. Today with the introduction of aquaculture, and the mismanagement of our fisheries resources and the lack of conservation measures by our Ministry, the situation has worsened many folds.

At the rate of neglect and mismanagement by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro, our seas may be depleted of fish in 10 years time. It would not be a surprise that in the near future, we may have to see preserved fishes in the museums in memory of the wonderful resource that we called fish.

To stop the impending collapse of our fisheries, CAP calls on the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro Industry to:

• Immediately ban trawl fishing to save our fisheries resources and spawning grounds.

• Stop the misguided promotion of aquaculture as it is inefficient, destroys our fisheries resources and puts a demand on increased trash fish production.

• Ban the use of trash fish as food for aquaculture.

• Conduct conservation programmes to protect and rehabilitate the mangroves forest, coral reefs and other fish spawning grounds.

• Ban fishing during the spawning periods in the fish spawning areas.

• Conserve and regenerate all marine species that are under the threat of extinction.

• Promulgate more stringent laws and impose heavier penalties for those convicted.