Blame overfishing: Grouper fish won’t be on the menu in near future

Groupers are in decline due to overfishing according to Reef Check Malaysia’s annual survey. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Groupers are in decline due to overfishing according to Reef Check Malaysia’s annual survey. — Picture by Farhan Najib

PETALING JAYA, June 12 — Seafood lovers won’t be able to enjoy the sought-after grouper fish species due to overfishing.

Reef Check Malaysia general manager Julian Hyde said groupers were a key food fish on the reef and it was slowly being fished out.

“There won’t be any more grouper — that’s one of the species that is in decline because it’s so heavily targeted,” he told Malay Mail.

The findings on declining fish species were part of an annual survey of the country’s precious reefs conducted by Reef Check Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation that specialises in coral reef conservation.

The NGO has been surveying Malaysia’s reefs and seas for the past 12 years.

Reef Check Malaysia general manager Julian Hyde says Malaysian islands are at risk if tourism growth and its impacts are left unchecked. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Reef Check Malaysia general manager Julian Hyde says Malaysian islands are at risk if tourism growth and its impacts are left unchecked. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Hyde revealed that the waters of Tioman Island have declining numbers of grouper and places such as East Malaysia’s Mantanani Island, where fishing activities are heavy, have no adult-sized groupers.

“Malaysia is the biggest per capita of seafood consumers in South-east Asia,” said Hyde.

Fishermen are now targeting smaller juvenile groupers which have yet to reach breeding age, therefore eliminating the possibility of replacing its population.

“Eventually you take out all the little ones which will never grow up to be breeders — it’s a cycle but grouper is a good example of a fish that could disappear within not too many years,” Hyde added.

Other popular fish species such as the Bumphead Parrotfish, Humphead Wrasse, Sweetlips and Moray eels were rarely spotted while the Barramundi Cod was not sighted at all.

“More demand for fresh seafood like lobster and abalone, and reef fish for sale due to a big Chinese market, are having cumulative impacts on the reefs,” said Hyde.

A total of 212 sites were studied around Malaysia including Pulau Redang, Pulau Perhentian, Tioman, Mantanani, Pom Pom and Sipadan with the help of volunteers.

While the overview of the survey indicates that our reefs are in fair condition, small declines have been recorded in the past four years.

Thriving biodiversity is crucial in maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem — as more species decline in numbers, the balance is upset and “damages the efficiency of what’s remaining”.

Activities like diving won’t be as fun

Peninsular Malaysia has 300 coral species but as reef health diminishes, underwater activities such as diving and snorkelling won’t be as enjoyable as they used to be.

Eventually, islands that rely on marine tourism will attract fewer tourists.

“Someone coming into it for the first time will think ‘Wow this is really nice, there are a lot of fish here’ and that shifting baseline as new people enter the activity, they wouldn’t know what it used to be 20 or 30 years ago.

“There will be a point where it won’t be so much fun anymore,” said Hyde.

Hyde says stakeholders need to think carefully about how environmental impacts are managed. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Hyde says stakeholders need to think carefully about how environmental impacts are managed. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

The former environmental consultant raised concerns for islands such as Tioman where marine tourism remains a sole focus, pointing out that locals have yet to upskill into terrestrial tourism.

Malaysian islands at risk of ecological breakdown

All our islands are at risk if tourism growth and its impacts are left unchecked.

Increasing demands for fresh seafood, pollution, unsustainable tourism growth and irresponsible fishing practices are causing Malaysia’s reef health to decline. — Reutesr pic
Increasing demands for fresh seafood, pollution, unsustainable tourism growth and irresponsible fishing practices are causing Malaysia’s reef health to decline. — Reutesr pic

Hyde said in Tioman where there is a proposal for a new airport will see an increase in its previous 150 visitors per day to potentially 1,000 visitors a day as more airlines can access the island.

“Where are you going to put them all? The island is going to have to have more accommodation which means more roads.

“Then you’re cutting down the jungle, then you’re starting to impinge on that virgin ecosystem and more silt washing into the ocean and onto the reefs,” he said, adding that Langkawi’s unregulated development is a cautionary tale.

Perhentian has seen a double growth in resorts since 2005.

At 1,000 islands, Malaysia has less of a resource for island tourism compared to the Philippines and Indonesia at 5,000 and more than 17,000 islands respectively. — Picture by Julia Chan
At 1,000 islands, Malaysia has less of a resource for island tourism compared to the Philippines and Indonesia at 5,000 and more than 17,000 islands respectively. — Picture by Julia Chan

This translates to twice the amount of waste and physical impacts on coral reefs.

Over in East Malaysia, the problems stem from destructive fishing practices such as fish bombing and overfishing, as well as population growth.

Pom Pom Island off Semporna have no corals left due to fish bombing, a quick way to draw in a large catch but destroys reefs.

What is sensible tourism for Malaysia?

Malaysia is home to 1,000 islands a number that is significantly less compared to the Philippines with 5,000 islands and more than 17,000 islands in Indonesia.

“We’ve got less of a resource than they have so we should be taking more care of it,” Hyde cautioned.

He said Reef Check Malaysia wants to work closely with the Tourism Ministry and hopes the ministry will use the data collected to inform its policies.

While environmental impact is inevitable when a natural area is opened to tourism, said Hyde the key is how the impacts are managed.

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