Overfishing, rampant demand driving fish prices, say environmentalists

File photo shows fishing boats at Port Klang, March 3, 2014. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
File photo shows fishing boats at Port Klang, March 3, 2014. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 1 — A trip to the market has always been tough for 65-year-old Shoba Ratnam, but with the price of the fish she loves spiralling higher, her weekly trips are getting even harder.

A kilogramme of Indian mackerel, or ikan kembung, used to cost RM6 six months ago but has doubled in price to RM12, she told The Malay Mail Online.

Spanish mackerel, or ikan tenggiri, is a minimum RM30 per kilogramme.

“And that too only if I choose the portion that comes with the head” Shoba said.

From fish head curry, to sushi and ikan bakar, Malaysians are eating more fish than ever before and the increasing appetite for seafood is fuelling unsustainable fishing, denting Malaysia’s fish stocks.

Fish prices are rising as a result.

According to data from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, consumption of fish in Malaysia increased by 150 per cent since 1961 as local reliance on fish as a major protein source increased.

The data also showed that on average Malaysians consumed about 52 kilogrammes of seafood a year. By 2020, the average  is expected to rise to 56 kilogrammes, meaning that a  population of  30 million population will get through 1.68 billion kilogrammes of seafood.

Demand is such that even keenly-priced imported fish such as farmed salmon from Norway and Chile are also finding a ready market in Malaysia.

One supermarket chain, Aeon, said recently that it imported salmon worth about RM7 million every month and was looking to increase import by around 10 per cent each month

Unsustainable fishing

“There is an excess capacity in our fishing fleet… too many fishermen and fishing vessels chasing too few fish and the current rate of extracting fish resources is clearly unsustainable,

says Gangaram Pursumal, seas programme manager of World Wide Fund (WWF) Malaysia.

Citing research by the Fisheries Department, he said statistics showed that the stock of ground-fish, which include the many variants of the stingray, a particular ikan bakar (grilled fish) favourite, has decreased by an alarming 92 per cent over 36 years between 1971 and 2007.

That’s just a snapshot, with no stock assessments conducted since 1997, the impact of unregulated fishing on local fish stocks is hard to gauge, he said.

Gangaram noted that WWF’s data from 2000 to 2009 indicated that catch output of a local fisherman has steadily declined in all states, at an average rate of 3.8 per cent per year.

Small wonder then that fish prices have been rising faster than the official rate of inflation.

Data from Malaysia’s Statistics department show that while headline inflation was at 3.5 per cent in March , the sub-index for fish and seafood rose 6.1 per cent.

Coastal development

The president of the Association for the Education and Welfare of Coastal Fishermen, Jamaluddin Mohamad added that volumes of fish caught have been dented by unsustainable development of coastal areas.

“Fish prices are off the charts at certain times not only because of the monsoon and high demand but due to regular basis catchment going down as the mangrove forests are depleting,” he said.

The total mangrove area in Malaysia is estimated to be approximately 575,000 hectares, of which 60 per cent are concentrated in Sabah, 23 per cent in Sarawak and the remaining 17 per cent in the Peninsula.

While 85 per cent of these have been gazetted as — forest reserves, sanctuaries and national parks — mangrove cover in Perlis, Selangor, Johor, Sarawak, Negeri Sembilan and Penang, are near extinction.

“More than 75 per cent of the local marine stock come from mangrove forest but nearly 56 per cent of mangrove forests in the peninsular are gone due to development, so there are lesser nurseries for sea animals to breed now,” said Jamaluddin.

Apart from overfishing and development, Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) marine conservation manager Faedzul Rahman said encroachment is another reason for the depleting fish sources.

Faedzul said encroachment by commercial trawlers and the operation of Illegal, unreported and unregulated  fishing, often hampered efforts towards sustainability.

“One step forward was the decision by the Fisheries Department to enforce the use of 38mm mesh size in the cod-end of trawl nets to reduce pressure on demersal fish stocks,” he said, as a bigger mesh size would set loose juveniles into the environment to repopulate.

But enforcement is still being a problem, Faedzul said, appealing to the government to beef up its efforts to protect Malaysia’s fish stocks.

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