A bountiful harvest ahead

JANUARY 31 — According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the year of the Fire Rooster is finally here. 

While many of us were tossing yee sang or feasting on other fish dishes at our respective reunion dinners, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had been busy landing several big catches including players at the top of the food chain. 

Most recently, the commission uncovered some fishy business involving Felda executives and a multi-million sturgeon farming project in Kuala Tahan. More expensive than your everyday pomfret or grouper, sturgeons (Acipenser sp.) are a family of ancient fish that are best known for producing high grade caviar. 

The family consists of 27 distinct species that can only be found in the sub-tropical freshwater rivers of North America, Europe and Asia.

Alien invasion

When news of the project first broke out in 2013, I was sceptical of its feasibility and concerned about the subsequent effects on the aquatic environment. 

Aside from the fact that the project was to be carried out on the fringes of Taman Negara, the jewel in our crown of protected areas, it involved the import of a non-native species.

That being said, this was not the first time such species has been introduced to our lakes and rivers. The African Tilapia (Tilapia sp.) first arrived on our metaphorical shores as a solution to the rising domestic fish consumption. Because of their fecundity, high survivability in poor conditions and non-discriminatory feeding habits, this species could literally be cultured anywhere. 

However, such traits have also led to the downfall of many native fish species as some individuals eventually escaped their enclosures and spread to most major rivers across the country. 

Coupled with an aggressive nature and the lack of a natural predator in the wild, the Tilapia quickly became invasive, out-competing or rather out-eating its closest rivals. 

Ornamental species like the Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula) and the Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) have also been reported in the wild with the latter, being a ubiquitous sight at lakes. 

This stems from the practice of releasing pets once they become too big to handle. Upon release, they have the ability to affect the food web and potentially disrupt the ecosystem.

Lax approval

Although the issue of invasive species is an important one, what irks me the most is the fact that such a project was given approval despite environmental and social concerns

It seems as if these issues do not matter as long as the project generates a return that can be measured in ringgit and sen.

In the sturgeon farming project case, funds were allocated for the technology transfer with a South Korean company even before the Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) was completed. 

This move might be an indication that this big-budget project might have been pushed through even if the DEIA advised against it.

Aside from that, there were local concerns about how the project will affect tourism. This is since many of the local residents rely on a steady stream of tourists as a major source of income. 

Here, land in Kuala Tahan was cleared prematurely although the creation of aquaculture farms is clearly against the principles of eco-tourism. 

As a developing country, it is often tempting to reap quick economic gains from the sale of readily available commodities like tin and timber. However, if we are to become a developed nation by 2020, Malaysia has to wean off instant profits and evolve into a knowledge-based economy; one that offers innovation and services to the world. 

It is through this process that we can hope for a rise in environmental standards alongside socioeconomic progress.

A bountiful harvest ahead

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish the readers of Malay Mail Online, a Happy Chinese New Year! The year of the fire rooster is said to bring mixed fortunes in terms of the economy and health. Even with that outlook, I hope the MACC will continue to have successful year (万事如意) and bountiful harvest full of fish, big and small (年年有鱼余). 

I must congratulate the commission for their past successful investigations and urge them to stay ever vigilant in the war against corruption. 

Civil servants or any party entrusted with money must be held accountable for every sen spent with those who misuse funds for personal gain, punished accordingly. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.