Can we afford to lose our valuable fishery resources?

By Athirah Mohammad

Imagine a world without bowls of fish curry and banana leafs piled with ikan pari bakar. Or going to your favourite hawker stall and not being able to order laksa… or, horror of horrors, consider Malaysia’s lack of fishery resources.

I do not know about you, but I can’t get through a week without having curry ikan bawal or crispy sotong goreng cooked by my mom. No doubt, seafood plays a huge role in the lives of Malaysians.

It must be the same with you, too. Hey, it should be.

Unfortunately, the environment has been facing a worrying crisis of resource depletion. Overfishing has jeopardised the future of the country’s marine life and depletion of fish species looms large in the region and around the world, which could make these hypothetical situations a reality much earlier than expected.

Overfishing simply means catching fish from the sea at excessively high rates where fish stocks become too depleted to recover. For some, catching too many fish appears to be a profitable practice, but in fact it endangers ecosystems and affects the balance of life in oceans. 

It is sobering to consider that Malaysia has lost 96 percent of its fish stock in less than 60 years, according to the Department of Fisheries statistics. 

The worrying part is, even a WWF Malaysia official has warned that the problem of overfishing needs to be tackled urgently as it is rapidly depleting the nation’s seafood resources.

“The fishing community is also deeply concerned as certain types of fish species that were caught 30 to 40 years ago are no longer seen. They also spend more time fishing but come back with a lesser catch than before – indicating that overfishing is taking place,” said WWF Malaysia’s senior footprint manager (Marine Programme), Chitra Devi G.

Isn’t this news creating a momentary uproar among seafood lovers? Even the fishing industry and coastal communities must also be uneasy thinking about it. 

Malaysia itself is surrounded by seas, with the major ones being the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, ranking sixth in the Southeast Asian region in terms of captured fisheries. 

Aside from its spectacular landscapes and wildlife, the ocean’s contribution to society is indispensable. The seas are fundamental to the livelihoods of those who depend on fishing to survive by providing employment, earnings and nutritious food sources.

Every year, Malaysia’s fishermen catch approximately one million tonnes of seafood, with about 40,000 tonnes of which are kept as frozen reserves. This proves that the seas offer many more potential treasures waiting to be tapped.

However, we first need to craft the right policy to sustainably harness that wealth. Vice versa, issues like overfishing will remain a worrying crisis in our country. 

Try to think for a moment, can we afford to lose our valuable fishery resources? What would happen if there were no fish? How would the fisheries generate their income to make a living? Will fish prices increase in the future?

Surely, a world without fish is a scary prospect. The sea will no longer be able to perform many of its essential functions, leading to a lower quality of life. People will starve as they lose one of their main food sources. 

The effects of a world without fish in the sea would be felt by everyone. While these predictions are theoretical, it is important to realise that they could easily come true. 

At least, this issue serves as an eye-opener for all of us to make consistent efforts to reduce threats to fisheries and aquaculture to ensure long-term seafood security.

WWF-Malaysia said everyone – be it the government, corporate company and civil society – has an equal role to play. Albeit some improvements have been observed, recent assessments demonstrate that the sea keeps being exploited in an unsustainable manner.

If we look further, the presence of too many fishing vessels in the sea; advanced fishing equipment designed to catch more fish; high demand for seafood across the world; pollution; and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IIU fishing); are all major factors in overfishing.

Thus, it is vital to adopt sustainable fishing practices, use tools and technology that preserve the marine ecosystem to ensure responsible production of seafood, profit margins and sustain the industry in perpetuity. 

In my small birds’ eye view of this crisis, it is time to treat our oceans more seriously as we should not take our natural treasures in Malaysia for granted.

Apart from commitment from government and other stakeholders in the fisheries sector, public participation is essential to combat this increasing problem. 

There must be public-awareness campaigns for clear communication that pollution, particularly that involving plastic, will be a serious impediment to the seas’ long-term economic development.

A frightful drawback that we should be reminded of is that around eight billion kilograms of plastic waste enter our oceans each year to the extent these plastic waste will break up into smaller pieces and get eaten by marine animals. Ultimately, these micro-plastics and toxins end up in the seafood on our plates.

Are we ready to confront that situation? Is the depletion of fish species still not enough to bring awareness regarding the responsibility of humans in protecting our oceans?

With that in mind, we must be prepared to double our efforts towards improving the state of our oceans to enjoy all those valuable seafood resources in the future***

(This article is written as part of individual assignment series for Feature Writing class)

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