Our Oceans Under Fire

Protein. It accounts for 10 – 35% of a balanced diet. An important dietary component for growth and maintaining good health, protein is an invaluable asset for the body. Cells devour protein for maintenance and repair. It is imperative for the building of muscles – protein shakes aren’t popular simply because they’re tasty. It is a major component in the production of antibodies. Bones, nails, and hair rely on it; the former for strength, the latter for shine. It is necessary, it is important, it is everywhere – only, soon, it won’t be found in our oceans.


Fish and seafood today has garnered a reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s main sources of dietary protein. At an annual figure of 1.4 billion kilogrammes, Malaysia comes in first as Southeast Asia’s biggest seafood consumers. It is also one of the top five seafood-consuming nations in Asia, with a 37% reliance on fish for animal protein. The figures grow every day. By 2020, the demand for fish in the nation will rise to a hefty 1.68 billion kilogrammes.


That’s a lot of a fish – a lot of demand, and considerably a lot less supply.


Our oceans have changed. No longer do they thrive as they did a mere century ago. The seas of today are subject to any number of horrors: pollution, underwater noise and toxins. One other culprit often remains hidden in the shadows, and it may yet be the worst culprit of all.


Overfishing is a very real and very serious threat. Every year, our oceans come under the fire of overzealous capitalists, commanders of their own fleets. Our seas declined, our fish and seafood stocks plummeted. In the last forty years alone, fishery resources in our waters have gone from 2.56 tonnes per square kilometre to 0.21 tonnes per square kilometre – a 91.8% drop.


Every decade, the Department of Fisheries conducts a resource survey in order to assess demersal fish biomass, growth, mortality, yield, and catch-per-unit. Recent conclusions aren’t looking too bright. Demersal resources in both east and west Malaysia are depleting, and depleting fast. As of the year 1997, our oceans are over-exploited. Now, ten years later, the outlook is as bleak as it was – perhaps bleaker.


According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a hefty sixty nine percent (69%) of our oceans’ commercially-targeted marine fish stocks are currently fully exploited. Forty four percent (44%) from this figure accounts for those most heavily exploited, while sixteen percent (16%) are over-exploited. Six percent (6%) are depleted and three percent (3%) are very slowly recovering from previous overfishing activities. The effects of this exploitation are plain to see. Fishermen’s hauls are fast becoming dominated by undergrown specimens – seafood that has not had the time to fully mature. The reproduction rates are thusly hampered; overfishing leaves no room for mature specimens to breed, neither does it leave time for hatchlings to grow. Back home, we are increasingly served undergrown fish, while prices for fully-matured specimens are continually driven up to match the demand.


Overfishing may be one of the factors contributing to the eventual downfall of our fisheries industry, but it isn’t the only one. Concurrently, figures are on the rise for the rate of trash fish landing – the capture of non-commercial species, as well as undergrown commercial species. From just below sixty thousand tonnes in 1970, the number today has reached an all-time high: a little under three hundred and twenty thousand tonnes. That’s almost three hundred and twenty thousand tonnes of fish that bear little to no commercial value – almost three hundred and twenty thousand tonnes of fish that go to waste.


And that’s not all.


In a time where most people are asleep in their beds, our nation’s fishermen are already out in the open seas. It is their livelihoods, their sources of income at stake, should the fisheries industry collapse as a result of overfishing. Opening up new industries in the form of successful breeding and harvesting may allow for the employment of our nation’s fishermen, in a method of sustaining our nation’s demand for seafood without harming the ecology of our oceans.


Other threats to our oceans live in the form of our destructive fishing habits. Trawling is a non-selective method of fishing that entails pulling a net along underwater, scooping up all aquatic lifeforms in its path. In waters abundant with commercial seafood, it is a highly profitable and efficient method. When done irresponsibly, however, trawling becomes an antagonist of the highest degree. While midwater trawling, the business of pulling a trawl along free waters above the ocean floor gives rise to trash-fish landings, the main cause for concern comes from the rampant execution of bottom trawling. This entails dragging the trawl along the ocean floor in a bid to net demersal fish stocks the likes of sole, flounder, halibut, rockfish, and cod among others. Problem is, trawling very often brings up more than just fish.


The former accounts for ninety percent (90%) of all trash fish landings; the latter in turn destroys the seabed, crushing corals and damaging the natural habitats of seafaring creatures. Between both types of trawling, one wonders which the bigger villain is.


Irresponsible aquaculture practices also occur in the form of other similarly-caustic ways. As of today, many fishermen have been found to use questionable methods in their work. Our seas and marine creatures are no longer strangers to cyanide, bombs, and electric stunning gear. The effect is devastating, the proof of which lies in the underwater coral reef graveyards that continue to swell with every passing year.


The clarity of the future is daunting at the very least. Extinction of our fishery resources is a certainty, should fishermen continue in their dastardly ways. Existing resources will become nothing more than a shadow of the past. A group of international scientists, having published a study entitled “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services” have predicted the end. The state of our fisheries is due for a collapse should the trend continue as it is, as soon as the year 2048.


This isn’t merely a problem for Malaysia. Overfishing is a rampant problem even on a global scale. Many major fisheries are on the decline; if they aren’t on the verge of breaking down, they’re there already. True to the accelerated loss of ocean biodiversity, twenty nine percent (29%) of human-consumed seafood species have already collapsed. In thirty years’ time, sustainable seafood harvest will be a thing of legend.


In addition to a shortage of seafood as a whole, the problems posed by over and irresponsible fishing extend to haunt our fishermen – those whose livelihoods depend upon the availability of marine resources for exploitation. Despite the fact that the fisheries industry is soon to head for an untimely demise, the number of fishermen and vessels in operation continue to surge. As of the year 2009, 160,152 fishermen scour Malaysian waters, a sixty five percent (65%) increase from the 97,160 of the year 2000. Additional subsidies encourage the growth of these numbers, even when the industry itself has become, no pun intended, a sinking ship.


 A study commissioned by WWF-Malaysia has determined the monetary cost of a collapsed seafood industry: a revenue loss of over RM 10 billion. In addition to overall fish sales, revenue loss will be marked from various related industries like ice-making, net-and-boat making, and fishball as well as fishmeal production. Meanwhile, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing continues to jeopardise the sustainability of fisheries and other marine wildlife; upon entering the market of developed countries, these illegally-harvested fish are priced cheaper, at an advantage over those legally-harvested. This causes stirs in the industry as a whole, essentially crippling the chain of supply and demand that, in turn, determines the payoffs of those who depend fiscally upon it.


The current state of the ocean has amassed an army of environmentalists, all in arms, ready to defend the desperate calls of our marine life. WWF-Malaysia and the Malaysian Nature Society launched a campaign for awareness on the 8th of June, 2010. The Save Our Seafood (S.O.S.) campaign aimed to educate consumers, raising awareness on the state of our fisheries industry. Along with this campaign, a seafood guide was published, detailing to consumers what could be done in helping to sustain the aquaculture of the oceans.


The campaign was a considerable success. Over 135,000 copies of the guide were distributed through various channels. Road shows, exhibitions and talks across the country brought forth the masses. Slowly, but surely, consumer attitudes and knowledge of the matter increased; the sustainable seafood movement gained momentum. The key people were reached. They were taught, and they listened. WWF-Malaysia has sought out the aid of hotels, restaurants and suppliers with which to spread the news.


Their hard work paid off. Currently, several establishments of note have placed their ballots in with the sustainable lot; The Little Penang Café, Eastin Hotel, and G Hotel in distributing S.O.S. guides to their customers, and the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Beach Resort in Sabah has worked with the Berungus community in sourcing sustainably-acquired seafood, besides pledging against serving sharks’ fin in all their outlets.


In addition, WWF-Malaysia has also introduced the notion of aquaculture best practices in a bid to enable the sustainable development of Malaysia’s marine aquaculture industry. It was such that prompted the 2012 formation of the Marine Fish Farmers’ Association of Malaysia (MFFAM). The association currently comprises sixty one members, key players of the fish farming industry. The great hope? That the eventual rise of farmed fish will provide, at the very least, respite for our overexploited oceans. That in time, our seas as well as the species contained within might recover from the exploits of humanity.


But laying the state of the ocean at the feet of farming is not enough. In addressing the issue of overfishing, the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) Steering Committee was formed. The task at hand is simple: develop strategies with which to feed a Plan of Action for Malaysia. To save the oceans; to actualise the concept of sustainability. WWF-Malaysia has certainly made headway. This cannot be denied. Yet it is painfully apparent that a massive upheaval of the current status quo is due. They cannot do it alone; help must come from governmental organisations and the general public as a whole. Based upon a comparison of pre and post campaign surveys on consumer willingness to change their consumption habits, sixty two percent (62%) expressed a willingness to follow the provided guide. Yet the figures depicting actual utilisation of the guide had dwindled to a meagre twelve percent (12%) by the time a post survey was conducted.


Surely more can be done.


WWF-Malaysia is currently working the second phase of the S.O.S. campaign. The objective at hand: to influence market transformation towards sustainable seafood sourcing by widening retailers’ support. To establish commitments from retailers, hotels, and restaurants in removing red-listed seafood items from counters and menus. A challenging task, certainly – but one, most might say, that is worth the extra effort.


The next two years will see whether WWF-Malaysia’s efforts are in vain. We wait. We hope. We do better. For the sake of our oceans, we can do no less. We cannot.


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