Vital for in-depth study on impact of reclamation

We read with interest recent media reports on how offshore sand mining and reclamation have negatively impacted on the livelihood of thousands of coastal fishermen.

It was also reported that the destruction of mangrove forests and the encroachment of foreign fishermen have damaged marine habitats and further exacerbated these fishermen’s already tenuous existence.

While we welcome the statement by Muhammad Faiz Fadzil, chairman of the Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia (LKIM), highlighting sand mining activities and their destructive consequences, we would like to point out that coastal land reclamation activities have had similarly deleterious, if not worse, impact on Malaysia’s marine habitat.

Reclamation projects in Penang waters have led to markedly reduced catches by coastal fishermen. This grave situation calls for concerted and coordinated rehabilitative strategies by the authorities and stakeholders to halt this trajectory of destruction of the environment and continued hardship on these fishermen.

Interviews with inshore fishermen from Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah, Gurney and Paramount during a “sessi aduan nelayan” (complaints session for fisherfolk) organised by Sahabat Alam Malaysia, the Consumers Association of Penang and Penang Forum pointed to a significant decline in their catches in terms of volume and diversity following the start of reclamation projects at Seri Tanjung Pinang (1 and 2) and Gurney Wharf in 2016.

The fishermen said large prawn catches had dropped from 15kg daily before reclamation to a mere 1kg or 2 kg a day. Some fishermen said that clams, pomfret and ikan sembilang had virtually disappeared while other fish had reduced drastically.

Nearly all of those interviewed mentioned the deterioration of sea water quality after reclamation. A fisherman who previously earned RM2,000 a month before reclamation now makes RM600 a month.

Almost all the fishermen said that while they had a relatively comfortable existence before reclamation, their lives were now one of hardship and uncertainty.

At the session at Bagan Ajam, the fishermen said the Butterworth Outer Ring Road (BORR) reclamation project completed in 2005 had badly impacted on the quantity and diversity of their catch.

Up till now, the sea and marine catches have not recovered from pre-reclamation levels. One fisherman said that at one time, he could catch between 50 and 70 pomfrets a day but after reclamation this had dropped to two a day.

The fishermen at the Bagan Ajam interviews also said the seawater was now dirty, muddy and turbid.

Some have even pointed to the polluted sea as causing them skin problems. Others complain that they often pull out jellyfish and sea urchins. The increased debris in the sea frequently damages their nets, which are expensive to replace.

The sea between Butterworth and Tanjung Tokong was famous for ikan kembong, which used to be so affordable it was fed to cats. It is rare to find significant amounts of ikan kembong these days and, therefore, the local people are deprived of the “people’s fish”.

It is worth noting that these fishermen are among the most reliable stewards of the sea, because any change to the sea conditions will have direct bearing on their daily income. They know what are the optimal marine conditions that will attract the most fish; they know the areas near the coast where the fish come to breed. They know when the sea is burdened by pollutants and sediments because of the reduced number of fish they catch, or the very absence of any fish.

They do not have a myopic zero-sum perspective because traditional fishing is an economic activity that thrives on sustainable and sensible handling of fish stock, the sea and the coastal environment, for the long-term.

The pollution resulting from reclamation, sand mining and dumping may also affect the billion-ringgit marine aquaculture industry. Penang was recently hit by Typhoon Lekima which stirred up pollution from the seabed, resulting in a fish kill of 50,000 fish and causing great loss to the aquaculture industry.

In the last two days, several other pollution events were recorded in Batu Feringghi, Teluk Bahang and Teluk Kumbar. There could be several causes of pollution but with reclamation works in progress, pollution in the seas of Penang has reached saturation point.

With this in mind, we would like to propose that LKIM and/or the relevant ministries and departments immediately commission an in-depth study by an independent institution on the impact of reclamation.

From these findings, they can then make informed policy recommendations to the government on how to rehabilitate the affected areas both on land and sea. If the study finds that full rehabilitation is impossible, then there should be a moratorium on any future reclamation.

We know that reclamation and/or sand mining projects are being planned in Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor and Sabah, with no regard whatsoever for the inshore fishing community. The fishermen and farmers of Malaysia upon whose blood, sweat and toil the nation was built, deserve better as we approach the 62nd anniversary of Merdeka.

Penang Forum aims to promote local democracy and sustainable development.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT