GEORGE TOWN: Penang risks losing its mangrove forests within 10 years if unmitigated development continues to encroach on the areas.
Penang Inshore Fisherman Welfare Association (PIFWA) has estimated that there is only a quarter of mangrove forests left compared to the area in the 1960s.
PIFWA president Ilias Shafie said the remaining mangrove forests were fast making way for development.
Ilias said the only areas in Penang with dense mangroves were in Balik Pulau, Seberang Prai Selatan and from Juru to the Perak border.
“Right now, we do not see concerted efforts to protect our mangroves. Instead, the areas are being cleared such as in Bagan Jermal.
“If this continues, we may lose all our mangrove forests within a decade and our future generations will never get to appreciate them,” he told the New Straits Times.
The NST has recently reported that the remaining mangroves along the northern coast of Penang island were under threat by development.
PIFWA has been at the forefront in the conservation of the coastal environment and replanting of mangroves,
Fishermen from Bagan Jermal here had complained that mangrove areas covering nearly 10ha, or more than 10 football fields, were being cleared for a reclamation project.
Ilias said even the mangrove saplings planted by PIFWA since 1997 had been cleared for numerous purposes, leaving only about 250,000 from 300,000 planted.
He said when the tsunami hit parts of Asia, including Penang in December 2004, the mangrove forests had helped buffer its destructive impact and this spurred various quarters to have programmes to plant them.
“Various agencies sprouted overnight to plant mangrove saplings. However, that was mere hangat-hangat tahi ayam (spur of the moment).
“We hardly see anyone planting the mangrove saplings anymore... possibly, PIFWA is the only one doing so,” he said.
Ilias said when PIFWA first planted the mangrove saplings, it was for fisheries purposes as the mangrove swamps served as nurseries and breeding grounds for many fish species.
He said over the years, the mangroves had been cleared for establishing new villages, such as Tanjung Tokong, and setting up of industries in Batu Kawan.
Large swathes of mangroves have also been turned into prawn farming, agriculture and aquaculture activities.
Ilias pointed out that in the case of the 214.66ha Byram Mangrove Forest Reserve in Mukim 11, Seberang Prai Tengah, where century-old mangroves were once abundant, many had been destroyed due to leachate spillage, believed to be from a retention pond at the nearby Pulau Burung sanitary landfill.
The other mangrove forest reserve in the state is the 166.38ha Balik Pulau Forest Reserve.
“If the situation is left unchecked, the forest reserve will be adversely affected, and the mangroves will die.”
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Biological Sciences senior lecturer, Professor Siti Azizah Mohd Nor, said the loss of mangrove areas in some states in the peninsula had been estimated at 1.282ha, or one per cent annually, since 1990.
She said mangrove areas nationwide accounted for 0.58 million hectares, which were predominantly in Sabah and Sarawak, in 2008.
The Forestry Department has estimated that Malaysia lost almost 30 per cent of mangrove areas between 1975 and 2000 but there is no data on the size of the mangrove forests in Penang.
Siti Azizah’s colleague Dr Foong Swee Yeok, also a senior lecturer at USM’s School of Biological Sciences, said she had been involved in studying mangrove ecology since 1992.
Foong said mankind was behind the destruction of the mangrove ecosystem.
“The pressure on mangrove is growing as the human population along the coast increases.”
She said the status of mangroves as forest reserve had not spared them from being cleared despite rising awareness of their value.
“Most of the losses in the past 30 years were due to conversion of mangrove forest reserves into farm land, shrimp ponds, urban development and port construction,” she said.
Foong cautioned that if the mangrove forests were wiped out, the state would lose all the benefits from the ecosystem, such as for fisheries, coastal protection and sediment accretion, carbon sequestration, siltation reduction in rivers, bioremediation of waste and nature-based tourism.
She said the massive root systems of a mangrove tree offered protection from tsunami wave flow pressure, especially on moderate tsunami impacted zones such as Penang.
“Mangroves have significant value in the coastal zone due to the benefits they provide to the communities. Mangroves and its adjoining mudflats are ideal habitats and breeding grounds for resident and migratory wildlife.”
For example, she said these habitats were often the wintering and/or staging ground for at least 30 species of migratory waterbirds, which usually foraged at exposed mudflat during low tide and moved to mangrove forest or marshes at high tide.
Foong said many of the mangroves were potential nature-based tourism sites and a good example was the firefly tourism along Sungai Kerian in Nibong Tebal.
“Unique and rare fauna in the mangroves further add to its attraction,” she said.
For Noor Suhaiza Zainal, 24, who pursued her studies in natural resources sciences at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, it would be a waste if future generations were not exposed to the importance of mangrove forests.
“Most people usually associate mangrove forests with being dirty but it can be fun once you learn more about it,” she said.
Noor Suhaiza is helpinging Ilias at the Pusat Pendidikan Kecil Hutan Paya Laut in Sungai Acheh, Nibong Tebal, which he plans to turn it into an educational forest reserve.