(File pix) Boats seized by MMEA at Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. The Fisheries Department says Malaysia loses some 980 million tonnes of fish worth RM6 billion every year. Pix courtesy of MMEA

MARINE capture fishery business makes up an important sector in the Malaysian economy. And, it is a major source of food, employment and a substantial source of foreign exchange. Well, if they are not stolen, that is. The Fisheries Department says Malaysia loses some 980 million tonnes of fish worth RM6 billion every year. The 6,000kg of fish and 100kg of squid seized on Sunday from a foreign fishing boat 23 nautical miles off Pulau Tioman were part of the losses. According to the department’s figures, only about 50 per cent of marine catch landed in the country, while the rest made their way to our Asean neighbours. This is not good news for Malaysians, who eat 53kg of fish per capita per year. Not only fish resources are being depleted by overfishing, but also through theft by foreign fishermen, with Malaysian complicity. Such activities are contributing to decline in landings and catch figures. Output per fishermen has also declined for all regions in the country. Not to mention loss of foreign exchange.

The foreign boats and trawlers are not only robbing our national coffers, they are stopping our fish from reaching the dinner table. Some unscrupulous Malaysian businessmen appear to be working with foreign fishermen by leasing their licences. New Sunday Times broke the story on July 9 stating that rent-seekers with little to no knowledge were leasing out their deep-sea fishing licences to foreign fishermen trawling in Malaysian waters. The Terengganu Fishermen Association says each licence is being rented out for RM5,000 a month. Some of the businessmen are alleged to be in possession of 20 licences. Some serious questions are in order. Why are licences being issued to businessmen who are not fishermen? And, why 20 licences to one individual? There has to be an equitable way of awarding licences to fishermen so that their livelihood is not adversely affected. Like in many things, efficient and effective enforcement can only work if government agencies collaborate. If they have not done so, it is time the Fisheries Department, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission put men and material together to stop the theft of this billion ringgit national resource. The aged vessels of the Fisheries Department is in dire need of assistance of the more modern and robust fleet of MMEA.

At the transnational level, encroachment by foreign fishing vessels need to be put as an urgent item for resolution on the Asean agenda. If the members of the regional body can work together, perhaps encroachment into territorial waters of member countries can be stopped at source. Just as Malaysian fishermen should not fish in our neighbours’ waters, our neighbours’ fishermen should not fish in our waters, too. To give bite to the bark, Asean members may want to consider passing national laws imposing severe penalties for fishing in neighbours’ waters. Complicity by nationals in such illegal activities should draw even more severe punishment.

We are already losing our marine resources to climate change; we do not want foreign fishermen to rob us off the rest of the catch.

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