Marine Restoration Needed for Sustainable Fishery

Just how to tackle errant fishing practices? Mallika Naguran takes a trip to the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia to discover that conservation of marine environment is mostly an elusive theory that looks better on paper than in reality.

Just last month, days after I had written an article in Singapore on threatened marine species, I found myself staring at the yellow-fin tuna (Thunnus albacares) for the first time – not while diving underwater among pristine coral reefs, but at a nose-defying fish market in Semporna, a coastal town on eastern end of Sabah, East Malaysia.

The sea has lost this amazing yellowfin tuna. Photo © Jürgen FREUND / WWF-Canon

The fish was dangled before me by young fishmongers extolling its taste in local Malay lingo, and on the slimy shelf lay possibly another 100 such fishthat’s listed as “moderately to highly threatened” on Fishbase. It’s also among Greenpeace 22 “red” species. There were no bigger than 20cm suggesting they were juveniles, another cause for concern.

At another stall, yet another batch of yellow-fin tuna invite the attention of local housewives possibly unaware that not much of the same specie is left in the waters, and hence has to be left alone. Especially juveniles, as yellow-fin tuna's reproduction rate has dropped due to overfishing.

The yellow-fin tuna according to the Dr Lida Pet-Soede, Leader of WWF Coral Triangle Network Initiative (CTNI), is mostsought after for its meat in sashimi preparation and is hence expensive. This is one of the six species of tuna found in the world, and one of the five that can be chanced upon in the Coral Triangle. The yellow-fin tuna now is found less and less in the waters because it has ended up more and more on dinner plates, at a rate exceeding the specie’s ability to reproduce to maintain survival status quo.

According to Jose Ingles, Tuna Strategy Leader of WWF CTNI, fishery stocks are categorized as: being exploited, fully exploited, overfished, severely overfished and collapsed. “Fishery of yellowfins is fully exploited,” he adds, “and overfishing is definitely occurring,” he says. In other words, this specie is going to be wiped out in a matter of time if fishing methods were either careless or incessant, or both.

Blue-spotted ray far and few.

Walking through the fish section of the bustling market in the morning, I saw more gruesome scenes. A grey or nurse shark, about a metre long, was sliced and disembowelled, while close to it lay blue-spotted marble rays waiting for their turn. When diving, I recalled being thrilled by those lovely rays underwater – alive, colourful and gloriously wild. As there aren’t too many underwater in Southeast Asia, I’d quickly activate my underwater camera and get close up. But they’d swim away whisking their long tail behind them. In the market, they lay still and cold as I took photos on the sly. 

Coral trouts, groupers, parrot fish and snappers of various kinds were displayed in a basket by a young urchin. These could have been a result of by-catch, in the act of random fishing for tuna or the use of prohibited nets, bomb fishing or cyanide poisoning. Yes, these freakish methods are still being used in this hi tech generation.

A walk down the jetty just past the Semporna Fisheries Department next to marine police boats, I see baskets of skipjack tuna or “ikan kayu” being unloaded. “Tastes just like meat, better than tuna,” says the fish merchant, comparing it with the yellowfin tuna. He is pleased with the catch of the day. While this fish stock status is considered “healthy” (Source: WWF), I frowned at the sheer quantity hauled out of water.  Just a matter of time, I thought.

A week later while muck diving in Lembeh in Bunting, North Sulawesi, I saw on the jetty huge Styrofoam boxes being packed with freshly caught skipjack tuna, and once again, the numbers were voluminous.

Shark slaughter.

Overfishing of any specie is a real threat in itself. WWF website states that the global fishing fleet is currently two and half times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support. As much as 52% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 24% are over exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion (Source: FAO 2004).

Overfishing still takes place in marine regions known for splendid diving: near internationally famed Sipadan and splendorous Mabul, Kapalai and Mataking off Sabah, East Malaysia and Manado, Bunting off North Sulawesi, Indonesia. As much as 90% of the entire ocean’s large fish have been fished out, according to a report by Myers, R.A., and Worm, B. (Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities, 2003).

Skipjack tuna swept away in loads.

WWF’s Jose explains that overfishing of the yellowfin and bigeye tuna is being addressed by the Central and WesternPacific Commission which “recommends the need to reduce fishing mortality of juveniles of purse seine fishery by reducing fishing intensity by 30% using the average fishing effort values from years 2003-2006.” Jose adds that among all tuna species found in the Coral Triangle, “it is bigeye (Thunnus obesus) that needs immediate and drastic action followed by yellowfiin.”

The NGO is pursuing conservation management on several fronts. “At the resource level by pushing for the protection of key life stages such as reduction juvenile mortality by fishing and protecting spawning areas; at the market end, by working with traders and markets to push for reform to influence national and regional policies; and through advocacy by influencing consumption behaviour of seafood,” says Jose. WWF works on private-public partnerships as well to push for reforms, he adds.

Fishy Practices

Any diver will tell you, compared to a decade ago, there is a drastic reduction in the population of fish, and much of the once-vibrant coral reefs have been diminished or reduced to rubble in certain areas within the Coral Triangle.

This change is attributed to damaging fishing methods: overfishing, dynamites or bombs, sodium cyanide poisoning, deep fishing nets woven with smaller holes (they now need to because the big fishes are few), and coral mining.

How do we address these problems? Education, awareness and even policy enforcement are ways to arrest these terrible practices. However, in reality, fishermen do not understand the problems caused by over-fishing or refuse to contemplate on long term effects; to them, catching more fish means more money, an immediate gain. 

Resplendent corals preciously few. Photo by Mataking Reef Dive Resort.

This is especially true for life reef fish types that are highly sought after by restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China such as groupers and the humphead wrasse, also known as the Napolean wrasse (Cheilinus undulates). This and the giant grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) are currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

While there are opportunists in the trade, there are also, in reality, many poor people who need to feed their kids and send them to school, and fishing has been a traditional source of income. Why stop now?

Education is key to curb over-fishing, of course, but no amount of telling and finger wagging can put food in the mouths of poor people. Hence, poverty alleviation strategies have to be put in place before people can drop their Molotov cocktails for say, the computer keyboard. The cultivation of an alternative trade such as eco-tourism would be a way forward as this would create new jobs for various positions such as tour guides, agents, drivers, divemasters, trekking specialists, tour van drivers and more.

I spoke to people on the ground on what can be done to restore precious marine ecosystems. One, Adrian Van Dooren, a veteran diver and resort manager who’s lived and worked in many parts of the world, from New Zealand, Papua, Vanuatu to Malaysia. “We attended a meeting with WWF six months ago, and they wanted to put in place strategies for the next 5 years, 10 years, 15, 20… and I said to them, wait a minute, we can come up with strategies for the next five to 10 years, but until they work, what comes after is of no consequence,” says Adrian Van Dooren, resort manager of The Reef Dive Resort on Mataking island, off Sabah, East Malaysia.

Adrian who is no stranger to conservation work spoke to me of a three-day symposium held locally by WWF where participants were urged to address conservation issues. Apart from a thick report published from this meeting, Adrian has not heard of any updates, and continues to worry about destructive fishing practices in the area.

Corals bombed out to rubbles.

While diving around Mataking island, I was flabbergasted and distressed to see not glorious dazzling corals on the seabed but grey rubbles of wasted corals. This stretched on for miles and miles - a war-torn zone, similar to bombed out Baghdad. Never before had I seen such devastation which is in fact a criminal activity. Other divers who’ve scoured a broader area tell me “it’s normal”; such is rampant bombing fishing even today with all regulations in place.

There are pockets of healthy reefs, thankfully, which draw divers still, with amazing marine creatures. In the meantime, Adrian continues with the conservation programs that the resort has in place: beach cleanup, coral reef restoration on the house reef, turtle hatchery and student awareness programs on the importance of preserving a healthy marine ecosystem. He also created Sabah’s first (and the world’s fifth) underwater postal box by sinking a cargo boat near Mataking island. This new entry made an excellent new habitat for porcupine fish, lion fish, puffers and more, and a wreck of interest for divers.

Regulations and Policing

Adrian shares that even with government regulation protecting the sea, bomb fishing and other forbidden practices are still rife because of light enforcement. “Over here, the fishermen caught in the act by the Marine Police are handed over to the Fisheries Department for enforcement as the police do not have the power to confiscate the boats or arrest the offenders. The Fisheries Department often raps the knuckles of the offenders, who usually happen to be distant relatives or friends, and lets them go off with a warning. Because their boats aren’t taken away, within days or weeks, the same offence takes place.”

Fishery puts food in mouths of young and old.

While in Semporna in the same week, I picked up the local papers. Borneo Post on 12 September 2008 reported a seizure  Fishery puts food in mouths of young and old.the day before involving boats with controlled items (such as oil and rice) and bombed fish weighing a whopping 453 kg. The boats were heading towards neighbouring Philippines to unload the stock, but were intercepted during Operation Octopus, a joint crackdown involving Marine Police and Fisheries Department.

The boats, the article stated, were handed to the Fisheries Department. It added that the officials would take action to prosecute according to the Fisheries Act, and that it would step up its activities to prevent bomb fishing. It did not say how this was to be done.

According to Adrian, the fines are not severe and sometimes not imposed because the fishermen are too poor to pay, and the authorities do not wish to cause further hardship. “If they can’t pay the fine, their boats should be destroyed and sunk. If these guys have to take three months to rebuild a sampan, well at least the sea is rid of them for awhile!” says Adrian.

Dive operator Tino of Scuba Junkies, Semporna, tells of how even the marine police cannot be trusted. “Sometimes they confiscate the bombs from the fishermen, and when no one’s looking, use the explosives themselves. That way, they get extra money from the fish caught because they are poorly paid.”

When I checked with Adrian if this sounded familiar, he agreed. Corruption is rife and bribery is common. Another loophole, he informs me, is that fishermen near Sipadan get to their dirty tricks outside of official policing hours which is from 8 am to 5 pm. Once the police clock out of the seas, the fishermen clock in. “And the fishing goes out all night long. From here (pointing from Mataking island to the horizon) at night, you can see the horizon light up like Manhattan city.”

A puff before heading out when sun sets.

Right before my eyes, I did see the horizon light up with possibly hundreds of fishing vessels. Just imagine the tons of fishes being caught on a single night. There’s also another cunning trick engaged by the local fishermen, explains Adrian. “There’s a regulation forbidding fishing vessels to catch within a 100m range of the reefs. What they do in the night then is to sail near the reefs and switch on the bright lights. Dazzled by the brightness, the fishes awake and are drawn to the vessel. The boat slowly withdraws into the deep with the bright lights on, pursued by the fishes. Once beyond the 100m, they net them,” says Adrian.

Restoration Strategies

There are a number of alternatives that can be looked into to provide sustainable means of income to the local populace while giving the seas a much needed break. While the suggestions below are certainly not exhaustive or fully debated and while some are already being implemented (with or without success), it is an attempt to get discussions going. It is also a signal to those in power to make a change.  And an appeal to those who have cash to spare to fund conservation efforts of NGOs.

Develop Seafood Farms and Reefs for spawning and breeding of consumable marine fish and creatures such as shrimps, lobsters, abalone, crabs, seaweed and more to cater to the growing demand of seafood from around the world. The use of technology in restoring threatened or destroyed coral reefs such as Biorock is recommended which has a proven success rate in accelerating growth, especially useful for communities dependent on fishing for livelihood.

License Live Coral Farms and Coral Reef Fish Farms to cater to the growing demand of live corals and reef fish for aquariums. While I think it’s a crime to have corals and life reef fish in aquariums, and flinch when I see baby sharks circling the tanks infinitum in shopping malls and cheap nightclubs, I also realize that there’s a huge flourishing industry that’s just going to grow, and little can be done to buck the trend.

This is a sensitive issue; direct purchase from fishermen for live corals and reef fish is apparently cheaper than getting it from farmed sources. In my view, with more responsibly farmed sources of reef fish, there could be greater economies of scale. Licensing would be required to help crackdown on shoddy, illegal operations (if corruption can be nipped in the bud). At the same time, there has to be public education on the ills of having live coral and reef fish in aquariums as there is no way of ensuring that they are sourced from harvested farms.

Older and bigger than mankind. Photo by Mataking Reef Dive Resort.

Often corals and fish are taken out of sea and left in the farms for a minimum period that qualify them as being “farmed”. Corals take decades to grow to the size of a lettuce (depending on the coral specie, growth ranges from 5-25 mm a year. Source: marine specialist Richard Leck, WWF), so unless the farm has been around for half a century, your aquarium’s coral is probably a stolen gem from the sea. Who is responsible? I would think everyone who is now aware of this dicey trade should take personal responsibility in the preservation of our marine ecosystems.

Demarcate No Fishing Zones which often leads to the setting up of marine national parks. For it to succeed, it has to be a joint effort involving all stakeholders, especially the local community, and the source of funding to maintain the park has to be sustainable in the long term. The WWF is on the right path in influencing policymaking to establish MPAs, aiming to cover 10% of the world’s seas (currently only 0.6 % of the seas are protected. Source:WWF website).

Demarcate Fishing Zones that allow fresh catch using only safe methods. In Bunaken Marine National Park for instance, only line fishing is allowed in the fishing zone while there are other zones that rule out fishing and diving totally.

Regulate Fishing Practices – outlaw destructive fishing methods and nets; institute quotas for daily catch; prevent use of bright lights on boats to draw fish; have marine policing overnight.

Incentivise Good Fishing Practices – reward and recognize positive fishing practices by investing in the community infrastructure, education, water facilities and farming alternatives.

Incentivise Policemen, Whistle blowers – reward and praise prompt and effective monitoring and policing; fire up media attention to successful raids and enforcement; review salary scales to boost morale and institute pride in work.

Punish Wrongdoers - shame those who are corrupt, lackadaisical and negligent in carrying out their duties. This involves anyone having the official capacity to authorize or execute arrests, seizure, conviction and prosecution. Clamp down corruption now, and you can play a part by reporting it and creating a stink if nothing happens as a result. The media is always a good weapon to turn to for aid.

Nurture Alternative Trades – by creating new industries and opportunities such as eco tourism, handicraft, art and cultural galleries, cultural festivals, traditional condiment production, food and beverage stalls, eco resort development.

Transform them into captains of sea.

Invest in Skills Set – raise the service value chain and create new jobs, for example turn retired fishermen into sea   guardians; fishing boat captains to marine-based monitors; sponsor local college and university education to ‘spawn’ environment specialists, nurture eco-tourism skills development to increase the number of eco-trained service providers such as tour guides, nature guides and dive masters. See how Reid Ridgway did this in Thailand, by setting up an ecotourism training centre to transform unskilled youths to become certified dive masters in just nine months.

Should you have any thoughts on the above, go ahead and leave a comment below. I trust that with collective action based on the right strategies, we can help minimize the rapid depletion of fishes from our seas and correct the imbalance to precious marine ecosystems. At the same time, if some strategies don’t work, there are others that do and we should learn from each other. We have to act, and we have to do it now.

A long voyage ahead indeed, but it begins with the first sail. With you and me on board, of course.

Photos by Mallika Naguran.

Contact Jose Ingles at, Lida Pet-Soede at and Adrian Van Dooren at