Malaysian coastal marine resources are declining due to overfishing.
Results from the last fish resource survey carried out by the Department of Fisheries (DoF) in 1997 indicate that demersal fish stocks have dropped by 90% since 1971. In June 2017 it was reported that Malaysia loses an estimated RM6bil annually to illegal fishing by encroachment of foreign fishing vessels. Moreover, there are illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, such as destructive fishing – including fish bombing and cyanide or poison fishing – which take place in Malaysian waters.
Fish populations and ocean habitats have been severely threatened beyond their capacity to recover, while the livelihoods of fishing-dependent communities are jeopardised. Fishermen now need to put in more effort to catch fish, having to venture farther out to sea and spending longer time for harvesting; in return, they are catching smaller and lesser fish. If these large-scale pressures continue, it would push fish stocks to a point of no return.
Sustainability is Key
Overfishing occurs when production tries to meet the increasing human demand for seafood. Malaysians depend mainly on seafood to meet our daily protein needs, but with the current overfishing trend, the growing population will soon be facing protein deficiency.
In 2014, when Malaysia’s population was 30.6 million, its per capita consumption of seafood was 56.5 kg – the highest in South-east Asia. The Department of Statistics Malaysia projects that by 2040, Malaysia’s population will be 41.5 million.
With depleting resources and increasing demand, there has been an increase of 600% in some fish prices between the 1950s and 2015 – an indication which may pose a threat to food security if this price trend continues.
Aquaculture may be the solution – according to a Food & Agricultural Organisation report (2016), in 2014 fish supply from aquaculture farms overtook fish supply from marine capture for human consumption for the first time, which means that we are now consuming more farmed fish than those caught in the wild.
Aquaculture has been identified as one of the key economic areas to be developed in Malaysia; and the country is targeting that by 2020, the production of aquaculture will amount to 50% of total seafood production in Malaysia.
But with the rapid rise in demand for farmed fish, aquaculture practices are sometimes mishandled – such as the clearing of important coastal habitats and huge amounts of aquaculture waste that often end up in natural ecosystems; hence, new problems will occur. As the aquaculture industry grows, it also has greater impact on the environment and surrounding communities.
To address these issues while making sure that aquaculture is sustainably developed, WWF-Malaysia in 2014 introduced the Aquaculture Improvement Project (AIP) with the aim to assist farmers in improving their farm management through best aquaculture practices in a stepwise approach, according to the seven principles of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standard.
WWF-Malaysia’s ultimate goal for AIPs is to have the farms performing at a level consistent with ASC standards, and being ASC-certified. Currently, there are four AIP partnerships formed in Malaysia since 2014, namely Goh Siong Tee Marine Product in Penang, Aqua Ceria in Selangor, Sankina Aquaculture in Sabah and Emperor Marine Seafood in Perak. The first two partners are involved in marine fin fish farming such as groupers, barramundi and snappers, while the latter two cultivate white-leg shrimp and black tiger prawns respectively. Through the AIPs, farms are given opportunities to responsibly improve their production, strengthen their position in the current market and gain new markets both locally and internationally.
Tilapia fish is a recommended fish for consumption due to sustainable harvesting methods.
While still quite small compared to the overall seafood industry in Malaysia, the sustainable seafood market is growing. Sustainable seafood is seafood that is harvested or caught within the capability for the wildlife to recover in terms of stock. It also consists of seafood that is harvested using methods that are not damaging to the environment, produced under responsible management and places emphasis on the social well-being of both fishermen and coastal communities. This ensures the long-term vitality of harvested species, the well-being of oceans and aquatic habitats, and the livelihoods of fish-dependent communities.
A 2015 market study conducted by WWF-Malaysia found that the production of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and ASC-certified seafood in Malaysia was at 11,096 metric tonnes (mt); this included fresh products and canned, processed and value-added (e.g. coated, crumbed, etc.) products.
Most of this seafood catered to the export market. The estimated total consumption of sustainable seafood in Malaysia was only around 5,526 mt, in comparison to the estimated total amount of seafood consumed by Malaysians – which was at about 1.6 million mt!
The Carrot Approach
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of companies that produce, import and carry MSC and ASC-certified seafood products.
Through WWF-Malaysia’s Save Our Seafood campaign, consumers are encouraged to consume seafood responsibly by referring to the Save Our Seafood sustainable seafood guide that includes recommendations to purchase MSC and ASC-certified seafood. When consumers buy certified seafood, they create positive change by incentivising fisheries, aquaculture farms, retailers, hotels and restaurants to produce and sell certified sustainable seafood. Consumers can then rest assured that their purchasing choices are indirectly but surely contributing to sustainable oceans and restoring aquatic habitats, while supporting the livelihoods and social welfare of fishermen and farmers.
Certified sustainable seafood is more accessible here in recent years, with numerous retailers offering various brands on their shelves. Local brand Pacific West, which sells frozen seafood, is MSC-certified, while foreign brands retailed in the country include John West, Waitrose, Birds Eye and Rügenfisch.
WWF-Malaysia also works with businesses such as hotels, restaurants and retailers to increase their offer and range of sustainable seafood on their menus and shelves, therefore creating better public recognition and product availability. Through these engagements, WWF-Malaysia encourages these businesses to source from certified seafood producers, AIPs and fishery improvement projects (FIPs), and assists in communicating the importance of certified seafood to consumers through its own promotional efforts.
We urgently need to move towards the sustainable production and consumption of seafood, and seafood producers, suppliers, and consumers need to take proactive steps in making environmentally and socially responsible seafood choices.