Penang Must Save Her Seas


PENANG EXEMPLIFIES THE Malaysian image of a maritime nation. It is the product of a people whose communities were shaped by a shared culture and history that is deep in “sail and salt” – of trade and interactions through the seas.

But a series of unfavorable episodes of fish kills, marine pollution, harmful algal blooms and the build-up of solid waste on our coasts in the last decade have jeopardised the well-being of our seas. In 2015 our waters were listed as the 8th most heavily plastic laden environment in the world in the scientific journal Science, with another article describing the presence of microplastics in our diet imbibed through the table salt used in our daily cooking.

Since the mid-1980s, the Malaysian Department of Fisheries had cautioned against the depleting of fish stocks, especially in nearshore fisheries. But the warning was ignored and the number of destructive fishing gear such as trawlers only continued to increase in Penang. The average landing tonnage of fish per trawler in the mid-to-late 1960s was about 158 tonnes, but by 2018, this had dropped to about 20 tonnes per trawler per year. Within the same period, the number of operating trawlers expanded from about 30 boats to more than 1,115 boats.

Many studies, including that of the Food and Agriculture Organization, have highlighted the adverse impact trawling has on the sea bottom: destroyed habitats, lowered rugosity, the removal of non-target but ecologically important species, and a decreasing biodiversity of coastal seas.

Read also: Bioplastics Needed More than Ever

We have witnessed a dismal drop in coastal fishing and the drastic change of our coastline from healthy habitats to one covered in marine debris, Styrofoam and plastics. The subsequent alterations in the hydrodynamics of the currents triggered changes in the content of the sea bottom and the creatures that live there.

To illustrate, the seabed in Batu Feringghi used to be of fine and coarse sand. It is now composed of muddy deposits that stench of rotten eggs at low tide. In the past, fishermen were able to net high value fishes like kerapu and jenahak. These days, it is the ikan duri and pedukang, or cheap fish, that dominate their catch in this “new” sea.

The changes to Penang’s marine ecosystems also invite new and invasive species; since 2017 there have been incidences of large jellyfish blooms. Many of these are nuisance species competing for the same food resources needed by coastal fishes and are potentially harmful to swimmers and beach goers.

But not all hope is lost. Significant strides have been made by the two city councils, Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and the Seberang Perai City Council (MBSP). Both have received national praise for their appraisal and reporting of plastic wastes.

Augmenting this effort are awareness campaigns to go green, prioritising environmental education and the importance of waste recycling. Yet, environmental activities pertaining to the seas are still few and far between. We often fail to realise that what we do on land affects the sea. But unlike the incidences that occur on land, the nature of water is that it flows. Effluents from Sungai Pinang and Bayan Baru carrying sewage are not only restricted to those areas, but flow along our coasts and pollute the seas around Penang – the same sea that we depend on to attract tourists to our beaches and to put food on our table.

Would it not be wonderful if in the future, just as New York City has Central Park as its green lung, Penang can have as its centre a marine park to celebrate its maritime heritage?

We have to acknowledge and remedy the practice of sending wastes into the sea; they do not simply go away. Just as we need to protect our other resources, a masterplan for the sea is called for, encompassing the main elements that influence its health. This includes an understanding of anthropogenic influences not only from Penang, but from neighbouring states whose waters flow to Penang; as well as mitigation efforts and readiness to combat the impending climate crisis.

Many Successes Worldwide to Follow

There have been impressing cases in the world where degraded rivers and coasts have, through hard work and sustained effort, improved and brought along the multiple benefits of a clean and productive environment. One is the Thames in England. Through political will and following regulatory processes to clean up the waterways, the basin is now home to spawning fish once again. The second involves the success of Bataan Province in the Philippines, whereby 60,000 households removed more than 360 metric tonnes of garbage from their beaches. And lastly, in Xiamen, China where enforcement, education and zoning reduced the costs of marine use conflicts by 50%. The Chinese White dolphins (Sousa chinensis) were saved, and this led to the formation of a successful nature reserve.

Penang had for a time embarked on a similar course by setting up the Penang National Park, a grand idea that included part of the sea corridor along its coastline. Perhaps it is time the idea is revisited once more. The area of this corridor is larger than the land area of the park and has the potential to revitalise Penang’s fisheries and tourism. As a no-take zone reserved for fish stock enhancement, it could act as a nursery for the northern coast fisheries. Habitat enhancement, continuous environmental monitoring and marine ecological innovations can go a long way in achieving this objective.

The presence of the Centre of Marine and Coastal Studies established by the Universiti Sains Malaysia here would also provide the necessary expertise in marine research, education and monitoring.

A Green Lung in the Sea Between Island and Mainland

In 2018 a study was conducted to identify potential sites in Penang suitable to be turned into protected marine areas. This would help her fisheries, promote conservation and provide education sites for the state.

Ten locations were shortlisted and the most favoured was the Middle Bank in the Straits of Penang. It is where the small island of Pulau Gazumbo (of P. Ramlee’s Panggilan Pulau fame) is located just north of the first Penang Bridge. The submerged portion of the bank is far larger and stretches from Pulau Gazumbo to the adjacent area of Kuala Sungai Pinang. The selection was made on the basis of the richness of its marine diversity, its accessibility and the lack of human habitation on the site.

Would it not be wonderful if in the future, just as New York City has Central Park as its green lung, Penang can have as its centre a marine park to celebrate its maritime heritage?

Admittedly, we are far from having a good understanding of our marine environment, but having reference sites such as that of Penang National Park and the Middle Bank would provide us possibilities for research and a long-term monitoring of our seas. This in the long run is invaluable to our survival, and will move us closer to science-based and sustainability-based management of our seas.

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