Marine capture fisheries constitute an important sector in the Malaysian economy; not only as a major food source but also as a generator of foreign exchange and employment. Rapid economic growth in recent years has resulted in a significant movement of rural manpower to industrial and urban centres, leaving a declining and aging population of fishers in the industry, particularly where the coastal fisheries are concerned. On the other hand, the offshore fishery is still relatively small though substantial Governmental efforts are being invested in pushing for a “blue water” fisheries fleet. The major problems in the growth of the offshore fishery relate not only to basic issues such as infrastructure, capital and skills, but also to the need to compete with advanced fishing nations such as Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia.

This report attempts to provide a broad overview of the fishing industry in Malaysia, particularly in relation to the health of the resources on which it is dependent. It also points out the constraints and contradictions in present resource management regimes and attempts to indicate a way forward in resolving some of them.

Introduction

There are four major fishing grounds in Malaysia; i.e. the waters of the West and East Coasts of Peninsular Malaysia and those off Sarawak and Sabah states. The government defines resources within 30 nautical miles from the shore as coastal, and those beyond that as deep sea or offshore. The resources in these grounds can be further categorised as demersal and pelagic. Demersal catch revolves around a multitude of species, none of which are individually dominant. On the other hand, though the pelagic species count is much smaller, many of them are of major economic concern. In general, most of the fishing grounds in Peninsular Malaysia are located mainly in the shallow waters in depths less than 40 m, and lie relatively close to mangroves (Arshad et al., 1997).

In 2000, per capita fish consumption in the country was 58 kg, making fish a strategic food commodity (Earth Trends, 2003). Fish catch in the same year amounted to 1,231,289 tonnes valued at RM4.17 billion (UD$1.1 billion) or 1.54% of the gross domestic product (GDP) (Department of Fisheries, 2003). Overall, marine fish catch in the country increased 26% in the 1990s, from 911,933 tonnes in 1991 to 1,231,289 tonnes in 2001 (Department of Fisheries, 1992; 2003). In terms of value, the increase amounted to 55.6%, from RM1.85 billion to RM4.17 billion.

Coastal resources are exploited by both commercial and traditional fishing gear, while deep-sea fisheries are harvested mainly by larger commercial boats. Commercial gears consist of the trawl and purse seines, while traditional or artisinal fishing gear consist largely of drift/gill nets, hook and line and bags nets. Although the artisinal gear outnumber the commercial gear, the latter accounts for almost 70% of the national catch.

In 2001, there were about 84,496 licensed fishers in the country and at least as large a number in associated industries. The number of licensed fishers has declined 6.9% over the 1990's, though there are a still large number of unlicensed, part-time fishers. Part of this decline can be attributed to an active Government policy to reduce underemployment and fishing effort, particularly in the artisinal fisheries.

The West Coast fisheries, followed by those of the East Coast, are the most heavily exploited in the country. This can be attributed to a greater intensity of fishing effort in these waters, a consequence of the dense populations that line the coastline and the rapid development of the trawl and purse-seine fishery in the mid-sixties. In the Sarawak and Sabah fisheries, the coastal fishery has been exploited close to or beyond the maximum sustainable yield, while offshore pelagic and demersal fish resources appear to be relatively unexploited.

Management efforts include a licensing regime for fishers and their vessels as well as management zones for different size vessels, with larger vessels confined progressively to more offshore areas, and the declaration of sensitive habitats such as coral reefs marine protected areas. However, the marine environment and the fisheries stocks that they engender are also affected by pollution and habitat destruction by land based industrial and urban activities over which fisheries management authorities have no control. Fishers thus have little incentive to conform to management dictates and poaching is rife. There is also a considerable degree of encroachment by foreign vessels. Future directions in resource management would need to include an integrated Oceans Policy that would clearly set a policy framework for various stakeholders in the marine environment to develop and operate in sustainable concert. A greater scope of habitat conservation and management is also critical in ensuring the continued health of the nation's living marine resources, as well as enabling an improved means of resource allocation for a more equitable return of investment for fishermen.

Species diversity

Fish

The species profile of the Malaysian fisheries industry is characterised by a wide spectrum of demersal, as well as pelagic stock. Among the major pelagics are the Indo-Pacific and Indian mackerels (Rastrelliger sp.) which are the most dominant, while scads (Atule, Alepes, Selar), round scads (Decapterus sp.), sardine (Sardinella sp., Dussumieria sp.), hardtail (Megalaspis cordyla), small tuna (mainly Euthynnus affinis, Auxis thazard and Thunnus tonggol) are less dominant, but still important. Other pelagic fish commonly caught are promfrets (Pampus and Formio), mullets (Mugil, Valamugil), Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus), threadfin (Eleutheroneme, Polydactylus), wolf herring (Chirocentrus) and queenfish (Scomberoides). The demersals, on the other hand, consist mainly of the croaker (Sciaena sp.), threadfin bream (Nemipterus sp.), shad (Ilisha elongate), lizardfish (Saurida sp.) and goatfish (Upeneus sp.)

Shrimp

There are at least 15 shrimp species harvested from Malaysian waters. These include Parapenaeopsis hardwickii, Metapenaeus lysianassa, Penaeus merguiensis, P. hardwickii and P. gracillima.

Current status of fisheries resources

The resources, potentials and problems faced by the Malaysian fishing industry relate closely to the four fishing grounds described above. The areas have different resource capabilities, exploitation levels and environmental conditions and are thus described in discrete terms below:

West coast of Peninsular Malaysia

The fisheries resources in the Straits of Malacca are the most heavily exploited in the country. This can be attributed to the dense population that lines its' coastline, and the rapid development of the trawl and purse-seine fishery from the mid-sixties (Khoo, 1976). The waterway supported 31,242 fishers in 2001, or 37.0% of the national fishing population, who operated 13,065 fishing vessels and 12,966 licensed gears (Table 1). Despite being the smallest fishing ground in the country (from an areal standpoint), until 1990, over half of Malaysia's total marine fish production came from the Malaysian side of the Straits of Malacca (52.3%–61.4%). It was only in 1990 that other fishing grounds developed sufficiently to outpace its output. However, despite this, its' contribution was still substantial (42.6%–47.7%; Mustafa Kamal and Hiroyuki, 2000).

Most fishing effort is concentrated off the states of Kedah, Penang and Perak and northern Selangor, where the Straits are sufficiently wide to support significant levels of fishing boat traffic. Total landings in 2001 in the waterway amounted to 489,026 tonnes valued at RM1.78 billion. Landings of demersal and semi-pelagic fish gradually increased from 235,000 tonnes in 1991 to 305,000 tonnes in 2001, while shrimp landings have largely hovered around 50,000 tonnes (Table 2). While overall catch figures appear to indicate a reasonable state of ecological health, studies indicate that coastal demersal semi-pelagic fish and shrimp are at, or beyond, their maximum levels of exploitation.

Chee et al. (1991) reported a decline of catch rates using standard trawl net from 130.5 kg hr−1 in 1970 to 36.7 kg hr−1 in 1991. Subsequent work (Talib et al., 2000) also indicated that the resource may be already heavily overfished, though differences in methodology and net design do not allow quantitative comparison with the earlier work. Talib (2002) also reported significant shifts in the species profile of the catch off the northern part of the Straits, indicating that some fish may have already been dangerously overfished to the point where species balance in the fishing population has been affected. Shrimp resources also indicate declining stock pattern.

Previous surveys conducted in 1988 (southern part of theWest Coast) and 1990 (northern part of the West Coast; Talib et al., 1995), indicated the overall average catch rate of the survey to be 1.76 kg hr−1 in 1988 and 0.91 kg hr−1 in 1990.

A similar situation is seen in the offshore/deep-sea demersal fishery resources. The potential yield of demersal fish from offshore waters has been estimated at around 11,300 tonnes (Anon., 1987). However, Chee et al. (2000) reported catch rates to have decline from 118.7 kg hr−1 in 1987 to around 49.1 kg hr−1 in 1997.

Coastal pelagic resources are exploited by both artisinal and commercial gear. The most important artisinal gear in the pelagic fisheries is the drift net. Until recently, the most important commercial pelagic fishing gear was the purse seine. However, with the introduction of the high-opening trawl, introduced in 1970s, trawlers have now become the mainstay of the coastal pelagic fishery (Chee, 2000).

The potential yield of coastal and offshore pelagic resources has been estimated at 100,000 tonnes and 16,950 tonnes respectively (Anon., 1987). Pelagic fish landings increased two-fold from around 91,000 tonnes in 1991 to about 174,000 tonnes in 1995. However, the landings declined to 140,000 tonnes in 1996 and show a fluctuating trend over the later half of the 1990s before declining to 117,000 tonnes in 2001. The reason for these fluctuations is difficult to pinpoint but such variations are characteristic of the cyclical nature of pelagic fishery resources. However, the pelagic fishery is probably in no better situation than that of the demersal fishery.

East coast Peninsular Malaysia

Although the waters off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia cover a much larger area, catch is much less than the West Coast. However, fishing remains the mainstay of a significant rural economy and of critical importance in the many communities. In 2001, the east coast fishery supported over 22,396 fishers (26.5% of national total), 5,781 fishing vessels (18.2%) and 5,781 licensed gear (18.2%) (Table 3). As in the west coast, the major commercial fishing gears are the trawl nets and purse seines. Until recently, the fishery here played a secondary role to the more productive west coast fishery. With the advent of offshore fishery development, however, its standing has improved considerably, though at the expense of resource health.

Landings in 2001 amounted to 398,175 tonnes valued at RM1.23 billion. Catch figures reached a high of 345,000 tonnes in 1993, but declined to around 288,000 tonnes in 1996 (Table 4), suggesting that, like the West Coast, resources had probably been exploited to its maximum level by 1993–95. Resource studies also appear to suggest that current fishing effort to be close to or beyond the MSY since 1994 (Mohd. Taupek and Ibrahim, 1996). Trawl surveys conducted between 1988 and 1992 also indicated declines in the average catch rates as well as changes in the species composition with squids, lizardfish and priacanthids becoming dominant (Ahmad Adnan, 1996). The increase in the dominance of squids has been attributed to the reduction in their predator populations (Ahmad Adnan, 1996).

Available data also indicate that shrimp resources have already been exploited at their maximum level. The landings of shrimp on the east coast have always been seasonal, usually becoming available during the northeast monsoon months from November to March. The potential yield has been estimated at around 6,000 tonnes (Pathansali, 1976) as compared with a catch of between 5,000–8,000 tonnes over the 1990s (Table 4).

The situation appears equally as grave where coastal pelagic fishery is concerned. Analysis of the commercial landing statistics suggest that coastal pelagic resources are probably exploited at their maximum level or approaching their Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) of about 140,000 tonnes (Mansor et al., 1996). Small pelagics had gradually increased from 107,000 tonnes in 1991 to around 165,000 tonnes in 2001, with landings fluctuating between 100,000 and 170,000 tonnes (Table 4).

The potential yield of the east coast offshore demersal fishery was originally estimated at 82,200 tonnes (Anon., 1987). However, recent resource surveys indicated that catch rates had declined significantly, from 197.5 kg hr−1 in 1987 to 28.02 kg hr−1 in 1998 (Anon., 1998). Although the sampling trawl net in 1987 and 1998 studies were different, the difference is still significant. The main reason for the decline is probably due to intensive poaching by foreign vessels in the Malaysian waters. Malaysian fishing boats are also known to land in Thai ports, leading to underreporting of the actual catch.

The offshore pelagic fishery, however, appears to be facing less serious fishing pressures. The production from the deep-sea pelagic fisheries was about 55,901 tonnes in 2001, which compares well with the estimated potential yield of 54,000 tonnes made in 1987 (Anon., 1987). A more recent survey conducted between September 1995 and May 1996 indicated that the density of the pelagic fish resources in the offshore/deep seawaters is still comparable with the survey carried out in 1987 with an estimated output of 1.97 tonnes km−2 (Rosidi et al., 1997).

Sarawak

Sarawakian waters are the most extensive in the country, accounting for around 160,000 km2 (or about 29%) of the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters. Despite this, they account for only 10.5% of the country's total marine fish landings in 2000. In 2001, the Sarawak fishery supported over 9,680 fishers (11.5% of national total), 2,346 fishing vessels (7.4%) and 2,346 licensed gear (7.4%; Table 5). The fishery is still relatively undeveloped and essentially artisinal in nature, with commercial gear accounting for less than 28% of the total gear count. Of the 2,346 vessels licensed to fish in 2001, about 746 (31.8%) were outboards, while 53.2% were inboards less than 40 h.p. Only 348 (14.8%) were larger than 40 h.p.

Landings fluctuated between 82,000–88,000 tonnes over 1991 to 1993, thereafter gradually increasing from around 100,000 tonnes in 1995 to 156,700 tonnes in 2001 valued at RM4.83 million (Table 6). The bulk of the marine fish landings from Sarawak are contributed by trawl nets, which mainly exploit demersal fish resources within the coastal waters.

In 2001, 73% of the marine fish landings from Sarawak were of a coastal demersal origin, while shrimp accounted for another 8.2% (DoF, 2003). Catches from offshore resources have been increasing over the years, and in 2001, amounted to over 31,773 tonnes. As with the other fishing grounds, data indicates that the coastal fishery has been exploited close to or beyond the maximum sustainable yield. The estimated potential coastal yield from demersal fish stocks has been estimated at 54,000 tonnes (Hadil et al., 1998) compared with landings over the period of 1991–2001, which fluctuated between 43,000 and 115,000 tonnes. Shrimp landings had also clearly exceeded the estimated potential yield of the fishery, which was estimated at around 11,000 tonnes by Hadil (1994).

However, recent surveys have indicated the availability of a deep-sea prawn (scampi) resource in waters beyond 100 m, though the magnitude and commercial viability for its exploitation have not been determined (Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER), 2001 (unpublished))

On the other hand, the resource health of coastal pelagic resources appears to be more promising. Landings of small pelagic fish and tunas in Sarawak are limited, ranging from 13,000–25,350 tonnes over 1991–2001 (DoF, 19922003). These were mainly contributed by traditional fishing gear. The potential yield of coastal small pelagic fish was estimated at 26,600 tonnes (Anon., 1987).

Based on the above, it would appear that there is still hope for the development of the coastal pelagic fishery.

Overall, offshore resources appear to be relatively unexploited. Estimates of the potential yield of demersal fish for the waters from 12 nautical miles outwards from the shore have been estimated at of 62,300 tonnes (Anon., 1987) to 73,000 tonnes (Hadil et al., 1998). However, these resources are only lightly exploited currently, amounting to 31,773 tonnes in 2001. The fact that vessels of 40–75 Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT) are allowed to fish in waters as near as 7 nautical miles from the coast in Sarawak, and vessels greater than 75 Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT) constructed before 1987 can fish in waters as near as 10 nautical miles from shore obscure the fact that much of current landings come from coastal rather than offshore waters. In addition, much of the demersal resource is located in waters that are essentially untrawlable due to unsuitable bottom bathymetry. The potential yield from these areas has been estimated at 34,000 tonnes, and would be accessible only to bottom long line, hand line and trap (Hadil et al., 1998) and not currently exploited to any extent.

Offshore pelagic fish resources have also been relatively unexploited up to the present. The potential yield of small pelagics has been estimated at 81,550 tonnes and that of tuna (neritic and oceanic) about 50,000 tonnes (Anon., 1987). Landings of small pelagics have ranged between 16,900 and 17,800 tonnes over 1990s while that of tuna, from 1,300 to 3,800 tonnes. The bulk of the commercial tuna landings consist of skipjack (72.5%) while the balance of 27.5% is made of yellowfin/bigeye tuna (Rumpet, 2000).

Though fishing effort in the offshore grounds appears to be limited, poaching by foreign boats (particularly Filipino, Indonesian and Thai) is a major problem, with regular reports of incursions. The extent of uptake by these boats is unknown and the stability of present catch patterns is uncertain. If poaching intensity is high, as in the case of the offshore fishery in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, then the perception that offshore stocks are still under fished may be illusory.

Sabah

The Sabah fishery is broadly similar to that of Sarawak, i.e. with a large (EEZ) area but with a disproportionate landing volume. However, impressive gains have been made in recent years, particularly in the expansion of productive assets and the introduction of commercial gears.

Over the 1991–2001 period, the contribution of marine fish landings from Sabah to the national total increased from 12% to 14.5%, making it the third largest contributor after the west and east coasts of Peninsular Malaysia (DoF, 1992, 2003).

Though socio-political issues continue to be major consideration, the issue of overlapping territorial claims and EEZ boundaries (from Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia) are particularly pronounced in these waters.

In 2001, the Sabah fishery supported over 20,845 fishers (24.7% of national total), 10,456 fishing vessels (32.9%) and 10,456 licensed gear (33.0%; Table 7). The fishing industry in Sabah is quite well developed with commercial gear accounting for 15.7% of the total gear count. Of the 10,456 vessels licensed to fish in 2001, about 4,653 (44.5%) were outboards, only 8% were inboards less than 40 h.p. while 2,448 (23.4%) were larger than 40 h.p.

As with other fishing grounds, landings are derived mainly from the coastal fishery resources. In 2001, 178,046 tonnes of marine fish were landed (DoF, 2003), the bulk of which came from commercial gear (trawl nets; purse-seines) and bottom gill nets. The landings by resource categories are shown in Table 8. Coastal demersal finfish resources are thought to be moderately to heavily exploited, mainly by trawlers.

The potential yield of coastal demersal finfish has been estimated at 130,000 tonnes (MIER, 1999 (unpublished)), which compares well with present catch levels. On the other hand, coastal shrimp resources are intensively exploited possibly beyond MSY levels (MIER, 1999 (unpublished)). Landings over the 1991–2001 period reached a high of 17,000 tonnes in 1992, but gradually declined to about 9,900 tonnes in 2001. The potential yield from the coastal small pelagic resources is estimated at about 80,000 tonnes, while that of neretic tunas about 20,000 tonnes (MIER, 1999 (unpublished)). Landings of small pelagics increased from around 40,375 tonnes in 1991 to 62,914 tonnes in 2001, while tuna landings decreased slightly, from 11,000 tonnes to 9,000 tonnes (Table 8).

Offshore demersal resources are limited to the continental shelf area off the west coast of Sabah. A potential yield for these waters off west Sabah was estimated at 11,000 tonnes (Anon., 1987). The presence of many shoals and shallows, however, has limited commercial fishing in these areas and they appear relatively unexploited. Currently, the landings of deep-sea trawlers are reported from Labuan F.T. where around 276 tonnes of fish landings were recorded in 2001 from trawlers 70 GRT and above.

Offshore/deep sea small pelagic resources are in a similar position. These resources have been estimated to provide a potential yield of around 18,000 tonnes in the waters 30 nautical miles off the west coast of Sabah (Anon., 1987). With the current landings of only around 3,700 tonnes from the deep-sea vessels, the health of the resource appears sound. Offshore tuna stocks are estimated to be about 20,000 tonnes (MIER, 1999 (unpublished)), comparing well with current landings of around 9,502 tonnes. However, the offshore tunas, as in Sarawak, are mainly juveniles.

Resource management and conservation regime

Legal environment

The primary legislation under which management measures are enforced is currently the Fisheries Act 1985 (Amended 1992). A number of subsidiary legislative instruments have been enforced under the Act, providing managers a comprehensive legal environment in which effective resource management can be instituted. It is important to note, however, the subsidiary regulations for Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak are separate. Both Sabah and Sarawak state authorities have a concurrent mandate with the Federal authorities where marine fisheries are concerned. Though Sarawak accepted the Fisheries (Maritime) (Sarawak) Regulations 1976 instituted under the now repealed Fisheries Act 1963, the Fisheries Regulations (Sabah) 1964 has not yet been adopted by the State of Sabah in part or whole.

Another significant shortcoming is that the current legislation precedes international fisheries conventions such as the 1993 Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Agreement on fishing vessels on the high seas, the 1995 (FAO) Code Of Conduct For Responsible Fisheries and the 1995 United Nations Agreement relating to the conservation and management of straddling fish and migratory fish stocks. Though many of the elements in these conventions are consistent, or at least not in conflict, with the Fisheries Act 1985 (Amended 1992), there is a need for present legislation to be more fully harmonised with these international concords.

Management strategies

Based on the legal framework, the following instruments have been employed as an integral part of the national fisheries resource management regime:

Licensing of fishers

The Malaysian fishing industry is a limited entry fishery participation, in that it is restricted to licensed fishers currently within the industry only.

Licenses are not transferable (except to dependents) and are withdrawn if the fisher leaves the industry. The licensing regime is directed at reducing underemployment in the industry and discouraging further participation in the coastal fisheries sector. The net effect of this has been a gradual decline in the number of licensed fishers, from 90, 632 in 1991 to 84,496 in 2001.

Direct limitation of fishing effort

All fishing gear are licensed to control fishing effort as the number of fishing gear licenses issued can be restricted and reviewed from time to time to ensure sustainable exploitation of the resources. Currently a moratorium has been placed on the issuance of new or additional fishing gear licenses in the coastal waters of Peninsular Malaysia to ease fishing pressures.

Establishment of management zones

Management zones have been established to ensure equitable allocation of the fishery resources among different size of fishing vessels and types of fishing gear, and to reduce conflict between the traditional and commercial fishers. Four fishing zones have been established through a licensing scheme whereby the country's maritime waters were delineated and designated for specific fishing gear, class/size of fishing vessel, and ownership. The fishing zones established are:

  • Management Zone A: 5 nautical miles and below from the coast, reserved solely for small-scale fishermen operating traditional fishing gear and owner-operated vessels.

  • Management Zone B: beyond 5 nautical miles from the coast, where owner-operated fishing vessels of less than 40 GRT using commercial fishing gear such as trawl net and purse seines are allowed to operate.

  • Management Zone C1: beyond 12 nautical miles from the coast, where commercial fishing vessels of 40 GRT and above using trawl net and purse-seine net are allowed to operate.

  • Management Zone C2: beyond 30 nautical miles from the coast, where commercial fishing vessels of 70 GRT and above are allowed to operate.

In addition, existing fishing vessels operating commercial fishing gear are not allowed to reduce their gross tonnage/size when their hulls are replaced or renewed by the vessels owners. The intention behind this policy condition is to prevent further increase in fishing effort in the current fishing area/zone of the vessels concerned.

Restrictions on destructive gear

The use/operation of certain destructive fishing gear such as explosives, poisons and motorized push nets have been prohibited to conserve the juveniles of fish and prawns, particularly in estuarine and coral areas.

Closed seasons

Restrictions on the collection of grouper fingerlings from the wild, on the use of specific gear and the enforcement of closed seasons have been employed as a management measure to conserve resources.

Conservation of fishery resources

Conservation efforts are currently focused largely on the establishment of reef based marine parks. A total of four marine parks which group the waters of 35 islands off the west and east coasts of Peninsular Malaysia, and three (13 islands) off Sabah have been established. In addition, the waters around 5 islands in Sarawak and Terengganu have also been gazetted as Fisheries Protected Areas where collection of marine fauna and flora are prohibited. Fishing is also prohibited in marine park areas.

Rehabilitation of resources

A total of 54 artificial tyre reefs, 10 boat reefs and 10 concrete reefs have been constructed throughout the country. As the process of succession and habitat rehabilitation will take some time, it is unclear how effective resource rehabilitation has been.

Monitoring, control and surveillance

As part of a more comprehensive monitoring regime, a Vessel Tracking and Monitoring System (VTMS) based on the Global Positioning System and Inmarsat satellite communications technology is being put into place. The system will enable authorities to detect and identify any Malaysian deep-sea vessels that cross over to foreign ports to sell or off-load their catches before returning to their Malaysian fishing base. The full implementation of the VTMS is expected to enable monitoring of fishing vessels in terms of their landings.

Balancing imperatives—save or squander?

While current fish landings are still significant enough to engender a degree of comfort among resource managers, the current scenario does not point to a healthy fisheries resource base where Malaysia is concerned.

The problem with the Malaysian multi-species fishery (as is true of many tropical fisheries) is that overall volume figures often mask collapses of sub-fisheries that are often too small to make an impact. The shifts in species profiles that have been picked up through long term studies in both the west and east coast of Peninsular Malaysia is testimony to the fact that there have been serious diminutions in specific populations.

In addition, it is clear that the marine fishery resources of the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia are currently being exploited beyond their maximum sustainable levels, and while catch levels continue to broadly sustain in volume terms, there has been major shifts in the species profile. In the case of the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the coastal marine fish resources are also exploited at their maximum levels. Though deep-sea fisheries appeared at one time to offer some hope for further development, recent studies point to a significant decline possibly due to poaching. There is still some hope for development of the offshore fishery in Sabah and Sarawak, though the extent of poaching undertaken in those waters also makes the situation somewhat uncertain.

While a comprehensive fisheries management regimen is in place, it is still inadequate to address many issues of resource health. The health of the fisheries resources cannot be divorced from that of the overall marine environment in which the activity is undertaken. For instance, current management regimes have tended to focus on controlling fishing effort through licensing and access limitations to sustain present stock levels.

However, fisheries resource management cannot be seen in isolation of issues such as habitat degradation and pollution. In this respect, the present regimen is still strongly lacking in fundamentals. For instance, habitat conservation has been limited to establishment of marine parks and protection of coral reefs. While the parks have to a large extent managed to limit the kind of degradation seen elsewhere in the region (McManus, 1988), the dichotomy in jurisdiction between the federal government and the state governments means that while the former is in charge of the marine parks, land matters (and land based development on the islands) largely remain under the jurisdiction of the state governments. The dangers of coral reef ecosystem destruction posed by water quality degradation associated with unsustainable land development on the island adjacent to the marine park is very much still a concern.

In addition, other habitats, notably mangroves and sea grasses, are also major determinants of marine environmental health, especially in coastal and nearshore areas. Mangroves and seagrass beds serve as important nursery areas for commercially important species of fish and prawns, and have been shown to support inshore fish production (MacNae, 1974; Fortes, 1988). However, mangroves are classified as a forestry resource in Malaysia and come under the direct jurisdiction of the State governments. The tendency to see mangroves solely as forest resources is often misplaced, even from an economic standpoint. In a study on the Matang Mangroves Reserve, one of the largest managed mangrove forests in the country, Gopinath and Pang (1997) estimated that 77% of its total economic output came from fisheries, 9% from blood clams and only 12% from forestry. Seagrass beds within 3 nautical miles of the low water line are similarly within State jurisdiction.

Another reason for the apparent bias towards reef-based parks is their economic appeal as tourist destinations. On the other hand, mangrove and seagrass based parks are unlikely to attract the same kind of visitor flow, making it less appealing to government planners, who often need to justify setting aside reserves in economic terms. In short, monetary worth of the resource being conserved has precedent over its biodiversity values (Mohd. Ibrahim et al., 1997). As a consequence of these legal and administrative issues, there are no mangroves or seagrass reserves that have been so declared exclusively for marine environmental or fisheries purposes.

The deterioration of marine water quality, particularly from land-based sources, is another major factor mediating ecosystem health. Effluent from land-based industries and domestic discharges, coastal land reclamation, illegal dumping of sludge from vessels and accidental oil spills have contributed to the pollution and degradation of the water quality of the coastal aquatic environment (Mohd. Ismail, 1983).

The degradation of the environmental health of the marine environment, and the fisheries resources that depend on it, have strong socio-political implications. Forecasted total consumption of fish is expected to reach 56 kg per capital in 2010 based on annual income growth rate of 1% (MoA, 1999). This represents an 18% increase over current consumption levels. Though some of this increase can, and will, undoubtedly come from aquaculture, traditional consumer preferences will dictate that the marine fisheries will have to cope with much of this increased demand.

Changes in the availability of fish supplies can have far reaching effects. In this regard, it is significant to note that retail fish prices, rose precipitously during the 1990s.

The retail price of Grade 1, 2 and 3 fish, for instance, rose 48.3%, 59.6% and 60.6% over the 1991–2001 time period, while shrimp prices climbed 36.3% over the same time frame (DoF, 1992, 2003). These price increases have, to some extent, mitigated the impact of declining catches among nearshore and coastal fishers.

However, the present situation presents a save-or-squander conundrum to resource managers. Existing regimes can only work in an environment where stakeholders are willing to make short-term sacrifices to ensure long-term sustainability. In the case of the Malaysian coastal fisheries, however, fishers are increasingly unwilling to accommodate short-term constraints because the continuing deterioration of the coastal marine environment (over which they have no control) will impact on future fisheries stocks.

In short, there is greater economic imperative to harvest the fish now than wait for some future time when conditions will most likely become untenable for the fish to survive anyway. In this view, any downslide in catch is expected to be compensated by the higher market prices that such shortages would eventually engender. Balancing this purely economic imperative would be the pressure to ensure security of supply for increased demand brought about by population increases and increasing affluence and the need for conservation of natural biodiversity.

Domestic demand needs are likely to take an increasingly critical profile in coming years. Malaysia has long had to import fish (particularly from Thailand and Indonesia) to augment local supply. However, the export value of fish and fisheries products outweighed imports, accruing a net benefit value to the country. For instance, in 1991, the country imported 246,257 tonnes of fish and fishery products valued at RM480 million. However, it exported 175,216 tonnes amounting to RM739.70 million. By 2000, however, the balance had totally shifted, with an importation of 297,776 tonnes valued at RM979.2 million as compared with imports of 107,622 tonnes (RM939.6 million).

Against this backdrop, current management regimes do not appear to share the urgency of the moment. While certainly important and useful, it would clearly need to be bolstered by additional policy and regulatory initiatives that further improve the resilience of coastal marine environments, as well as provide a sound economic basis for local fishermen to pursue sustainable fishing practices. Among these measures would include:

  • An integrated Oceans Policy that would clearly set a policy framework for various stakeholders in the marine environment to develop and operate in sustainable concert. Initial efforts towards developing an integrated Ocean Policy have been made (Basiron, 2002) but have yet to evolve into its final form.

  • A greater scope of habitat conservation and management is critical in ensuring the continued health of the nation's living marine resources. For instance, mangroves and mudflats have yet to warrant initiatives to declare specific areas as fisheries (as opposed to forest) reserves.

  • An improved means of resource allocation that enable a more equitable return to investment for fishers needs to be put into place. For instance, a system of tradable concessionary rights can lead to a situation where the more efficient fishers would buy out less efficient fishers, or those who wish to get out of the industry. Such an approach would lead to self-policing by fishers who have now little incentive to go beyond poach-and-run tactics. However, a restructuring of the fishing industry along these lines is likely to be traumatic, and fraught with socio-political implications.

Conclusions

The fishing industry in Malaysia is viable and self-sustaining. It is a major facet of the country's food production scenario and is a critically important source of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. For an industry that is interwoven so closely and intimately with the country's cultural and economic tapestry, it is ironic that it faces such an uncertain future. Almost all of its resources are either heavily exploited or over fished, while current management measures are inadequate to cope with its more serious challenges. Future development and management approaches must take on a more radical tone if present output is to sustain. The consequences of not moving in this direction would have far reaching repercussions not just for the industry, but for millions who see fish as their daily staple rather than the occasional luxury.

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