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We see ocean as a vast and complex ecosystem that could seemingly sustain itself. But is it really that invincible? Is is really endless? Though life surrounds this rich infinite abyss, we might have take its existence for granted most time. 

One report highlighted that the ocean, as wide as it is, only contains a limited number of wild seafood stocks. In 2006, a group of international ecologists and economists predicted the loss of the world's seafood stocks by 2050. The report was released after a four-year study of 7,800 marine species around the world.

   

What does this mean for Malaysia?

Malaysia is the top fish and seafood consuming country per capita within the ASEAN group of nations. In terms of total consumption, Malaysia ranked third, after Japan and South Korea. In 2010, the average Malaysian consumed 54kg of fish and seafood per year as compared with 20kg in 1970.2 

The trend for fish consumption among the Malaysian population is expected to steadily increase in the next decade. Unfortunately, the actual annual catch brought into Malaysia (locally caught and imported) is not moving in the same direction as the population’s appetite. This is worrying as the current annual fish landings already do not meet the country’s projected demands. 

Fish consumption in general is not a bad thing. But when stocks begin to decline, it becomes a major problem for the general population, even more so for vulnerable communities living on islands who rely heavily on daily catches as food sustenance and a source of income.

Reef Check Malaysia’s 2013 survey reported low levels of high-value species of fish (e.g. grouper) and shellfish (e.g. lobster). The data suggests a slow recovery rate from past overfishing and the possibility of ongoing poaching within marine protected areas. 

Despite the importance of fish in our daily lives, the issue of managing marine resources has not been properly addressed to ensure that stocks do not deplete in the long term. 

How does this impact the ordinary Malaysian?

Fish is an important part of a healthy balanced diet. It is a great source of protein, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, which is key to brain development and a healthy heart. With obesity on the rise in Malaysia, more people will begin to opt for fish and seafood as part of their diet.

However, if the level of overfishing in Malaysia continues to be left unchecked, coupled with dwindling global stocks, a fish-shortage crisis may very likely arise in the near future. This could result in the over-pricing of seafood and possibly, the extinction of popular species (e.g. grouper).

With the collapse of fishing, island communities will be the first to experience drastic changes. Livelihoods will be impacted for most fishermen. Moreover, tourism to these islands may be affected as the sea-life that divers and snorkelers pay to see may no longer be there. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. Conservation-wise, the imbalance in marine ecosystems may eventually affect shoreline protection, climate regulation, ocean acidification, and the list goes on. 

What is the solution?

One of the most effective approaches to managing coastal and marine resources is to create marine protected areas managed by local communities. In fact, a report by New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society shared that coral reef marine protected areas established by local people for traditional use is far more effective at protecting fish and wildlife than those set up by governments for conservation purposes alone.3

The report found that fish actually grew larger in small traditionally managed reserves rather than in larger national parks. They must also be co-managed by several partner organisations. Effective partnerships are therefore important between the management authority and local communities.

Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) launched two major programmes on the islands of Mantanani, Sabah and Tioman, Pahang in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The main objective is to enable both islands to become resilient and sustainable.

Mantanani Island is fast becoming a popular tourist destination with its beautiful islands and clear blue seas. With this rising popularity comes increased development beyond the capacity of the island’s existing infrastructure. For example, the number of resorts doubled within the span of only two years. RCM is working to establish Mantanani as a locally managed marine protected area by engaging with the relevant government agencies, local community, and even resort operators. At this stage, the primary focus is to educate each stakeholder on the importance of coral reefs and marine resources as some still practice destructive fishing methods, believing that the ocean is limitless. 

Tioman Island, on the other hand, was designated as a marine park by the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia in 1994. It was a relatively quiet island until the last few years, with no new resorts constructed between 2000 and 2012. Since then five new resorts have been built. In March 2014, RCM established a permanent presence on the island to engage with and encourage the local community to become more involved in managing the island. Positive habits such as recycling and waste management are being introduced. Alternative livelihood training (e.g. as nature guides) is also part of the programme to help ensure a healthy marine ecosystem. 

How do we move forward?

Sustainable islands are imperative to ensuring healthy marine ecosystems, which in turn, leads to a consistent supply of fish and other marine products. It also ensures sustainable livelihoods among marginalized communities, thereby having a positive impact on a nation’s social and economic standing. More importantly, it protects what we already have, leading to billions in savings that would otherwise be spent to restore or recreate lost biodiversity.

If we truly care for our future, we can begin by turning environmentally-friendly practices into daily habits: Reduce waste, recycle, become ethical divers or snorkelers, consume sustainable seafood, and so on.

Most importantly, let us learn to love the ocean again and be the guardian it needs us to be! World Oceans Day falls on June 8th. What can you personally do to make a difference?

Source: BandWidth Magazine

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Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) is a non-profit organisation that was registered in 2007 to engage with the local community to raise awareness for the importance of, and threats to, coral reefs.

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Reef Check Malaysia
Suite 5.19-5.22, Box 606, Wisma Central, Jalan Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

+603 2161 5948