PETALING JAYA: It should come as no surprise that Malaysians love their seafood. Need proof? Just look at the sheer number of seafood restaurants there are throughout the country!
But as you indulge in your fish head curry and butter crab, have you ever thought about where these creatures come from? And, given how much you already have to pay for seafood dishes these days, what if prices were to skyrocket further?
Worse still, how would you react if seafood were taken off the menu altogether? The horror!
Sadly, these scenarios are entirely possible as, according to award-winning environmental scientist Alison Wee, Malaysians’ source of seafood is under severe threat.
You see, while a lot of these creatures are commonly caught out in the open sea, many of them are also found in mangrove forests – of which Malaysia is home to more than 600,000 hectares, mostly in muddy coastal pockets.
Alas, most Malaysians seem to care little about mangrove conservation, which is what 39-year-old Wee is trying to change.
Wee, a researcher at University of Nottingham Malaysia, recently sat down with FMT Lifestyle to share why Malaysians should be concerned with preserving these natural resources.
Mangroves, she said, provide humans a great service: “They are the breeding and nursing grounds for many of the fishery species we rely on. A lot of the seafood we eat, fish, crabs, shrimps… they nurse and breed in the mangroves.”
Mangroves, therefore, act as a safe haven for these marine creatures, and harming them would clearly have an impact on Malaysia’s seafood supply.
Additionally, mangroves and other swamp flora act as nature’s filters, trapping carbon dioxide and filtering out harmful waste products before they reach the sea.
As such, “take away mangroves, take away chilli crabs”, Wee said: lighthearted words with ominous repercussions.
Born and raised in Penang, Wee has had a love for nature from a young age, having grown up at the foot of Penang Hill and spent time at Batu Ferringhi beach whenever she could.
“While waiting for my STPM results, I was exposed to books by environmentalist Jane Goodall. I was inspired by her writing, her life story and her message of hope,” she shared.
Wee was therefore inspired to become an environmental scientist herself, turning down an opportunity to study medicine. She would go on to successfully apply to study life sciences at the National University of Singapore.
While working on her final-year project, she was offered the chance to pursue a PhD on mangroves. “At that time, I had no real understanding of it, but it was an opportunity that was hard to pass on.”
Thus began her long fascination with mangrove forests and their natural roles – a journey that would eventually lead to Wee being one of the recipients of the prestigious L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science Award last year.
The award, created in 1998, recognises five eminent women scientists from five regions in the world for their contributions to science. Wee was recognised for her work in “environmental DNA meta-barcoding”.
“I’ll break down the words,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like fish CSI: we take water from the mangroves and, from that water, we detect which species live in that forest, without even without seeing the fish.”
Her study helps fellow scientists determine the various classifications of creatures that live in different parts of the mangrove forests.
“And from the results, we can determine whether there’s pollution or overharvesting, as well as the migration patterns of certain species,” she explained.
On that note, Wee cautioned that Malaysian mangrove forests are facing existential threats, courtesy of unchecked human development.
“Mangroves are intertidal zones, which means they are flooded according to the movement of the tide. It is waterlogged, and to develop land in mangroves, you have to drain it.”
Soberingly, draining a mangrove forest is a near-irreversible act, Wee said, adding that it is significantly easier to remove mangroves than it is to replace them.
So, what will happen if all the mangroves are gone? “No more seafood!” Wee stressed. “That’s the first thing people will feel.”
Removing carbon-trapping mangroves will also aggravate climate change, along with leaving human populations exposed to natural disasters.
“Remember the 2004 tsunami? Many villages that were behind mangroves were protected from it,” she pointed out.
Unfortunately, said Wee, Malaysia seems to be competing with Indonesia to see which can destroy its mangrove forests more quickly.
“People need to recognise the value of mangroves,” she emphasised. “It’s not just a ‘redundant’ forest; it’s doing its part. It provides many ecosystem services to human populations.”
Today is World Conservation Day and, for many youngsters, anxiety is mounting about climate change in the face of distressing news coming from around the world.
About these young people, Wee opined: “Climate anxiety often leads to inaction. You will feel pessimistic; you don’t know what to do, so you do nothing.”
But instead of feeling down, Wee recommends people keep their heads up and fight the good fight.
“Understand that there are people and groups out there doing their part, but for most of us, simple acts such as reusing items and recycling may already be enough,” she said.
“Focus on the little things that we can contribute to. It’s important to have some joy in doing all these things.”