PETALING JAYA: China’s dominance in the South China Sea, and the big power rivalry in the area, has led to foreign fishing vessels poaching in Malaysia’s rich marine resources, say experts and fishermen.
Thomas Benjamin Daniel, of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), told FMT: “The pervasiveness of the South China Sea dispute, and China’s dominating role in it, has impacted coastal fishermen in Sabah and Sarawak.
“Besides reports of illegal Chinese fishing in Malaysian waters, China has also forced Vietnamese fishermen to fish further south and into our waters. Malaysia’s capacity to constantly monitor such a huge stretch of water is also limited.”
The lack of enforcement and surveillance technology on Malaysia’s territorial waters has made it easier for foreigners to encroach into Malaysian waters.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea through the “nine dash line”. An international court ruling in 2016 said its claims — which overlap with those of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines — have no legal basis. Beijing rejected the ruling.
Big foreign trawlers bullying local fishermen
The head of the Sabah fishermen association for the Kota Kinabalu district, Arsit Sedi, told FMT that local fisherman boats there usually only fish within 50km from shore.
But he said there was an ongoing problem with foreign boats from Vietnam, Thailand and China trespassing into their fishing zones.
“Their ships are so much bigger than ours, and they would hit our small boats. We cannot deny this. But usually there is no detailed report from our local fishermen victims,” he told FMT.
The head of the association for the Kota Belud district, Makbul Matdin, also alluded to this fact, saying that even though there seems to be no direct, visible effects from the South China Sea conflict, encroachment from fishing vessels, especially from Thailand and Myanmar, would steal from the local fisherman’s ricebowl.
“They are there. Because our area has so much in fishery resources. But our local fishermen are not as skilled when it comes to going out to the deeper waters.
“Sometimes there are local owners of larger fishing vessels, but they do not hire locals. They hire foreigners from Thailand and Myanmar. That’s how the encroachments happen. We have competition with them.
“We suffer a lot of losses. Firstly, when they trespass into our waters, it’s not like they bring the fish to us. They take it to their countries.”
Malaysian coastal fishermen suffer losses
“Our fishermen also make a lot of losses from not being able to explore the deeper seas. It’s not to say they can’t. They can. But there are difficulties. They need advanced technology and they usually don’t have the skills or resources.”
Former head and senior fellow at the Centre for Maritime Security and Diplomacy under the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), Martin A Sebastian, meanwhile argued that the loss of fisheries to foreign trawlers stems from the mismanagement of the waters.
As a result, there is an increase in illegal unreported and unregulated fishing.
“When there are no local fishing vessels harvesting the fisheries, there is bound to be foreigners doing so. We don’t have satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the area. We don’t actually know how much we’re losing.”
As a result, he said small-time Malaysian fishermen are severely losing out on what could be large profits. Many of them are getting poorer and poorer. The younger generation are also losing interest in an otherwise familial industry.
He said that Thailand is a major fisheries exporter while also feeding their own population, which is double that of Malaysia, with only the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand as their major waterways.
“Malaysia has half the population, but three major maritime estates with the Straits of Malacca, South China Sea and the Sulu Celebes Sea,” he said.
RM6 billion a year in revenue lost
And yet, he said Malaysia still struggles to be a major fish exporter, and imports fish from other countries, reportedly losing RM6 billion worth of fisheries annually.
He said, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) under the United Nations, Malaysia imported US$976.6 million of fish and fisheries products in 2017.
He argued that part of the reason was that there was no outlined strategies or goals for the fishery industry in all three editions of the National Agriculture Policy — the latest being for the period between 1998 and 2010.
Sebastian suggested that Malaysia look into strategies for all three types of fishery activities — capture fishing (fishes obtained from the sea), mariculture and aquaculture.
“The National Agrofood Policy expires in 2020 and the Department of Fisheries Strategic Plan expires in 2020 as well. We do not have a ‘Fish Stock Assessment’ for our maritime estate and Maximum Sustainable Yield policies for fisheries… the National Plan of Action for IUU (NPOU-IUU) also needs to be revisited as it was published in 2013.”
He said Malaysia must address fisheries holistically as a food, revenue and human security issue.
“Only then will we be able to safeguard the resources in our maritime estate. The more fishermen are out there, the better our eyes and ears for enforcement activities (in the South China Sea).”
He suggested that Malaysia work in collaboration with international organisations like Global Fishing Watch, Asean Maritime Transparency Initiative and United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime – Global Maritime Crimes Programme (UNODC-GMCP) for better surveillance to address the management and crime issues occurring at sea.
On top of that, he also recommended corporatising the Department of Fisheries for effective industrialisation of Malaysia’s maritime real estate.
Sebastian, a retired captain of the Royal Malaysia Navy, also suggested revisiting the policies for the naval outposts and converting them into centres for fishery management.