KOTA KINABALU: The rapidly depleting marine resources poses a major threat not only to the fishery industry but also affects the tourism sector, according to Sabah Tourism Board’s chairman Dato’ Seri Tengku Zainal Adlin.
He said, Sabah is a world-renowned destination for its natural scenic beauty but to many visitors the true attraction lies in the State’s rich marine ecosystem and the seafood it caters.
By no means an exaggeration, arguably the most important sector supporting the State’s economic growth, perhaps even more than the oil and gas sector, Tengku Adlin said, the tourism sector in Sabah is very much dependent on the marine ecosystem.
But with the population of highly valued fish shrinking fast, Sabah is in real danger of losing its charm, particularly among the sea and seafood-loving travelers.
“It goes without saying that the seafood industry thrives and is a lucrative business and it is closely linked to tourism. In fact, almost all 2.8 million tourists who visited Sabah last year went to seafood restaurants during their stay.
“Visitors from Singapore asked where the good seafood restaurants are the moment they step out of the plane. Even tourists from China asked the same question the moment they arrived,” said Tengku Adlin.
Launching the ‘Live Reef Fish Consumer’ campaign yesterday, he urged restauranteurs and hotel operators in Sabah to serve only fully matured fish to their customers, as harvesting juvenile fish is most destructive to the marine ecosystem.
The campaign, partially funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was initiated by WWF-Malaysia to highlight the increasing pressure the seafood industry has on the marine ecosystem.
The objective is to create awareness on the destructive fishing method associated with the supply of live reef fish to the live reef fish trade (LRFT) and urges key groups, namely restaurant owners, chefs, tourism operators, fishermen and fish farming operators to insist on sustainable cyanide-free fish supply.
The campaign is also targeted at educating and encouraging consumers to opt for farmed fish instead of those caught from the wild as a way to ease the pressure on the wild fish stock and to allow for the natural rejuvenation of their population.
At the event, Tengku Adlin also launched WWF-Malaysia’s “Consumer Help To Save Live Reef Fish” video promoting a shift to aquaculture-based sources of reef fish to reduce pressure on the wild stocks.
A “Taste and Tell” culinary session was also held, where chefs from restaurants and hotels in Kota Kinabalu cook sustainably farmed leopard coral trouts and serve them to match the taste of similar fish caught from the wild.
The objective was to demonstrate that farmed fish is comparable to wild fish in taste.
Leopard coral trouts, or locally known as ‘sunoh’, is among the most common LRFT fish in Sabah, which also include the endangered hump head wrasse (mameng), snappers (ikan merah) and several types of groupers.
Tengku Adlin also advised hotel operators to emulate Shangrila Tanjung Aru Resort (STAR) which obtains all its seafood supply from sustainable sources.
Surrounded by the South China Sea, Sulu Sea and Sulawesi Sea, Sabah has the highest concentration of coral reefs and edible fish in Malaysia and is currently one of the main exporters of reef fish in South East Asia.
However, the fish population has significantly declined due to intensive fishing, especially after the live reef fish trade grew significantly in the early 90s following a dramatic increase in price of live fish.
Overfishing and the use of destructive fishing methods remain major threats until today, although various counter measures have been implemented by the government and environmental organisations.
Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Yahya Hussin, who is also the Minister of Agriculture and Food Industry had earlier this year revealed that Sabah’s marine fish resources were depleting at a worrying rate of about 15 percent every ten years.
He said over commercial fishing coupled with the rampant use of dynamites and cyanide has contributed to the shrinking population of coastal fish in Sabah.
Statistic from the Fishery Department Malaysia showed that the marine fish yield in Sabah decreased from 2.56 tons per square kilometer (sq km) in 1971 to only 0.21 ton per sq km in 2007.
The volume of salt water fish landed also decreased from 207,213 tons in 1999 to 174,579 tons in 2010, despite fishing boats venturing further out to the open sea.
This calls for awareness and action from everyone, namely the authority, the industry players and the consumer to insist on sustainable harvesting of this important resource.