Malaysia’s long coastline of around 4 810 km lends itself well to catch and aquaculture fisheries. Malaysian waters comprise 50,000 km2 of shelf areas (<200 m depth) and 418,000 km2 of deep seas within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (Tai 2014) Although palm oil is the largest contributor to agriculture, fisheries is the next most important sector and Malaysia is 92.6% self-sufficient in fish production according to data in the 11th Malaysia Plan. In 2003, fish constituted 60-70% of the national animal protein intake (45.1 kg consumed per capita per year in 2009; Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Malaysia 2010). The main fisheries authority at federal level is the Ministry of Agriculture and The Department of Fisheries Malaysia collects the Annual fisheries statistics. In 1997, the fisheries sector contributed 1.57% to Malaysian GDP, and it provided employment for more than 79 000 fishermen and 20 000 fish farmers. Catch Fisheries Chong 2007 FAO
The marine catch fishery is the main supplier of fish to the Malaysian market, with total landings of 1.63 million tonnes in 2011, of which 84% were food fish and 16% so-called “trash fish” (Tai 2014). The main landing places in Malaysia are located along the coasts of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan; in the Straits of Malacca, South China Sea and Sulu Sea. Around Peninsular Malaysia, productivity of finfish and shrimp is higher in the western than eastern waters (Chong 2007). Marine capture fisheries consist of coastal/ inshore fisheries and deep-sea fisheries. Coastal/ inshore fishing is the most important sector (89% total marine catch fisheries in 1997), and is defined as where fishing vessels operate within 30 nautical miles of the coastline. Fishing vessels range from traditional to commercial vessels <70 Gross Register Tonnage (GRT). Deep sea fishing vessels operate outside the 30km zone in larger vessels (>70GRT) and use commercial gear.
The main fishing methods used are described below:
Trawls operate by dragging nets along the sea floor and are used to harvest bottom feeding (demersal) finfish and penaeid prawns. Important demersal fish catches in Malaysia include threadfin bream (Nemipterus spp.), jewfish/croaker (Pennahia spp., Johnius spp. and Otolithes spp.) and goatfish (Upeneus and Parupeneus species). Total demersal species landings were 616,000 tonnes in 2011 and contributed the highest landings of food fish in Malaysia. The Malaysian trawl fishery contributed 596,759 tonne (51%) of total marine landings in 1997. Large numbers of fish species are caught and the development of "high opening" trawl nets has enabled harvesting of pelagic finfish such as the Indian Short Mackerel (Rastrelliger brachysoma), common on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia
Purse seine fishing is used to harvest pelagic (open-water) fish by casting a weighted net into the open water and enclosing the catch. Important pelagic species in Malaysia are Indo-Pacific short mackerels (Rastrelliger spp), round scad (Decapterus spp.), neritic tunas and sardines (Sardinella spp. and Dussumieria spp.). 550,000 tonnes of pelagic fish were landed in Malaysia in 2011; the second most important species group in terms of food fish landings. Fish purse seines (190,978 tonnes; 16% total marine fish landings in 1997) are used to catch small pelagic fish and the anchovy purse seine is used to fish for anchovies (Stolephorus spp; known as ikan bilis in Malaysia) very close to the shoreline, with well developed fisheries in Pulau Pangkor and Pulau Lagkawi.
Drift and gill nets are used to harvest coastal fish, with gill nets being used to target bottom-dwelling fish. The principle of these methods is that nets are set and fish get trapped as they swim into them; different mesh sizes target different types of fish. Commonly drift nets target higher-valued commercial pelagic fish species whereas gill nets (closer to the seafloor) catch species like marine catfish and prawns (P. merguiensis). In 1997 126,278 tonnes of fish were caught in Malaysia using these methods. Drift nets are the most common fishing method in Malaysia (Tai 2014).
Traditional fishing methods include hook-and-line, bagnets, lift nets, seine nets, traps, barrier nets and scoop nets. They comprised 20% of the total marine fish landings in 1997 and are generally operated by smaller fishing crafts.
Concern has been raised about the sustainability of Malaysia’s marine fisheries, which are threatened by trespassing into restricted fish breeding areas, the use of banned net types (crocodile nets), overfishing, indiscriminate methods resulting in large amounts of “bycatch”, destructive fishing practices (cyanide, bombs and electric gears), and clearance of habitat for coastal access. Previous Fisheries Department surveys have noted a decline in fish biomass by up to 90% in some fishing areas between 1971-97 and local people have observed the decline in species such as ikan belanak, ikan kikik and ikan tamban in markets. Fisheries estimates in the Malaysia NDP account include only landed catches and exclude bycatch, leading to concern that fishing intensity may have been underestimated (Tai 2014)
Aquaculture in Malaysia is an important way of increasing local fish production for food security, but is, nevertheless small relative to capture fisheries (20% total fisheries; 0.2 % GDP). Aquaculture was a priority area in the government’s policy programme for 1998-2010 and the FAO reports that aquaculture recorded an annual growth rate of about 10 % in the 5 years up to 2003. Production from marine, brackish and freshwater aquaculture rose sharply from 1990 (52,302 tonnes) to double in 1994 (114 114 tonnes) and to194 139 tonnes at a value of USD 308 million by 2003 (20% of the total fisheries production). Aquaculture continues to be a priority area in the most recent National Agrofood Policy 2011-2020 aided by a partnership with the FAO.
Brackish water aquaculture comprised more than 70% of total aquaculture production in Malaysia in 2003 (total production 144,189 tonnes, covering an area of 17,357 ha). Bivalve molluscs such as blood cockles (Tegillarca granosa) are extensively cultured in brackish western coastal waters where there is an abundance of mud flats. In terms of brackish water species production, the most common is the blood cockle (Anadara granosa) (54%), followed by shrimps, giant tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon) (17.3 %) and marine fish (6.3 %), but the black tiger shrimp is most valuable (annual value of USD 160 186).
Despite this predominance, of the 20 976 people employed by aquaculture in 2004, only 4% are employed in bivalve mollusc culture (including blood cockles, green mussel and oyster farming), signifying that it is not a labour intensive sector. Because, the culture methods are easy with few overheads it has been widely adopted by low income households in coastal areas. Earthen ponds on land have recently become common for aquaculture, especially in Sabah, and are used primarily for black tiger shrimp (Penaeus monodon) and marine fish culture. Most of the shellfish cultured in Malaysia are endemic with the exception of the whiteleg shrimp (Penaeus vannamei), which was introduced from the Pacific in 1995. The culture of marine fish in floating nets is less common and practiced mainly in the western coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The culture of the marine fish barramundi (Lates calcarifer) in floating net-cages started in the 1980’s and became commercialized in the mid-1990s. Seaweed culture is practiced in Sabah, and has improved the livelihoods of local fisherman through sales of this product to the Philipines.
Remote sensing imagery of the Matang mangrove forest reserve on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The thick vegetation of the reserve is clearly distinguishable from the land that has been cleared for agriculture and towns (NASA),
Mangrove forest ecosystems are found in sheltered coasts and estuaries around Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak with over half of all Malaysian mangrove forests located in eastern Sabah. Peninsular Malaysia has 90,041 ha or 92% of its total mangroves on its sheltered western margin facing the Malacca Straits, while its eastern margin facing the open South China Sea has only 7739 ha of mangroves (Chong 2007). This interactive map shows the distribution of mangroves within Peninsular Malaysia.
Mangrove forest species are adapted to the highly dynamic conditions at the coast including daily tidal fluctuations and a gradient from salt-brackish-freshwaters from coastal to inland areas. It is hypothesized that mangrove species evolved in the Indo-Malay region, and this explains why Malaysian mangrove forests have significantly more plant diversity (ca 50-60 tree and shrub species) compared with 7-12 species in African and American mangroves). Mangrove trees have stilt roots (known as pheomatrophores) and buttress trunks which anchor them firmly in the soft sediments. The dominant trees in Malaysian mangroves are Rhizophora, Avicennia, Bruguiera, Ceriops, Sonneratia and Xylocarpus species. Avicennia and Sonneratia are pioneer species, suited to mudflats at the shoreline that can stabilise sediments and secrete salt on their leaves. Further inland Rhizophera species generally dominate which are eventually outcompeted by Bruguiera and Ceriops species towards the landward zone of the forest. Mangrove trees have a highly adapted method of reproduction and seed dispersal is assisted by the dynamic tidal environment.
Malaysian mangrove ecosystems are very important for conservation. Resident birds in mangrove ecosystems include the Javan pond heron (Ardeola speciosa), white throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), great egret (Ardea alba), milky stork (Mycteria cinevea) and white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster). Mangroves are also important sites for migratory birds; the Kuala Gula bird sanctuary in Perak is an important stopover site for birds from the Northern Hemisphere. Mangrove fauna includes molluscs, crustaceans, worms, crabs, snails and oysters. Until recently, snakes, crocodiles, wild pigs, monkeys and tigers were common in mangroves, but their abundance has reduced recently due to human activity. (Sani 1988). Due to the complexity of the habitat structure, mangroves are vital sites for fish breeding (Chong 2007).
Mangrove timbers are used for firewood and building materials, and the wood is also valuable for the production of charcoal. 500 tonnes of fresh wood produce about 100 tonnes of charcoal and the species used for charcoal production include Rhizophora mucronata, R. apiculata and Bruguiera gymnorhiza. The Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve in Perak is used as a model example for sustainable management of mangrove ecosystems, as it is harvested in rotation every 20 years for timber for charcoal. The charcoal is produced within the large ovens in the forest. Of the total 86454m2 of area of mangrove forest gazetted in Peninsular Malaysia 40,466 m2 are in the Matang Forest reserve.
The charcoal ovens at Matang Forest Nature Reserve (Photo Suzanne McGowan)
Nipa palm (Nypa fructicans) is also common in mangroves and has many uses including provision of housing thatch and cigarette papers and the production of sugar, alcohol, vinegar and salt.
As well as direct provision of forest products and their conservation value, mangrove forests perform an important range of ecosystem services including coastal protection from storms and saltwater intrusion, retention of nutrients and pollutants and carbon sequestration. Estimates for the mean value of the services provided by Southeast Asian mangroves are USD 4185 per hectare per year, but these estimates can be higher (USD846 per ha per year) if their contribution as a refuge and nursery for marine fisheries is accounted for (Chong 2007). Mangrove ecosystems can also be valuable ecotourism attractions such as at the Kilim mangroves in Langkawi and the reserve at Kuala Selangor, famous for its fireflies.
Threats to mangrove ecosystems in Malaysia include conversion to agriculture or aquaculture ponds, coastal development for tourism, unsustainable forestry and pollution. These pressures have resulted in a decline in the areal extent of mangroves in Malaysia since the 1970s
Coral reefs globally provide habitat for 33% of all known fish species and are a nursery ground for 25% of all marine species. Malaysia lies within the “coral triangle”, which is recognised to have the world’s highest marine biodiversity. There are 4000km2 of coral reefs in Malaysian waters and it is estimated that 80% of the number of fish and coral species throughout the coral triangle are represented (Harborne et al 2000). Coral diversity is greater off the coast of East Malaysia (>550 species) than off the Peninsula (>360 species), but this is spatially variably; for example there are few reefs in Sarawak because of high levels of sediment runoff from several large rivers.
Corals are sessile (non-moving) animals, in the same phylum as jellyfish and sea anenomes (the cnidarians). Coral reefs are made up of thousands of coral polyps which have a sac-like body and a mouth which is encircled by stinging tentacles called nematocysts. Most coral polyps are nocturnal and feed at night. Polyps may live individually but most are colonial, established by budding of individual polyps. Most polyps have clear bodies, but are coloured by microscopic pigmented algae called zooxanthellae which live symbiotically within the polyp tissues. Polyps use calcium and bicarbonate ions from seawater to deposit a hard cup-shaped skeleton made from calcium carbonate; the cup-shaped depression is known as a coralite. Corals which deposit such skeletons are known as hard or stony corals (the Scleractinia), whereas soft corals (the Alcyonacea) have no skeleton, but are strengthened by small skeletal elements in the tissue. The skeletons of hard coral make up the architecture of many coral reefs, providing three-dimensional structured habitat for reef-associated fauna and flora. Colonies of stony coral are very variable in appearance and often categorised by shape (e.g. encrusting, plate-like, bushy or columnar) which can vary depending on the environmental conditions. Common stony corals are Acropora species (including elkhorn and table corals). Soft corals are mostly are colonial and often resemble plants or trees in form, including sea whips and sea fingers; unlike hard corals they do not form reefs.
Different structural types of coral reefs are distinguished: (i) fringing reefs; (ii) patch reefs; (iii) barrier reefs; and (iv) atolls. Shallow fringing reefs dominate Malaysian waters and usually develop adjacent to the shore along rocky coasts of uplifted islands or along the shores of exposed limestone islands. Patch reefs are isolated and discontinuous patches of fringing reefs. In contrast, barrier reefs are separated from the shore by a lagoon or body of water, and atolls are circular reefs that often sit on the rim of submerged volcanoes.
Coral reefs play an important role in the economy of Malaysia. The economic value of coral reefs in Southeast Asia is estimated at 115,740USD per hectare per year; and estimated values of Malaysian coral reefs have been as high as RM145billion per year, including the costs of reef-related businesses, fisheries provision and potential use for pharmaceuticals.
Over the last decade 15% of the world’s reefs have been lost and 30% are severely threatened. Threats that are pertinent to Malaysia include coastal development, destructive fishing, overexploitation of fisheries, increasing coastal populations, poor land use and runoff of pollutants, disease, coral bleaching and removal of mangrove forests. The 1998 El Niño was associated with a coral bleaching event around Malaysia when 40% of shallow coral colonies and 25% of deeper corals bleached. Coral bleaching occurs when the zooxanthellae are ejected from corals causing them to discolour. This temporary response to stress increases the polyp’s chances of surviving to take on board more zooxanthellae when the conditions improve. It is likely that the higher water temperatures associated with the El Niño triggered this bleaching event, but fortunately there were signs of recovery by 1999 in many Malaysian corals. However, if adverse conditions remain many corals fail to recover from bleaching. It is thought that rising water temperatures associated with climate warming have increased the incidences of coral bleaching.
The 11th Malaysia plan (Section 8) “aims to position Malaysia as a premier ecotourism destination by leveraging biodiversity assets and increased branding and promotion. Ecotourism will be positioned as a premier segment of the tourism industry by leveraging biodiversity assets through extensive protection and conservation, supported by targeted branding and promotion activities. Ecotourism products will be developed along the value chain of high-yield tourism by attracting reputable investors who are competent in the conservation and preservation of nature and wildlife. Experience-enriching elements, such as tourism facilities, interpretive centres, safety measures, and communications, will be strengthened. The development of ecotourism will also offer greater opportunities for local communities to participate in related income-generation activities to raise living standards.”
Recommended field excursions:
Kuala Selangor Nature Park is an excellent example of coastal habitat managed by the Malaysian Nature Society.
Pulau Ketam is a nice way to see the coastal mudflats and fishing villages of the Klang estuary.