Malaysia has long suffered from illegal fishing. According to Malaysian Fisheries Department Director General Mohd Sufian Sulaiman, Malaysia loses up to RM4.25 billion every year due to illegal fishing.
The return on investment is lucrative, so illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing continues despite strict enforcement measures in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Besides economic costs, illegal fishing also affects the environment and Malaysia’s fishing communities. This article will highlight the spread of illegal fishing in Malaysian waters, its effects and the steps to combat this problem.
What Is Illegal Fishing?
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a broad term that captures a wide variety of fishing activities. IUU fishing is found in all types and dimensions of fisheries; it occurs both on the high seas and in areas within national jurisdiction. It concerns all aspects and stages of fish capture and use and is sometimes associated with organised crime.
The International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU) defines illegal fishing as follows:
- Conducted by national or foreign vessels in waters under a State’s jurisdiction, without its permission, or in contravention of its laws and regulations;
- Conducted by vessels flying the flag of States parties to a relevant regional fisheries management organisation. However, they operate in contravention of the conservation and management measures adopted by that organisation and by which the States are bound. They also contravene relevant provisions of applicable international law; or
- In violation of national laws or international obligations, including those undertaken by cooperating States to a relevant regional fisheries management organisation.
- Which have not been reported, or misreported, to the relevant national authority, in contravention of national laws and regulations; or
- Are undertaken in the area of competence of a relevant regional fisheries management organisation. These activities have not been reported or misreported, in contravention of that organisation’s reporting procedures.
- In the area of application of a relevant regional fisheries management organisation that are conducted by vessels without nationality, or by those flying the flag of a State not party to that organisation, or by a fishing entity, in a manner that is not consistent with or contravenes the conservation and management measures of that organisation; or
- In areas or for fish stocks without applicable conservation or management measures. In addition, such fishing activities are conducted in a manner inconsistent with State responsibilities for marine resource conservation under international law.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides some examples of illegal fishing activities:
- Fishing without a licence or quota for certain species.
- Failing to report caught fish or reporting falsely.
- Keeping undersized fish or fish otherwise protected by regulations.
- Fishing in closed areas or during closed seasons, and using prohibited fishing gear.
- Conducting unauthorised transshipments (e.g., fish transfers) on cargo vessels.
A Crime Endangering Livelihoods
Covering a long coastline of 4,492 km made up of the mainland of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak with 453,186 square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters in the Andaman Sea, the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea and the Celebes Sea, it is no wonder that Malaysia’s fisheries area has long provided the country with a source of food security and export income.
According to former Agriculture and Food Industries Minister Datuk Seri Ronald Kiandee, Malaysia’s per capita consumption of fish and seafood is 46.9kg annually. This ranks second in Southeast Asia, behind Cambodia’s 63.2kg. And as of 2021, Malaysia exported “fish and crustaceans, molluscs and other aquatic invertebrates” valued at RM3006 million ($680 million).
As such, illegal fishing forms one of the biggest threats to Malaysia’s fisheries and thus, fishing communities’ livelihoods.
Overfishing has resulted in many Malaysian fishermen calling it quits, many based in hotspots such as Kemaman in Terengganu as well as Kuala Sedili and Mersing in Johor. – Abdul Razak Ahmad, the founding director of Bait Al Amanah
Approximately 980,000 metric tonnes of fish (worth RM6 billion) are said to be stolen from
Malaysian waters (mainly on the East Coast) annually by illegal foreign vessels usually from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Worryingly, last year it was reported that fish sightings in Malaysia had decreased, especially in the north of the peninsula, by up to 70%. This was highlighted by National Fishermen’s Association chairman Abdul Hamid Bahari.
Sadly, this is part of a larger global trend of declining fish stocks as noted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which reported in 2018 that almost 90% of the world’s fish stocks have been fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.
The effects of this decline in fish stocks were already felt by veteran fisher Rosilawati Ismail, 44, who has been fishing for about 14 years. Nowadays, she says, fishermen often come back empty-handed.
We spent RM120 (on fuel) to go out there but we came back with a catch worth about RM45 – we didn’t even cover our costs. – Rosilawati Ismail, 44, fisherwoman
While the economic impact on her community is clearly a concern, Rosilawati is equally alarmed by the long-term environmental impact of IUU fishing in the South China Sea. In her opinion, IUU fisheries are responsible for the rapid depletion of fish stocks in Malaysian waters, especially foreign vessels.
Abd Aziz Rahmat, 52, also expressed his worries, saying that fishermen in Pontian are earning less than 10% of what they earned a few years ago.
In the past, we could earn a net profit of about RM3,000 to RM4,000 a month, but now even RM300 is difficult for us to get. – Abd Aziz Rahmat, 52, fisherman
Destroying Our Ocean Ecosystems
Our waters feel barren ever since we started seeing Vietnamese fishing boats in our waters. They enter into areas that are supposed to be only for coastal fishermen and damage the coral reefs. When this happens, the fish will no longer return. – Rosilawati Ismail, 44, fisherwoman
The decline in fish stocks and destructive techniques often employed by illegal fishers have devastating effects on marine ecosystems.
Coral reefs, mangroves and other near-shore habitats provide vital nurseries for commercially important fish, replenishing their populations. Tragically, these habitats are threatened by illegal fishers.
Rosilawati noted that foreign fishing vessels often use illegal trawler nets, which Malaysian fisher folk call “pukat gading”. Such nets are extremely indiscriminate in what they catch, often destroying coral reefs in the process.
They use two vessels and a huge net is tied to a vessel on each side,” she explains. “As they move, they will catch everything, even the smallest fish, and destroy anything in their way, including corals.
Without corals, the seabed becomes bare. It’s like a desert – what would want to live in a desert? – Rosilawati Ismail, 44, fisherwoman
Part-time fisherman Mazlin Rahmat, 42, from Pontian, also pointed out another destructive fishing method utilised by these illegal fishers.
Some fishermen use the tagan net, which is a type of static net. When that gets stuck on corals, the corals will break or sometimes even get pulled right out of the seabed. This type of net is illegal under the Fisheries Act 1985. – Mazlin Rahmat, 42, part-time fisherman
The ecosystem is further destroyed when fishermen use illegal trawler nets that trap not only adult fish but also fry. Without fry to mature and breed, fish populations cannot survive.
Trawler nets should have a 15 cm mesh but some have been reduced to just 6cm because they simply can’t catch the bigger fish anymore. But when they do that, now even the smaller fish become trapped in the nets. – Abd Aziz Rahmat, 52, fisherman
The Fight Against Illegal Fishing
Researchers from the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) have found that fish supplies in the country are at a critical level and immediate action needs to be taken to prevent the smuggling of Malaysian fish products out of the country. – Wan Muhammad Aznan Abdullah, Director of Landing and Licensing Division in the Department of Fisheries Malaysia (DOF)
The Malaysian government has intensified its efforts to combat IUU fishing in its waters. This includes an amendment to the Fisheries Act 1985 in July 2019 to increase the general penalty for offences.
This amendment increased the maximum penalty for an owner or captain of a foreign vessel caught trespassing into Malaysian waters from RM1 million to RM6 million. It also increased the penalty for crew members from RM100,000 to RM600,000.
On Oct 7th 2021, the Dewan Rakyat was told that the government would continue to conduct Op Naga, an integrated operation to curb encroachment by foreign fishing vessels and prevent marine resource loss. Since the operation was carried out between April 2019 and Aug 2021, 22,384 inspections have been done by OP Naga (an integrated operation to curb encroachment by foreign fishing vessels and prevent marine resource loss) and 416 arrests were made.
Despite these concerted attempts to combat IUU fishing, Abdul Razak Ahmad, the founding director of Bait Al Amanah, said that overlapping territorial and maritime disputes prevent effective enforcement of domestic fishery laws as well as disrupt cooperation among regional states, particularly at the southern tip of the heavily contested South China Sea.
Crucial measures such as managing fisheries and conducting stock assessments are possible if Malaysia and other ASEAN countries take initiative by holding joint patrols and strengthening maritime security. – Abdul Razak Ahmad, the founding director of Bait Al Amanah
Abdul Razak said the biggest challenge to Malaysia by far is the presence of China’s maritime militia, a force used by that country to enforce its own claims in the area against rival claims by ASEAN states and that also conducts large-scale fishing in the disputed waters.
This militia has been well-supported through the infrastructure, lighthouses, and deep-water ports in the South China Sea, which enables large numbers of these ships to operate in the area.
According to data published by the Flanders Marine Institute, fishing activity by vessels between April and May 2020 that have activated their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) show that China is high up in the list scoring a reading of 3.93, followed by Taiwan (3.43) and Cambodia (3.23).
However, satellites detecting ships’ lights show higher numbers of fleets fishing in the disputed areas than officially reported. China’s illegal fishing activities in the region have caused fish stock to diminish quickly. – Abdul Razak Ahmad, the founding director of Bait Al Amanah
Added to the problem is that foreign fishing vessels have begun utilising transhipment. This is the transfer of catches from smaller boats when their storage is full onto larger ships, also known as a “mothership” with a large refrigerator which will allow smaller boats to fish boundlessly.
These Vietnamese fishermen have been around for a long time, but in recent years they have motherships to ferry back fish stolen from our waters to their ports so they can steal even more. – Mohd Zulhimi Azlan, 32, fisherman
Through transshipment, fishing operators can circumvent port control and “launder” fish (much like illegal money is laundered through banks) by mixing legal and illegal sea products.
Although Malaysia outlawed transhipment to protect its marine resources, syndicates have found a way around the law and marine patrols. They ensure the transfers take place away from port authorities and on blurred boundary lines.
As illegal fishing crosses boundaries, the Malaysian government has seen the importance of working with other nations to properly combat it.
Last year, Malaysia formed joint patrols with Indonesia, another country blighted by illegal fishing, to beef up maritime security against poaching vessels in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most heavily trafficked shipping lanes, and the North Natuna Sea, at the southern tip of the hotly contested South China Sea.
This operation isn’t only targeting fishers from outside of the [two] countries, but also fishers from our own countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, who refuse to abide by the laws. – Hamzah Bin Zainudin, the Malaysian home affairs minister
Earlier in 2023, a maritime law enforcement workshop on IUU fishing was held in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. This workshop was held with the cooperation of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) to help establish solid bilateral coast guard relations between both Asian countries.
The workshop included lectures on international law and the use of Long Range Acoustic Devices against IUU fishing vessels, four of which JICA plans to donate to MMEA for maritime law enforcement activities in the seas around Malaysia.
Illegal fishing crosses borders and affects people and ecosystems. Illegal foreign vessels must not be tolerated in Malaysia. And at the same time, Malaysia must also work together with other countries sharing the same seas to better combat this growing problem.
The encroachment of foreign vessels into Malaysian waters and illegal fishing activities must not be swept under the rug. – Abdul Razak Ahmad, the founding director of Bait Al Amanah
Explore our sources:
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- Bernama. (2019). RM6 billion lost each year to illegal fishing. Malaysiakini. Link.
- What is IUU fishing? FAO. Link.
- MALAYSIA’S NATIONAL PLAN OF ACTION to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (Malaysia’s NPOA-IUU). (2013). Link.
- J. Loh & A.S. Abdul Malik. (2022). Moving towards a common fisheries policy. The Sun Daily. Link.
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