Vancouver Sun, Nov. 11, 2010, pB8

Grouper, sea bass populations have seen drastic reductions

PENANG, Malaysia Overfishing in southeast Asian seas has left groupers and sea bass in dire straits, searching for mates on denuded seabeds, according to experts alarmed by ever-declining catches.

SAEED KHAN/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES FILES Workers weigh the catch of the day at a village in Malaysia, a country whose waters have seen an 80-to 90-per-cent decline in fish populations since 1965, according to the World Fish Centre.

Marine scientists and fishermen say that popular fish species especially the large and valuable ones have been caught indiscriminately, causing numbers to plunge dramatically.

For big fish finding a mate is a difficult task. They have to swim a long distance to find one, said Edward Allison from the World Fish Centre in Malaysia.

One of the culprits is bottom trawling, which involves dragging huge, heavy nets along the sea floor. Large metal plates and rubber wheels attached to the nets move along the bottom and crush nearly everything in their path.

Allison said the habitat for young fish, or fry, is also shrinking because the mangrove swamps which provide food and protection are being obliterated by coastal development, including tourist resorts.

Demand for top-quality seafood, from southeast Asian nations themselves and from Hong Kong and China, is another major factor behind the emptying of the seas.

According to World Fish data, there were 10 times more fish in the Gulf of Thailand in 1965 than 30 years later.

In Malaysia, the decline was between 80 and 90 per cent, while in the Philippines it is estimated that there was a 46to 78-per-cent drop-off in fish stocks.

There is little data from other countries without the resources to carry out the studies, but World Fish believes the rate of decline in those three countries is reflected across Southeast Asia.

Allison said the use of dynamite and cyanide to fish in coral reefs, common in Indonesia and the Philippines, also poses a serious threat.

He urged enforcement authorities to adopt conservation measures such as encouraging the use of hook and line traps that net only targeted fish, and aquaculture to produce popular species.

The aquatic system is quite resilient and they can recover if we can remove some of the pressures. What is needed is the political will and motivation to do so, he said.