The Fisheries Industry In Sabah - A Short Profile
The state of Sabah, Malaysia, which is located in the middle of one of the twelve mega biodiversity sites in the world, has abundant and diverse natural resources. Its seas, wetlands, rainforests and rivers abound with a wealth of natural resources that are matched by only a few places in the world. The bio-diversity of coral reefs and marine resources, mangroove and coastal wetlands, and seagrass beds is among the highest in the nation, if not the world. Coral reefs and mangroove wetlands are also renowned for their natural beauty and species diversity; they are central attractions for the tourist industry.
The rich tropical seas of Sulu, Sulawesi and South China, which surround the State on three sides, sustain the livelihood of many thousands of fishermen engaged in fishing. Numerous communities also benefit through employment and socio-economic opportunities that are associated with fishing, aquaculture and fish processing. Consumers of seafood and other aquatic produce of course have long enjoyed the numerous and assorted bounties from the seas and rivers.
The fisheries and aquaculture industries produce about 200,000 metric tons of fish worth about 700 Ringgit annually. This translates to a contribution of 2.8% to the Sabah’s annual Gross Domestic Product. The major contributor to this is the marine capture fisheries which accounts for about 80%. The main commercial fishing gears are trawls, purse seines and lift nets. The trawl fishery is by far the main commercial fishing activity in Sabah. It accounts for more than half of the total fish landings. Of this, the prawn trawl fishery is the most valuable – it contributes millions of Ringgits worth of marine prawns annually. Prawn trawling is mostly found in coastal fisheries while the bigger trawlers work further offshore to land considerable quantity of fin fishes. Some of these trawlers fish up to 60 nautical miles from the main land coast.
Purse seiners, up to 100 gross tons size, exploit the small pelagics such as scads, sardines and mackerels as well as small tunas. A purse seine operates by sorrounding a school of fish with a net, and then pursing the bottom part. Purse seines are usually operated on moonless nights in conjunction with fish aggregation devices such as lights and payaos. The typical months for seasonal purse seining are the middle months of the year for the west coast of Sabah, and the last quarter of the year for the East Coast.
Traditional fishermen are the most numerous in marine capture fisheries. They operate relatively small fishing crafts fishing within 30 miles of the coast. The main gears are gillnets, hand and long lines, surrounding nets and staked gears. Sport and recreation fishing is also an activity that is beginning to have an important economic significance.
Freshwater fishes from rivers are important sources of protein for villagers in the interior regions of Sabah where seafood and livestock are in scarce supply due to their inaccessibility. Important freshwater capture fisheries are found in the large rivers of Labuk, Segama, Kinabatangan and Padas. Notable catch species includes giant freshwater prawns, catfishes and indigenous carps which are caught using gillnets, traps and cast nets.
Aquaculture is a nascent commercial venture in Sabah. It is estimated that the total production from both brackishwater and freshwater aquaculture is 35,000 metric tons per year. The single most important enterprise is the culture of tiger prawns in brackish water ponds. This aquaculture produces about 60 million Ringgits worth of prawns annually. Prawn farms produce on the average of four to five tonnes per hectare of ponds. Major producers are in the districts of Tawau, Semporna, Lahad Datu and Sandakan.
The marine fish cage culture is an increasingly important commercial venture targeting high-value marine species such as groupers, wrasses, snappers and lobsters. It is estimated that this industry produces some 350 metric ton in 2004 with an estimated value of 13 million Ringgits. These are cultivated for the lucrative live fish markets, both local and overseas, which supply to seafood restaurants.
Sabah is well-known as the sole state in Malaysia to grow seaweeds. Most seaweed farms are located in the sea areas around Semporna in the east coast off Sabah. The seaweed grown is a variety called Euchema, which when processed, produce carragenan. Euchema seaweed is grown by tying seedlings to longlines that are floated in the open sea. A growing cycle takes about 40 days after which these are manually harvested and sun-dried.
Other marine aquaculture produce are oysters, mussels, milkfish, and sea basses.
The earliest form of aquaculture in Sabah is the culture of freshwater fishes. Today, this enterprise contributes about 8,000 metric tons of tilapia, Chinese and Javanese carps, catfishes, soft-shell turtles and bull frogs annually. Most of this produce are meant for the local fresh market.
The consumption of the local market for fish is around 80,000 metric tons annually, most of which are fresh, chilled or frozen. It is estimated that Sabahans consumed fish at a high 50 kilograms per capita. One only have to visit the fish markets, which are found in every districts in Sabah, to appreciate the variety and quantity of seafood produce available to the local consumer.
The seafood restaurant industry is one sector that owes it prominent success to many and varied supply of seafood from the local fisheries. In fact, Sabah seafood is so famous that local restaurants are tourism attractions by themselves.
Processing of fish and fisheries products in Sabah can be deemed at best, as at its secondary level. This means that fish and prawns are processed minimally and packed in industrial packages. These products include frozen gutted fish, Peeled-Tail- On, Peeled-Undeveined, Head-On and Headless prawns, frozen squids and octopi. For processed products consumed locally, the traditional offerings are dried or salted fish and crustaceans. Other products include fish balls and crackers.
There is a growing trend towards producing fisheries products that are more value-added downstream products that are of internationally-accepted standards. Some notable products are semi-refined carragenan from locally-grown seaweeds, canned crab meat, surimi and fish meal.
Surimi or fish meat paste is a new local fisheries product. It is used in the making of imitation crab and lobster meats, fish balls and cakes, and other convenient, ready-to-eat seafood products. The manufacturing of surimi entails the mincing and processing of white fish meat such as from lizard fish, grunters, threadfins and bigeyes. These fishes are landed in large quantities by local trawlers.
There are two seaweed processing factories in Sabah. These factories utilise sun-dried Euchema seaweed to produce Semi-Refined Carragenan powder. Carragenan is a marine bio-polymer used as a binder in food, cosmetic and industrial products. The Semi-Refined Carragenan product are exported mainly to China.
Sabah is also a net exporter of fish and fish products. It enjoys a substantial trade surplus and bring in positive foreign exchange. Fisheries exports are valued at around 230 million Ringgits. The main products are frozen crustaceans, fish and molluscs, live fish and seaweed products. Apart from the live fish exports, the rest of the industry’s produce is exported primarily as frozen, or basic or minimally processed products.
Although the fisheries sector is an essential part of Sabah’s economy, there are several notable challenges being faced by the industry. For capture fisheries, the challenge is to make this industry a sustainable one. At the moment, there are concerns that fisheries stocks are being overfished, and thus can not be sustainably exploited in the long run. There are also problems with regards to illegal fishing, especially the exploitation of fish by destructive means. Fishing by means of explosives remains a key concern especially at and around coral reef areas. This illegal activity has caused the destruction of extensive areas of coastal and island coral reefs in Sabah. Other destructive activities include fishing by means of poisons and electricity.
For aquaculture to continue as a viable industry, good integrated coastal zone management needs to be undertaken where the competing uses of coastal lands and natural resources have to be reconciled. Aquaculture has to be recognised as a legitimate user of coastal resources. On the other hand, aquaculture itself has to address the issue of resource sustainability and pollution so as not to make this economic activity degrading to the environment.
Many fishermen in Sabah are also subsisting in poverty. They have comparatively low incomes and reside in small remote villages where living conditions are difficult and backward. These villages lack many basic infrastructure and utilities making the objectives of programmes designed to improve their livelihood and standard of living difficult to achieve.
Sabah has rapidly grown into a thriving modern state since its early days as a remote backwater of the British Empire. In line with Malaysia’s lofty aim to be a developed country by the year twenty twenty, Sabah aims to leverage its natural riches and comparative advantages by developing higher value-added knowledge-intensive products. Manufacturing, tourism and agriculture are emphasied as key growth sectors.
The fisheries and aquaculture sub-sectors are among the important engines of growth for the agriculture sector. Since time immemorial, Sabahans have enjoyed and benefited from Sabah’s rich natural resources. Fishermen and fish farmers alike, have high hopes for the local fisheries and aquaculture industries. The potential for its future development is vast and as such, generations of Sabahans can expect a rosy future.