Kuala Lumpur: The old adage ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ no longer rings true for Malaysian fisherman Shafie Said. “These days, we have to go farther offshore and into deeper waters to fish,” said Shafie, 39, his face weather beaten after 16 years sailing tropical waters in the Andaman Sea, off the coast of northwest Malaysia.
“Sometimes we return empty-handed,” Shafie said sadly.
It is a story told across Asia by millions of fishermen who ply the region’s seas to bring home their main, and often only, source of income.
Fish stocks in Asia have declined by 70% in the past 25 years, says Stephen Hall, head of WorldFish, a non-profit research body based in northern Malaysia. “We are taking far too many fishes out of the sea and not leaving enough there to grow and regenerate.”
But while the number of fish in the sea is dropping dramatically, the demand for fish is rising as populations grow.
Fading fortunes: The decline in fish stocks directly affects the livelihoods of fishermen in Asia and Africa.
The Asian Development Bank has predicted that demand for fish in Asia will continue to rise, reaching 69 million tonnes by 2010, accounting for 60% of the world demand, against 53% in 1990.
China, with its 1.3 billion population and growing affluence, is expanding its fish consumption, especially for expensive reef fish sold live at restaurants.
Last December, Philippine authorities rescued more than 1,000 endangered humphead wrasse from poachers. The reef fish, which can be sold for as much as $200 (Rs8,200) per kilo, are adored by diners in China because their large lips are considered a delicacy.
In India, turtles get caught in their thousands in nets and nesting sites such as Devi—where tens of thousands of Olive Ridley turtles would nest in a single night—are becoming devoid of turtles.
A shark species called “Karat hangar” has already vanished off the coast of Bangladesh along with sea-horses and other fish. And it’s not just the environment that is at risk.
Fishermen in Asia and across the Indian Ocean in Africa are economically vulnerable to the decline in fish stocks, which directly affects their livelihoods.
Poor and often uneducated, many are unaware of the need to help marine life rejuvenate by throwing back immature fish and avoiding catching turtles and other sea creatures.
But teaching the world’s estimated 29 million fishermen about sustainable fishing is an enormous task, especially as many live in countries where education systems are poor, poverty endemic.
WorldFish suggests governments enforce tighter controls over fishing such as ceilings on the number of boats allowed to operate in certain areas. But enforcing such a system may be close to impossible.
Bangladesh, one of the most impoverished countries in the world, relies on fish for about 80% of its national animal protein intake. Yet the fish are disappearing, leaving Bangladeshi fishermen baffled and their incomes dropping.
“Many fish species have vanished and our prime catch of silvery Hisha is also dwindling,” said fisherman Suleman Miah. “The golden days of fishing are gone.
Anis Ahmed in Dhaka contributed to this story