Penang is famous for its seafood but, as fish stocks dwindle alarmingly worldwide, we may have to ask searching questions about how sustainable the fish we enjoy really is.
I can remember, as a child, sitting on Batu Ferringhi beach in the magic hour when the shadows lengthened and the air grew golden with the light of the setting sun. As sunset drew near, the fishermen would sing as they hauled in their catch; teams of men playing a tug of war with their huge Seine nets. In those days you didn’t have to take a boat very far out to sea to catch a wonderful selection of silvery flapping forms.
Seeing this teaming marine harvest, I had thought that the fish supply in the sea was inexhaustible. I think we all did then. Perhaps the first real indication that it’s not came in 1992 when world supplies of cod (a previously plentiful and cheap fish) collapsed. Cod became expensive, protected, endangered and today, twenty years later, the population has still not recovered. But cod was only the beginning.
According to a recent report by WWF Malaysia, many of the fish we enjoy in Penang are at risk of becoming endangered or extinct. Indeed, if we don’t change our present eating habits, we risk being left with no seafood to eat in less than thirty years’ time.
On World Ocean Day (8 June), the Golden Sands Hotel hosted an extremely interesting forum on Sustainable Seafood, which was intended as an awareness-raising session for seafood suppliers, hoteliers, and NGOs.
Malaysia is one of the largest consumers of seafood in the region and at least 90% of Malaysia’s bottom-dwelling fish stock has declined because of unsustainable fishing practices. These include over-fishing , using trawling nets which catch non-target species such as turtles and dolphins, and destructive practices used to stun fish that have a devastating effect on the marine habitat.
There is no single solution, but there are a number of strategies. The first is to become an enlightened consumer: ask where the fish comes from, how it was caught, and whether it comes from the red section of the WWF’s seafood guide. WWF have grouped fish into three categories:
- Recommended (green) – there are plenty of these fish, so eat and enjoy.
- Think Twice (amber) – not endangered yet, but it would be wise to limit your consumption.
- Avoid (red) – just don’t go there.
You can download the list by going to www.saveourseafood.my. If your favourite fish is on the red list, you may want to choose a farm-raised rather than wild-caught one. Fish farms have come a long way in the last twenty years and there is now a greater emphasis on quality and taste. Indeed, we were offered a blind tasting at the Sustainable Seafood Forum and few of us could taste the difference between wild-caught and farm-raised fish.
Most of the fish served at Golden Sands is sustainably raised by GST Farms, but I was interested in organically raised fish, so I visited Comfort Farm in Balik Pulau. On a few acres of peaceful land, Lui Teik Hock has created an amazing farm growing a variety of organic vegetables and fruits which he sells to Jusco. He also has a pond full of red tilapia, grass carp, and cat fish which he raises for friends and family, as there are not enough to sell commercially. The fish looked happy and healthy as they swam about, and Lui emphasised the need to allow the fish to grow to a certain size so they can spawn before we eat them. He also stressed the need to provide pure, high quality water (without pesticide or fertiliser run-off in it).
On the way to Balik Pulau I stopped at the village of Teluk Bahang, which is home to many fishermen. In the mornings, you can see the day’s catch arrive on the many gaily painted fishing vessels. Again the fish looked healthy, but they also looked small. This may have been by chance, but it did raise the question in my mind whether the fish had an opportunity to reproduce before they were caught. At any rate, they were a far cry from the teaming nets of forty years ago. Although we may never see such sights again, becoming informed consumers may mean that our grandchildren will still be able to enjoy fish.
There is a Sustainable Seafood Buffet every Saturday evening at Garden Café, Golden Sands Hotel, from 7pm10pm. Visit www.saveourseafood.my for more information on Malaysian seafood and sustainability.
This article was written by Frances Wilks for The Expat magazine.
Source: The Expat July 2012
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