By Alya B. Honsasan

Trawler catch being sorted into baskets in Kudat Bay

Trawler catch being sorted into baskets in Kudat Bay

In the Kudat-Banggi Priority Conservation Area (PCA) in Sabah, Malaysia, fish is a big deal. You see it everywhere, from the fish cages outside settlements like Tampakan and Sibogo, to the dozens of trawlers and purse seiners docked at the harbor, equipped with large fishing nets and bringing in large quantities of fish every day. We managed to hop on a trawler one day outside Kudat, which reeled in baskets and baskets of fish. On another day, a tuna fishing boat just happened to be pulling in its net when we sailed by, as well. Several men had to pull with all their might to haul the bounty in.

The PCA in Sabah, northwest of Malaysia’s Turtle Islands and at the other end of Sabah from Sipadan, is composed of the the Kudat, Pitas, and Kota Marudu districts, along with Banggi, a sub-district of Kudat. It is significant as an area within the Coral Triangle blessed with high biodiversity, but as you may have already guessed, is also threatened by critical overfishing, being a major commercial fishing hub that supplies Sabah. It’s home to some 80,000 people, as well as resident species like crocodiles and dolphins. Separated from Palawan in the Philippines by the Balabac Strait, it’s also a passage for oceanic fish, whale sharks, and sea turtles, and home to the second largest concentration of coral reefs in Malaysia. The PCA is envisioned to be part of the 1.02 million-hectare Tun Mustapha Park, proposed as a multiple-use management area to protect biodiversity and manage fisheries.

WWF Malaysia Sofia Johari talks conservation with

WWF Malaysia’s Sofia Johari talks conservation with Adbul Karim Laing

More than a collection of scientific statistics, however, a marine park is made up of its people, all of whom have a stake in what is happening in the place they call home.

Stakeholder Abdul Karim Laing

Stakeholder Abdul Karim Laing

There’s the likes of Abdul Karim Laing, a community leader from the kampung of Berungus in the Pitas district, who is helping keep his village’s fishing grounds, about 3 km of coastline, free from dynamite and cyanide fishermen. As early as 10 years before WWF came into the area, reports Sofia Johari, WWF Kudat’s Community Education, Protection, and Awareness (CEPA), officer, Laing and other men from his village of about 50 people have already been keeping watch. “You have to be careful,” he says. “Sometimes they will pretend to be using bubu (traps), when underneath they are using cyanide.” They gently ask the perpetrators, who often come from other kampung, to leave; otherwise, they are reported to the police.

On his patrol lookout for encroachers or illegal activities

On his patrol lookout for encroachers or illegal activities

WWF has made their work easier by providing them binoculars, a GPS, and a camera for documentation. Laing has earned the ire of fishermen attempting to encroach on their community, and has even had his life threatened, but he feels he has a duty. “I advise other villagers to be proactive and not to be afraid to tell other people off,” says this father of six, a fisherman for the last 30 years. “It has to be done, because we are protecting out children’s future.”

One of Johnny Wong's many trawler boats

One of Johnny Wong’s many trawler boats

Johnny Wong, manager of the Fook Soon Seafood Product S/B in Kudat, has some 50 trawlers operating under him. He’s a major commercial fisherman, and has been so for the last 15 years. But he’s also an honorary warden who is trying to convince his fellow fishermen to start to fish more sustainably. Part of his own advocacy is protecting the turtles that frequent Kudat’s expansive waters. Last May, Wong joined a study tour to Biloxi, Mississippi, where he learned about the Turtle Exclusion Device (TED), which can be integrated in fishing equipment to allow turtles caught in fish nets to escape. “Before, when fishermen accidentally caught turtles in their nets, they would have to throw them out to sea,” Wong recalls. “Now, with the TED, the can just escape and have a chance to survive.” Wong is hoping that more local people will comprehend the importance of protecting the animal. “Many people know they should protect turtles, but they’re not sure why. It’s more than just their beauty. That’s why education is important, and I hope WWF conducts more information campaigns.”

Businessman and Climate Witness Chris Kong on the phone with his boats in the background

Businessman and Climate Witness Chris Kong on the phone with his boats in the background

When you ask crab fisherman Christopher Kong why he is seriously considering closing down his crab fishing operation after nine years, he answers with a smile, “Because the weather has not been good to us.” He’s talking literally; Kong, a WWF Climate Change Witness, has seen his catch dwindle because of shifts in the monsoon winds, which have drastically shortened his fishing season.

Chris Kong in Kudat fish landing sorting out fish with the locals

Chris Kong in Kudat fish landing sorting out fish with the locals

Originally from Labuan, grandson of a Chinese immigrant, Kong had worked as a seaman, teacher, and customs officer before becoming a crab fisherman. He made it his business to understand the life cycle of his main catch, the blue swimming crab, and is enlightened enough to leave juveniles and pregnant female crabs untouched. It takes a year for crabs to mature, he explains. The younger ones grow in the shallows before they move to the deep, which is why it is always more productive to cast his crab traps in deeper water of about 20-40 meters.

Kong says that most of the crabs caught in Kudat are not local, however. They are blown in by the southwest monsoon between September and November. Of late, however, the winds have been blowing for shorter periods, sometimes just three weeks instead of three months in the last couple of years, which means less crabs. Kong used to average about 180 kilos per trip, a figure which has gone down to about 30 kilos today, and he is waiting to see how this year’s season will go. He has observed the impacts of climate change, however. “I see rubbish on the road, brought in by the tide. That means the water can now reach the road. Kudat isn’t sinking; the water has risen!”

Kong may have to concentrate on fishing if the crabbing enterprise continues to flounder. In the meantime, he feels that businessmen and government authorities can work together to make sure that all fishing in Kudat remains sustainable. “We all live on the same island,” he says. “And our island is getting smaller every day.”