Fishy claims about Penang’s ‘Silicon Island’ reclamation!

Let's scrutinise the claim that the reclamation has improved the fishermen's catch

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By Andrew Han

The Star recently published a report titled “More catch due to reclamation works” that raised eyebrows. It is essential to address the inaccuracies and biases present in this report.

As an individual deeply engaged in grassroots coordination with coastal fishers, I feel we need a more nuanced perspective of the complexities surrounding reclamation projects and their impact on local communities.

The over-optimistic portrayal in that article could foster misunderstanding and result in detrimental practices across Malaysia.

The article claimed that coastal fishermen from Teluk Kumbar had caught more prawns since the start of the “Silicon Island” reclamation work in the waters off Permatang Damar Laut, along the southern coast of Penang Island. Such assertions included claims that fishermen are netting 20-30kg of prawns per day.

These claims overlook crucial factors and neglect the experiences of the fishermen in neighbouring Sungai Batu, Permatang Damar Laut and Teluk Tempoyak. These communities, a mere 2km from the Silicon Island reclamation site, have seen their traditional fishing waters disrupted by the project. Fishermen from Teluk Tempoyak, for instance, report a sharp decline in their catch, from the usual 10-20kg down to 1-2kg.

Instead of relying solely on anecdotal evidence, we need to analyse comprehensive data collected by fishing units such as the one in Sungai Batu.

Zakaria Ismail is the head of the Sungai Batu fishermen’s unit – ANIL NETTO/ALIRAN

The Sungai Batu unit’s monthly prawn catch records since the start of the reclamation work reveal an alarming 52% drop in prawn catch. This paints a more accurate picture of the project’s impact on local fisheries.

According to Zakaria Ismail, the leader of the fishing unit, the average prawn catch per fisherman for the fourth quarter of 2022 was 192kg, but it then dropped to 93kg in the last quarter of 2023.

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So we must scrutinise the claims suggesting that alterations to our marine landscape, such as reclamation, have yielded environmental benefits. Such assertions should not be accepted at face value and without critical examination.

In the absence of scientific substantiation in the article regarding the sudden increase in prawns at Teluk Kumbar, it is absurd and uninformed to attribute the supposed surge solely to a destructive development like reclamation.

A more plausible explanation is the ecological displacement of marine life. It is conceivable that prawns are migrating from disrupted areas to relatively undisturbed ones, like the coastal waters off Teluk Kumbar. So the ‘increase’ in the prawn population in this area could be just a redistribution.

While such displacement may initially appear advantageous to areas experiencing a concentration of species, it can cause ecological imbalances. These disruptions could have far-reaching consequences and eventually result in a sharp decline in overall prawn and other marine life.

In the Star report, a Teluk Kumbar fisherman suggested that the Silicon Island reclamation shields Teluk Kumbar from strong waves and this purportedly allows the fishermen to spend more time at sea, resulting in higher catches.

But he overlooks the critical role of natural sea cycles. Strong waves, though sporadic, serve a vital purpose in marine ecosystems, redistributing nutrients and organic material essential for the food chain, including plankton growth crucial for marine life.

Reclamation projects could alter wave patterns and disrupt natural processes, leading to diminished habitat quality and food availability for marine organisms. Such disruptions could trigger cascading effects on marine biodiversity and ecosystem health.

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And if fishermen are able to spend more time at sea and make more trips, the result could be overfishing.

The Teluk Kumbar fisherman’s advocacy for further reclamation to create two more artificial islands underscores a worrying lack of understanding of marine systems, for someone engaged in fishing.

Seven fisherfolk and two environmentalist groups have applied for judicial review to challenge the permission given to Penang Silicon Island.

Seven fisherfolk and two environmentalist groups had applied for a judicial review to challenge the permission given to Penang Silicon Island. Despite this ongoing legal challenge, the Silicon Island project has commenced. So far, 15 acres out of the planned 2,270 acres by 2032 have already been reclaimed.

With expanding reclamation work, the ecological impact is bound to grow. So, it is crucial for public scrutiny of this project to intensify.

I implore marine biologists, scientists and other experts to lend their voices and expertise to this crucial issue, which is largely overlooked.

The notion of ‘more catch due to reclamation works’ represents an ecological fallacy that must be addressed and rectified through informed discourse and action.

I foresee more such fallacies emerging, underscoring the need for heightened vigilance and critical examination of the purported benefits from large-scale development projects.

Andrew Han is a documentary filmmaker based in Penang who has worked extensively on issues related to the environment and coastal fishermen around Penang.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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