|Conflict over Natural Resources in South-East Asia and the Pacific (UNU, 1990, 256 pages)|
|5. Conflict over natural resources in Malaysia: the struggle of small-scale fishermen|
By the early 19805, it had become clear to the government itself that much stronger measures were needed to overcome the problems of over-capitalization and over-exploitation which were affecting the well-being of small-scale fishermen as well as the fisheries resource base. A first step was the introduction of a zoning system in 1981 which reserved the first 5 nmi of inshore waters to traditional fishing gear and the 5-12-nmi zone to Malaysian owner-operated trawlers and pursesciners below 40 gross tonnage. Boats exceeding 40 gross tonnage were permitted to fish only in the 12-30-nmi zone while all foreign and partially Malaysian-owned vessels were limited to waters beyond the thirtieth nautical mile. Besides the allocation of fishing grounds, the also increased the trawl mesh size from 25 mm to 40 mm at the cord end in an attempt to regulate and control the minimum size and weight of fish caught. A moratorium on license issuance for small fishing boats operating in waters within the first 12 nmi was also imposed. Licenses were to be issued only to larger boats capable of operating in waters outside this zone. To deter violation of regulations, the Fisheries Act was amended in 1984 to increase the penalties for illegal trawling in inshore waters (up to M$100,000 for Malaysian vessels and M$1 million for foreign vessels caught infringing the rule).
However, the impact of these new measures has not been entirely to the advantage of small-scale fishermen. The zoning system, for example, has had the effect of eliminating all non owner-operator fishing units from inshore waters, thus discriminating against the poorest group of fishermen-those who do not own their own boats. The effect of the regulations on fishing conflict is also questionable. On the One hand, surveillance is grossly inadequate. With a coastline measuring some 2,899 nmi and a sea area covering 138 700 sq. km (inclusive of the Extended Economic Zone area) to look after, it is not surprising that the two bodies responsible for surveillance-the Department of Fisheries and Marine Police-have had little success. A further disadvantage is that both are poorly co-ordinated and suffer from a shortage of vessels, personnel, and equipment. The result has been blatant violations of the zoning regulation by the trawlers, especially in the stretch between Pangkor Island and Penang. This is also the area of greatest conflict between the trawling and the traditional fishermen. A recent case study of the Penang fishermen reveals that more than half (54 per cent) of them find the trawling ban to be ineffective while 5 per cent of them are not even aware of the ban. Another 21.6 per cent show ignorance of the regulation regarding the minimum mesh size of trawl net (Jahara Yahaya and Tadashi Yamamoto, 1988).
Lack of political support for the well-being of fisheries resources continues to be a major problem in the 19805. There is little political awareness of the problem of depleting marine resources in the country. As such, legal proceedings against violators of the zoning regulations are often met with political interference, as is the implementation of the moratorium on fishing license issuance and the regulation regarding minimum mesh size. The political reality of the country is such that politicians trade political favors for electoral support and such favors include assistance in obtaining fishing licenses and protection against government actions for violations of what they consider to be 'unreasonable' regulations.
It is quite inconceivable that rapid depletion of the marine resources in inshore waters can be arrested through fishing policies alone. Seasonal fluctuations and migratory patterns of the fish stock make the zoning system quite impractical. Moreover, given the scarce information available on the marine resources and resource potential, it is difficult to assess exactly the rate of 'over-fishing' and to decide what is the optimal number of fishing licenses to be issued; how these licenses are to be distributed by types of fishery, gear, and area; or to suggest alternative fishing methods in areas where trawling has been banned.
Despite the new policies, the government is clearly caught in a bind. Its past weak and vacillating policies have permitted trawling together with purse-seining, the other large-scale and capital-intensive technique, to become firmly established as the most important fishing methods in the country. In 1985, the two methods accounted for 2 per cent of total estimated gear and 69 per cent of total fish landings. Despite some evidence of a decline in man/boat ratio over the last ten years and the failure of poorer inshore fishermen to participate, the labour-absorbing capacity of the two methods has been considerable and in 1986 they provided employment to about 20,179 fishermen or 37 per cent of the total labour force in fisheries in the peninsula. Whatever the merits of the claim of small-scale fishermen that their livelihoods have been adversely affected by trawler fishing, it has been argued that to ban trawling altogether would not serve the overall national interests. Too much capital, human resources and skills have been invested which, if ejected by a drastic policy reversal, would not only flood the labour market with a large number of unemployed young men but would also result in a substantial decline in production, affecting the poorest consumers in the country for whom fish is still the cheapest and main source of protein. However, to permit trawler fishing to continue in its present form and at the prevailing intensity of operations runs the risk of a more serious and rapid rundown in already depleted fish stocks, aggravating the economic plight of inshore fishermen and causing even more widespread social distress. The latter two considerations deserve as much attention as trawler fishing's contribution to production and steps should be taken to minimize the heavy social and ecological price that is being currently paid for its development. Measures such as quicker phasing out of licenses, effective restriction of trawlers to certain waters, confiscation of offending trawler boats, increased charges on trawler gear and boats to discourage new contrants; all are immediately necessary but require a degree of administrative firmness and political will which the government has up to the late 1980S not shown itself capable of exerting.