Hassan Ismail

UNSCRUPULOUS local businessmen are believed to be in cahoots with foreign fishermen to deplete the country’s marine resources at the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The EEZ in the east coast, which is rich in fish supply, covers an area of 121,491 sq km off a 532km coastline spanning across Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. It is also at this zone that most of the foreign fishing vessels are believed to be operating indiscriminately.

It is learnt that the most of the individuals who serve as rent-seekers have little or zero knowledge about the fishing sector. Nevertheless, they managed to get deep-sea fishing permits only to rent them out to foreign fishermen at RM5,000 a month or more.

A yearly permit from the Fisheries Department only costs them, for instance, RM5,195 for a Class C2 fishing vessel with 500-horsepower engine.

Revealing this to the New Sunday Times, South Kuala Terengganu Fishermen Association chairman Hassan Ismail said these individuals operated the Alibaba business model by renting out their permits and collecting hard cash at the end of the month.

He alleged that some of them obtained up to 20 permits each.

“Leakages like this could be avoided if fishermen associations are given the clout to scan through the background of applicants to ensure permits are given to genuine fishermen and not individuals who want to earn quick bucks.

“The rentals are lucrative, but it is at the expense of our livelihood.

“These people are letting foreigners wipe out our marine resources.

“Instead of going to the sea to earn a living, especially with the escalating operating costs, they decided to let foreigners rob our resources while they wait to collect their rental income.”

He said foreign fishermen would justify the cost of the permit rental by hauling up as much fish as possible.

“They even deploy illegal fishing methods, such as the double purse seine fishing method, which is banned in the country.

“Some of them have a big number of vessels which can be intimidating to other fishermen,” he said.

Hassan said the tekong of foreign fishing vessels would hoist a Jalur Gemilang flag upon entering EEZ and operate like other local fishermen.

He claimed the flag would then be swapped with that of their own country once they have reached their own their country, or when they are outside the EEZ.

“Our enforcement authorities can’t do anything with them as they have a permit.

“The Fisheries Department’s access card system, which is aimed at monitoring fishermen’s movements at landing jetties, fail to serve any purpose as foreign fishing vessels will never reach our shore,” he lamented.

According to the Fisheries Department, 980,000 tonnes of seafood worth up to RM6 billion is lost to illegal fishing activities by foreign fishing vessels annually.

Its director-general, Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan, said 50 per cent of marine resources caught in Malaysian waters landed in the country while the rest were not accounted for.

It is learnt that the foreign fishing vessels have a capacity to store up to 50 tonnes of fish.

Fisherman Hamed Hamzah Awang, 58, from Marang, said the Alibaba business model was an open secret, adding that some foreign fishing vessel owners were treating the EEZ as their rice bowl.

“They flash their fishing permit as their trump card, so our authorities can’t do anything. At night, they dim their lamps and move their vessels closer to the mainland. Just before dawn, they will move away.

“This explains why there are less fish in our waters,” he said.

Hamed said the foreign fishing vessels would carry out fishing activities in EEZ and unload their catch to cargo vessels measuring 100m in length outside EEZ or in international waters once their vessels were full.

“A number of these cargo vessels ply outside the EEZ for the fishing vessels to transfer their catch. These fishing vessels also get their food and fuel supply from the cargo vessels.

“The fishing vessels can operate for months in the sea as they have cargo vessels to bring home their catch, and bring them food and fuel. This is a well-organised syndicated operation,” he said.

Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (Terengganu) Captain Zainolabidin Jusoh said he heard rumours about fishermen selling their catch at high sea but this had yet to be verified as no one had been arrested.

He said he was not sure the veracity of the allegation, but did not rule out the possibility as foreigners would try to get the country’s marine resources.

“For anyone who can offer us proof that this illegal activity is taking place, we will send a helicopter to catch the culprits immediately,” he said.

A total of 1,162 of foreign vessels valued at RM81.3 million had been seized since 2004 until April this year, according to Fisheries Department director-general Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan.

He said the coordination of maritime enforcement led by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), with the support of the Fisheries Department and the Marine Police Force, had succeeded in arresting 7,634 crew members of foreign fishing vessels since 2006 to February this year.

“The Fisheries Volunteer (Super) community, which is the department’s (fisheries) watchdog against activities such as illegal entry of foreign boats, also provided assistance in the arrests.

“Super is also equipped with networking equipment, such as GPS, walkie-talkie and a fisherman’s radio to report on the occurrence of illegal activities,” he said here recently.

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