Same old stale excuses

KUCHING: Excuses from the maritime authorities for their failure to protect the waters of Sarawak are becoming stale, said Miri Fishermen Association chairman Musa Bujang.

“We have heard time and time again of excuses such as lack of staff, ships breaking down and limited fuel,” he told New Sarawak Tribune when contacted.

“The late Chief Minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem once gave the marine authorities a dressing down in public saying, ‘I don’t want to hear about this issue anymore’.

The poor law enforcement at sea has been going for at least five to six years now, so Musa questioned if any action had been taken to improve the situation.

He spoke about a dialogue in Miri last Friday during which the local Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) commander Captain Mohd Fauzi Othman said that they had two patrol ships — one for patrolling and the other on standby for search and rescue operations.

“How is that enough for patrolling the waters as the area where we fish stretches from Miri to Bintulu and Mukah? Sometimes it even extends to Suai,” said Musa.

“The thing is the encroachment problem remains, yet the excuses are still the same whenever we lodge a complaint. They are still coming up with the standard ‘lack of staff’ excuse.”

Musa pointed out that the safety of fishermen at sea depends very much on the ability of the MMEA and the Fisheries Department to protect the waters.

“Now our waters are very exposed to encroachment by foreigners. Two weeks ago, about four or five nautical miles from the shore, we engaged with fishermen from another zone,” he said, alluding to the ruling that fishermen are forbidden from going out of their own zones.

He then recalled an instance when foreign vessels were spotted fishing in Sarawak waters using an “Apollo” net stretched and dragged between two large vessels. The distance of the vessels was almost a mile apart.

Musa asked, “What if a ship or boat is caught between the vessels? Surely, they too would be towed away?”

About the dialogue last Friday, he recalled that most of the fishermen who were in attendance were upset because foreigners often entered Sarawak waters with ease and just fished like they were in their home territories.

He also confirmed that his crew and those of other vessels have spotted Vietnamese vessels sailing in Sarawak waters.

Vietnamese vessels spotted in Sarawak waters.

“Most of those that encroached into our waters are Vietnamese vessels. The Chinese and Thai vessels are usually far away in or near international waters.

“A friend of mine who was patrolling the central area from Sibu to Rajang spotted dozens of foreign vessels in the area.”

Musa said it is high time that the government step in to ensure that the enforcement agencies and/or departments carry out their jobs which they have not been doing satisfactorily for quite some time now.

“Fishermen have complained to the MMEA and the Fisheries Department, and using their report, Pujut assemblyman called for a dialogue to discuss the problem. That was Friday’s dialogue.

“All the relevant agencies — Fisheries Department, Fisheries Development Authority, MMEA, Marine Police, Customs, Immigration — were summoned. I even heard that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) was represented.

“That was an opportunity for them to listen to the problem faced by us. Usually, when we convene a dialogue, some authorities were not represented which resulted in ineffective enforcement.

Musa described an occasion when a trading ship was stopped and the authorities found that some of the fish in its hold were recently caught.
“This is the kind of situation where Customs can step in and ask for the relevant documents to prove that the vessel was indeed a trading ship. Such a ship can be held if it is in fact a fishing vessel,” he explained.

A Vietnamese vessel spotted in Sarawak waters

“Honestly, I am just disappointed as the problem has gone out of control. I don’t want to blame the authorities but the issue has gone on for many years. Whenever we reported an encroachment, the excuses are always the same.

“By now the issue should have been solved. If they truly lack certain assets, then add the assets.”

Musa also revealed that there was once a system of tracking fishing vessels to prevent them from exiting their zones.

“It was called Automatic Identification System (AIS). Many deep-sea vessels were equipped with the devices, but not anymore. I don’t know whether or not they have been discontinued.

“Maybe the vendor or suppliers have their contracts ended, but even if not all ships have the system, it still can help with the enforcement activities.”

Musa then floated an idea to privatise the enforcement activities to alleviate the burden of the government agencies.

“I don’t know if it’s practical, but if an oil company can get others to transport its expensive equipment, we could consider outsourcing our law enforcement.

“Private companies would compete with other companies, and to maintain their reputation and retain their contracts, by hook or by crook, they have to do a good job.

“That’s just my two cents, whether it can be implemented in the real world, only the authorities know,” he said.