Malaysians baffled by plunge in cockle catch

Kuala Sepetang assemblyman Chua Yee Ling (in orange vest) and Perak state executive council member Mah Hang Soon examining empty cockle shells along the river in Kuala Sepetang.
Kuala Sepetang assemblyman Chua Yee Ling (in orange vest) and Perak state executive council member Mah Hang Soon examining empty cockle shells along the river in Kuala Sepetang.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Harvest at largest breeding ground dives by 90 per cent amid mystery shellfish deaths

TAIPING (Perak) • Malaysians remain mystified by a drop in fresh cockles, a favourite seafood item, as farmers and hawkers expressed concern over the bleak harvests.

The largest cockle breeding ground in the country, at the Kuala Sepetang river mouth in the northern state of Perak, has seen its harvests plunge by 90 per cent.

The Fisheries Department has yet to comment, though preliminary laboratory reports of water samples taken from the river at Kuala Sepetang have shown a high amount of ammonia.

While not conclusive, Perak Fisheries Department director Bah Piyan Tan said it was one possible factor causing the cockles to die.

"Ammonia is toxic. Cockles can't be bred in water with high amounts of ammonia. The ammonia level should be less than 0.25 parts per million (ppm) for aquaculture activities," Dr Bah told reporters during a visit to the cockle breeding area on Monday.

TOXIC CONDITIONS

Ammonia is toxic. Cockles can't be bred in water with high amounts of ammonia. The ammonia level should be less than 0.25 parts per million for aquaculture activities.

DR BAH PIYAN TAN, director of the Perak Fisheries Department, saying the high amount of ammonia indicated in preliminary laboratory reports of water samples taken from the river at Kuala Sepetang was one possible factor causing the cockles to die

"Other factors could be parasites or viruses or other factors relating to climate change," he added.

Cockles are commonly used for dishes like char kway teow, curry noodles and lok lok, so the shortage has affected many hawkers.

In Penang, they either have to pay top dollar for the delicacy or forgo it altogether.

Char kway teow seller S.K. Leow, 60, has been omitting cockles from the dish for the past fortnight. He said that of late, cockles, even when available, did not look appetising.

"I've been selling char kway teow for around 30 years, so I've been buying cockles for 30 years. Now, the cockles don't look very fresh, and their colour is a bit off. I dare not use them," said Mr Leow, who added that he did not want to put his customers' health at risk.

Curry mee stall owner Cheong Kwai Foong said prices of cockles have increased twice this year - from RM17 (S$6) to RM18 per kg in the first quarter of the year, before hitting RM20 last month.

"My supplier told me that he had to increase the price last month because of low supply. It was only RM15 per kg last year. I have no choice but to absorb the higher cost as cockles are an essential part of curry mee."

Cockle farmers in Kuala Sepetang said they are suffering losses up to RM200,000 because the shellfish are dying.

Kuala Sepetang Cockle Farmers Association president Koay Seng Lam, 70, said farmers have been harvesting empty shells since March, so he and many others have decided to stop their operations.

"As of now, we can only wait for test results conducted by the Fisheries Department to know what is causing the cockles to die and what can be done," he said.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2015, with the headline 'Malaysians baffled by plunge in cockle catch'. Print Edition | Subscribe