KOTA KINABALU (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Voices are growing stronger for firm action against fish-bombing activities in Sabah as police continue to track down the suspects behind the deaths of three divers in the diving haven of Semporna.
Political leaders and environmentalists are demanding more deterrent action against such offenders as Sabah's maritime and tourism community reeled in shock over the deaths, believed to have been caused by a fish bomb.
Malaysian divemaster Ab Zainal Abdu, 30, and Chinese nationals Zhao Zhong, 26, and Xu Yingjie, 26, were killed in the waters off Pulau Kalapuan last Friday (July 5).
The police are investigating the case, which is believed to be the first involving the deaths of divers from fish bombing activities. Such activities involve the use of explosives to stun or kill fish, enabling the blast fishers to easily collect them.
Investigators believe the culprits are illegal immigrants living on some of the islands in Semporna, who often use pump boats - small boats fitted with water pumps - to move around the islands.
Sabah Chief Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal said it was time for "stern action" to be taken, as such bombing activities had been going on for a long time, with damaging effects on the environment.
He also wanted the authorities to track down the supply sources of the detonators. However, he did not think there was a need as yet to reimpose the ban on pump boats, sometimes dubbed scooters of the sea.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Datuk Seri Shafie also supported calls of many state leaders for stiffer penalties against those involved in fish-bombing activities.
WWF-Malaysia called for urgent efforts by the authorities to combat such illegal activities that were now a "life and death" issue.
The group's interim head of marine Monique Sumampouw called for all-out efforts to stop "illegal, unreported and unregulated" fishing, in particular fish bombs, and also the banning of pump boats, which are usually associated with illegal fishing activities.
She called for increased patrolling and monitoring, as well as strengthened enforcement to prevent illegal fish bombing.
Based on a four-month study conducted by WWF-Malaysia in Semporna between June and September 2018, a total of 263 fish bombings were recorded.
She said WWF-Malaysia was deeply troubled by the deaths of divers in Semporna, possibly attributed to fish bombing.
"Their deaths are tragic," she said.
Meanwhile, coastguards have vowed to work closely with Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) to combat the fish bombing menace following the deaths of three divers in Semporna waters.
Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Sabah director Kamaruszaman Abu Hassan said it had sent vessels to assist Esscom in the wake of the tragedy.
He said the deaths of the divers shocked the maritime community in Sabah's eastern Semporna area and also cast a shadow on the credibility of the coastguards in dealing with fish bombing.
MMEA assets in the east coast have been sent to the area to assist the security forces in tracking down the suspects, he added.
Rear-Admiral Kamaruszaman said that Sabah MMEA had been dealing with the fish-bombing problems through special operations in the west coast areas of Sabah since May.
He said special operations were carried out in waters off Kota Belud, Pulau Gaya and Pulau Mantanani after the agency received complaints that recreational diving activities could not be carried out due to rampant fish bombing.
Fish bombing carried out by illegal immigrants was one of the most serious issues raised during a recent meeting with various stakeholders that included the Fisheries Department, Marine Department and Immigration Department, he said.
"We have also identified the areas where the suspects live," he said, adding that they were taking actions to wipe out the problem through integrated operations involving multi-enforcement agencies.
Rear-Adm Kamaruszaman, meanwhile, advised dive operators to follow safety procedures to avoid accidents.
"Divers must take extra precaution to look around their sea surface and place a buoy to inform others that diving activities are taking place," he said.