Malaysia turns up the heat, sets foreign boats ablaze for illegal fishing

The boat was set fire at sea off the coast of the northern state of Kelantan, the first time Malaysian authorities have resorted to such action.
The boat was set fire at sea off the coast of the northern state of Kelantan, the first time Malaysian authorities have resorted to such action. PHOTO: MALAYSIAN MARITIME ENFORCEMENT AGENCY
The boat was set fire at sea off the coast of the northern state of Kelantan, the first time Malaysian authorities have resorted to such action.
The boat was set fire at sea off the coast of the northern state of Kelantan, the first time Malaysian authorities have resorted to such action. PHOTO: MALAYSIAN MARITIME ENFORCEMENT AGENCY

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's coast guard agency on Wednesday (Aug 30) torched two foreign fishing boats caught in its waters, stepping up the government's response to illegal fishing and following in the footsteps of neighbouring Indonesia, which blows up vessels caught poaching.

Both vessels were set ablaze off the coast of the northern state of Kelantan.

Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) deputy director-general (operations) Datuk Mohd Taha Ibrahim did not specify the boats' country of origin, but it is believed to be Vietnam.

The burning highlights Malaysia's efforts to try to stem illegal fishing. In June, the Fisheries Department said the country lost 980,000 tonnes of seafood worth up to six billion ringgit (S$1.9 billion) each year because of illegal fishing.

The burning came days after the MMEA arrested the crew of a Vietnamese fishing trawler for encroaching into Malaysian waters.

Mr Mohd Taha said the decision to burn the vessels was taken as "sinking ships and turning them into artificial reefs has not had any long-term impact on offenders".

"It (the burning) is an alternative measure to send a clear message to the local and international community that the Malaysian government is very serious in tackling this issue," he said in a statement on Wednesday.

"This is our effort to boost the income of local fishermen, as the reefs would turn into breeding grounds, thus increasing their catch.

"The MMEA will continue to ramp up our surveillance and patrols to clamp down crimes committed at sea," he said.

To date, Malaysia has sunk 285 foreign boats caught fishing in its waters.

Indonesia has destroyed 317 fishing boats confiscated from poachers since President Joko Widodo took office in October 2014, in a tough response to protect its territorial waters.

Most of the fishing boats destroyed were from Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Indonesia maritime authorities have also had several skirmishes in waters off the Natuna islands with fishing boats from China and involving Chinese coast guard vessels.

The director-general of Malaysia's Fisheries Department, Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan, was quoted as saying in June that it was estimated only about half of all seafood caught in local waters reaches Malaysian consumers.

The rest is siphoned off by foreign fishermen invading the country's waters or local fishermen selling their catch to foreign counterparts.

So far this year, the department has recorded 184 offences involving vessels and unlicensed equipment, intrusion, use of foreign crew and using prohibited equipment.

nrodzi@sph.com.sg