Saving our ocean’s fish stocks, one plate of nasi lemak at a time

Saving our ocean’s fish stocks, one plate of nasi lemak at a time

By 2048, our grandchildren may never eat freshly caught fish from the ocean again. Talking Point’s “In Hot Water” special finds out how Singapore is trying to sustain its burgeoning appetite for seafood.

Love eating pomfrets or ikan kuning? These are just some of the common fish we eat that are in danger of being overexploited and overfished. Here’s what you can do as a consumer.

SINGAPORE: As you tuck into a plate of nasi lemak from Mizzy’s Corner stall at Changi Village hawker centre, you might notice that the typical nasi lemak fish, the ikan kuning, is missing.

The reason:  They are hoping to help save this species, otherwise known as the yellow-banded scad, from extinction.

Instead the fish, which is on the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) red list of threatened ocean species, has been substituted with Indian mackerel – which, while not free from the threat of extinction, is less at risk.

Stall’s owner Mizrea Abu Nazir said: “I guess it’s a stereotype that when you have nasi lemak, it has to come with ikan kuning.

“The price of both is about the same per carton, but because kembong (Indian mackerel) is bigger, I get fewer. So I have to increase the price by about S$1, but I have not received any complaints from customers - they are still enjoying it.”

She added: “I’m all for being green. If it saves the fish, if it saves the world, why not?”  

WATCH: The impending fish-pocalypse, and what you can do about it (2:09)

Talking Point, a current affairs show on Mediacorp Channel 5, explored how some Singapore firms like Mizzy’s Corner are moving towards sustainability, with global supplies of currently-fished species predicted to collapse by 2048. This would mean that means our grandchildren might never eat fish caught from the ocean again, if predictions prove correct.

Singaporeans are one of the biggest consumers of seafood in the world per capita – consuming about 22kg of seafood per person yearly, more than the global average of 20kg.

In Singapore, three out of four fish species commonly eaten here are unsustainable, said the World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore (WWF-Singapore). This includes the Indian threadfin (also known as ngoh hur) and pomfret.

These fish populations are red-listed, meaning they are in the danger of being completely overexploited and overfished, said WWF-Singapore’s CEO Elaine Tan.

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Fish on the WWF's red list of threatened ocean species


But can we find sustainable seafood in our supermarkets in Singapore?

One way is to look out for signs – such as those blue labels on seafood in shops and restaurants certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which indicates that products from these seafood sources are sustainably caught and farmed.

Mr Matt Watson, fisheries outreach manager of MSC, said that MSC-certified fisheries have to show that they are sustainable for their target stock, such as tuna. “It goes further than that, we want to make sure (the fisheries) look after the wider marine ecosystem, the by-catch rates and their interaction with sensitive habitats,” he said.

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Global Ocean Link is one MSC-certified supplier here. About 20 per cent of its supply is sustainable, including oysters, snow crab, lobster, tilapia fillet and dory fillet.

Operations manager Dennis Ng said there are only about eight or nine suppliers in Singapore who are certified to provide sustainable seafood.  

“This is a demand and supply issue. If their customers do not request for sustainable seafood, suppliers would not see the need to get themselves certified, (a process) which will cost them money,” he said. “At the same time, sustainable seafood is actually higher in cost by 10 to 15 per cent.”


For marine life to flourish, coral reefs also need to be healthy.

Singapore is home to one-third of the world’s coral species. But it has also already lost more than 60 per cent of its corals to land reclamation over the years, where natural shorelines such as reefs and mangroves have given way to seawalls and artificial beaches.

And this number looks set to increase as the Government’s Land Use Plan 2030 highlights areas that allow for more reclamation.

But efforts are underway to ensure that our corals do not become a thing of the past.

Associate Professor Peter Todd, from the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore, said: “(Coral reefs) offer protection to coastlines, they provide fisheries and tourism for many countries - all these are relevant to Singapore as well.”

He added: “Maybe more fundamentally, unless we want to live in a country with no biodiversity and nature around us, then we really need to think about how we should protect these ecosystems.”

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In 2012, an environment impact assessment revealed that the Tuas Terminal development project would kill the coral reefs near Sultan Shoal, located on the south west of Singapore.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) then dedicated S$6 million to relocating some 2,300 coral colonies to three southern sites at St John's and Sisters' Islands, to protect them from the impact of the development.

Mr Lionel Ng, from NUS’s department of biological sciences, described the relocation process as “very laborious” and involving many experienced scuba divers. But, he added: “We hope that with such efforts we can demonstrate that environmental conservation and coastal development can operate side by side, and these efforts can help to mitigate the effects of coastal development.”

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Over at King's Dock in Keppel Bay, corals, reef fishes and even seahorses can be found thriving in the waters at the marina – thanks to developer Keppel Land’s initiative to cultivate the corals in that area.

King’s Dock, which opened in 1913 and is one of Singapore’s oldest docks, is a designated conservation site today.

When the developer was constructing new homes on King’s Dock, it decided to conserve the corals, spending more than S$200,000 on efforts.

Keppel Land's general manager of marketing Albert Foo said they first transferred the grown corals from a nursery onto the enhanced reef structures built into the walls of King’s Dock in 2016. They have since added more corals, and divers regularly monitor the growth and health of the reefs.

They have also built a cable bridge, instead of a traditional one, to link the private Keppel Island to the mainland. Seawater can flow freely below, bringing in nutrients and plankton which the corals feed on.

Mr Foo said: “In 10 years’ time, the entire southern coastal waters in Singapore will become one grand marine sanctuary where the waters are teeming with marine life. And I think that would really be our gift to posterity.”

Watch this episode of Talking Point here on Toggle. Catch Talking Point on Thursdays, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.

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Source: CNA/yv