IN FOCUS: As fishing rises in popularity, concerns grow about overfishing and litter
Restrictions on social activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic have spurred more people to pick up fishing, but with anglers dipping their lines more often, CNA looks at the problems and challenges it has created.
SINGAPORE: While Saturday mornings may be a time to relax for many people, Mr Eugene Heng is busy.
Hopping onto his motorboat, the 72-year-old sets out across the still waters of Marina Reservoir. Along the river, near Kallang riverside park, he slows the engine and steers the boat closer to the bank.
The area, a designated fishing site, is often teeming with recreational fishers hoping to land a catch or two for the day. However, Mr Heng doesn’t look at the shore. Instead, he squints at the water surface and soon finds what he has been searching for - litter that has ended up in the water.
Dipping his net, he scoops a ball of tangled fishing lines out of the water before tossing it onto his boat.
This has been his mission for the past 20-odd years since he founded the Waterways Watch Society (WWS), a non-profit organisation that organises weekly cleanups at waterways.
However, Mr Heng’s workload has grown heavier amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with growing waste volumes. In the first half of this year, more than three tons of litter was collected from the Marina reservoir, he said. That is more than half of what was collected in 2018, despite having fewer patrols and volunteers.
And among the piles of waste, Mr Heng has noticed a growing proportion of fishing litter, such as nets, lines and hooks.
MORE HOOKED ON FISHING
Since the country exited its "circuit breaker" last year, visitors have thronged the area to escape their homes and get some fresh air. In particular, there has been a surge in the number of anglers fishing at Marina Reservoir, said Mr Heng.
With travel off the cards, fishing has soared in popularity here, as people look for ways to keep themselves busy and entertained.
Sporting goods retailer Decathlon told CNA that sales of fishing equipment have grown by 118 per cent compared to last year.
The biggest increase, it said, came from the sales of beginner fishing equipment, with products such as rod and reel combos flying off the shelves.
Mr Varun Singh, who runs a store selling camping and fishing equipment, said he has also observed an increase in the number of beginners buying fishing equipment.
They range from teenagers to those in their 50s, he said in an interview with CNA.
“Previously, a lot of people would have been buying (fishing) equipment for overseas use, (such as) a two- or three-day trip to Malaysia, but demand for heavier equipment has slowed down, and more people are buying lighter tackle to do freshwater fishing here,” he said.
“Last time, we would see about 50 per cent of our customers buying light tackle equipment but now, they make up about 80 to 90 per cent of our customer pool.”
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This rising interest in fishing has a downside: Some anglers leave lines and hooks behind, while there are also concerns about overfishing.
“When we go out on our boat patrols, our engine propellers get clogged up with fishing lines, and we also come across floating fishing lines, or even fishing nets,” said Mr Heng.
“Invariably, when we do that, we'll find fish, tortoises or anything in the water that's been caught with a hook or with the net.”
Such litter could also pose safety risks for the public and for workers maintaining the reservoir.
According to national water agency PUB, there have been incidents in the past where pedestrians were injured by stray fish hooks cast by careless anglers.
To encourage the proper disposal of used fishing lines and hooks, special bins have been placed at designated fishing sites at Marina, Bedok and Pandan reservoirs.
Set up in July last year, the bins have been “well-utilised” by anglers, with bins in areas such as Bedok reservoir having to be cleared almost daily, said PUB.
It added that around 30 more bins will be installed at reservoirs and waterways by this year.
TACKLING THE PROBLEM
Inland fishing, such as in reservoirs and waterways, is only allowed at designated sites, and the use of live bait is banned.
The rules are enforced by PUB to ensure safety and water quality.
According to Associate Professor Darren Yeo from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) department of biological sciences, if too much live bait ends up in a reservoir, it could affect the quality of raw water.
“When the bait dies and breaks down, it basically contributes to organic material and nutrients which will affect our water quality (because) all these nutrients will enhance algal growth.”
Coupled with favourable conditions such as warm water and sufficient sunlight, this could encourage rapid algae growth and spawn algae blooms which could cause mass fish deaths, he said.
To monitor illegal fishing activities, a network of more than 200 surveillance cameras equipped with video analytics has been set up at hotspots near reservoirs.
When they detect unauthorised activity, such as a person fishing illegally at the shoreline, an alert will be sent to officers, who will sound a warning through an audio system.
However, some people remain undeterred.
When CNA visited the reservoir last Saturday (Jul 10), at least two anglers were spotted using dead fish and meat as bait, despite signs warning them not to do so.
One of the men claimed that he did not see the sign and continued to fish.
The other told CNA that he was not aware of the rules and that he “just” wanted to catch a fish to bring home and eat.
On average, PUB hands out more than 100 penalties each year for illegal fishing. Those caught fishing at no-fishing areas or using live bait at reservoirs can be fined up to S$3,000.
In areas managed by the National Parks Board (NParks), offenders can be fined up to S$5,000 for fishing in no-fishing areas and up to S$50,000 in nature reserves. As of Jul 5, there have been 26 cases of illegal fishing this year in areas managed by NParks.
The agency added, however, that cases in these areas have been declining in recent years. Last year, there were around 70 cases of illegal fishing, down from about 120 cases in 2018.
READ: Student gets probation for hitting NParks officer when caught fishing illegally at Sungei Buloh
But trying to clamp down on illegal fishing is like playing a cat and mouse game, said Mr Heng, whose organisation works with PUB to engage and educate anglers on fishing rules and regulations.
“Most of the (anglers) actually know where they can fish and where they cannot fish, so when we catch them, they’ll just apologise and leave but then they’ll come back,” he said.
“Even in areas where PUB has put up the CCTV cameras, they’ll (either) just avoid those areas or hide at an angle so that the CCTV can’t catch them.”
Since the pandemic began, the problem of illegal fishing at Marina Reservoir has worsened.
“(We’ve seen) at least a 20 per cent increase in anglers (flouting the rules) at Marina reservoir, despite us having fewer boots on the ground due to COVID-19 restrictions,” he said.
“If we had more frequent patrols and volunteers, it is safe to conclude that we would sight more.”
EYES IN THE SKY
An extra pair of eyes in the sky could help to improve the situation on the ground.
Since the end of May, drones have progressively been rolled out to several reservoirs, including Marina Reservoir, to observe water quality and to look out for excessive growth of aquatic plants and algal blooms.
They are also able to detect activities such as illegal fishing.
READ: Drones to be deployed at 6 reservoirs for monitoring
Equipped with remote sensing systems and a camera for near real-time video analytics, the drones can survey large areas of the reservoir, saving time and manpower resources.
When an illegal fishing activity is spotted, a “near real-time” alert will be sent to PUB officers’ mobile phones, allowing them to respond to cases quickly.
But the idea of a drone hovering over their heads has stirred unhappiness among some members of the fishing community.
“Imagine you're fishing in a legal area, and you're just trying to enjoy a quiet morning or evening,” said a spokesperson from sustainable fishing group Marine Stewards Singapore. "Then you hear the loud buzzing noise of the drones."
“It’s invasive and disruptive, and it’s not something the community is really liking."
While Mr Rizal Sam, an experienced angler, agreed that it would be uncomfortable being under constant surveillance, he said the drones could also spur better fishing etiquette.
Frustrated by the inconsiderate behaviour of some anglers, the 30-year-old, who has been fishing for more than 20 years in areas such as Upper Seletar Reservoir, now frequents pay ponds instead. These have a more controlled and pleasant environment, he said.
“At reservoirs, you see some people using really smelly live bait, such as chicken guts or walking catfish, because they want to attract the fish to the smell,” he said.
“If you were me and you were watching them baiting the fish with disgusting, smelly bits of rotten meat, how would you feel? This is the water we’ll end up drinking.”
“So, when I see a lot of people baiting, I’ll just go to a fishing pond and spend a bit more money, ” he said.
“There's a lot of fish there and they have specific rules such as only using artificial lures, and people follow them because it’s a private place, so it’s cleaner.”
A DIFFERENT BALL GAME
Around the coast of Singapore and further out at sea, recreational and commercial fishing also creates issues.
Last month, a marine biologist posted pictures of at least 12 young black-tipped reef sharks, along with other marine creatures, found dead in a 500m-long gill net at Pulau Semakau.
In May, a dead hawksbill turtle caught in a gill net was discovered in the waters off Pulau Hantu, according to the Singapore Marine Guide, a platform for the boating and leisure marine community. The critically endangered species, native to Singapore, had been found with its head severed and body badly decomposed.
There is also the issue of fishing gear ending up in the sea.
According to a report published by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) last year, between 500,000 and 1 million tons of fishing gear end up in the world’s oceans every year. These make up at least 10 per cent of all marine litter, the report said.
Called "ghost gear", these lost and discarded items are haunting oceans, catching and entangling marine creatures such as sea turtles, sharks and seabirds, often killing them. They can also damage critical marine habitats such as coral reefs.
But how big a problem is this in Singapore’s waters?
According to Dr Zeehan Jaafar, a lecturer at NUS' Department of Biological Sciences, the answer is unknown.
“We do not have a good handle on what's there (in the water), so to say more is being taken out right now is difficult,” she said.
“Recreational fishing is extremely big in Singapore, even before COVID-19, but what is the impact, we have no idea because we’re only beginning to understand and study it.”
While there are existing laws to protect and conserve marine biodiversity and ecosystems, experts said there is scope for more to be done.
In 2018, marine biologists and environmentalists, including Dr Jaafar, presented a 230-page proposal that outlined ways to better protect marine ecosystems in Singapore. The proposal, called the Singapore Blue Plan, was submitted to the Government.
During the launch of the plan in October 2018, Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said that agencies will study the recommendations in detail and explore how they can work with the marine community to realise some of the common goals.
A year later, NParks updated its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan to bolster the country's efforts in biodiversity conservation. It included national targets such as updating a national database system with biodiversity-related information and conserving 0.5 per cent of coastal and marine areas as natural areas.
READ: Three coastal areas proposed for conservation in Singapore Blue Plan
Among the suggestions raised, the proposal called for existing legislation to be amended, in order to fill gaps in regulation and detection of maritime offences.
For instance, the Fisheries Act, which regulates the fishing industry, could incorporate the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea Act, it said. This would make it illegal for fishing vessels to indiscriminately dispose of their equipment in the sea and endanger marine life.
Environmentalists have also suggested regulating the use of gill or drift nets. Currently, the Fisheries Act only prohibits the use of poisons, explosives and trawl nets in Singapore’s waters.
“A lot of people do it to try and catch fish (because) it is quite an effective way of catching fish since the net can cover a lot more area, for example, a long net could be 100m to 300m long,” said the Marine Stewards spokesperson.
“It’s a real concern because (nets) are an indiscriminate killer, it can catch a lot of bycatch.”
Bycatch refers to fish or other marine species that have been caught unintentionally while trying to catch another type of fish.
However, tracking down the culprits of marine litter will be “almost impossible”, said Dr Jaafar.
“It's very hard to pinpoint (the abandoned gear) to any one person,” she said. “Even if you tag a net, when the nets are out at sea, they may break apart and then you may not be able to trace it.”
On the ground, however, efforts to study the impact of recreational fishing and tackle the problem of fishing litter are gaining momentum.
Sustainable fishing group Marine Stewards said it is looking to collect local data on fishing activities, including netting and angling, to assess how prevalent the problem is.
In certain sites such as coastal areas managed by NParks, net fishing and the use of wire mesh traps have been prohibited, as they pose a threat to wildlife and marine creatures.
With more people observed fishing in Singapore’s waters, concerns about over-fishing have also surfaced.
To safeguard marine biodiversity, NParks said it has designated areas such as the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park and Chek Jawa Wetlands as “no fishing” areas. These areas are managed as sanctuaries for fish to flourish and grow to maturity, said Mr Ryan Lee, the group director of NPark’s National Biodiversity Centre.
He added that NParks takes a balanced approach to recreational fishing, with outreach and education as key strategies for biodiversity conservation.
The agency works with groups like the Marine Stewards to promote best practices for recreational fishing, such as voluntary catch-and-release, where fish are released back into the sea if they are not to be eaten.
“This is especially for juveniles, and endangered and threatened species,” said Mr Lee.
TO LICENSE OR NOT?
Some jurisdictions have implemented licensing or permit schemes for recreational fishing, to track fish stock and ensure sustainability.
For instance, in the US, most states require anglers to obtain a fishing licence. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, “100 per cent” of licence fees go directly toward conservation and restoration.
This means funds raised from the sale of fishing licenses contributes to fish management, species and habitat restoration, research, and public access for fishing and boating.
In the UK, certain types of fish such as salmon and sea trout are regulated, which means anglers need to apply for a rod fishing licence before catching them. There are also national rules and local laws on areas where people cannot fish as well as the size of fish they can keep.
While such schemes aim to protect fish stocks and make fisheries sustainable, they have drawn mixed views from the fishing community here.
“There are actually anglers who are welcoming the concept of licences precisely because they don't want people who are fishing unsustainably or not practising good fishing etiquette, but there's also a group of people who don't want another licence under the law to restrict their actions,” said the Marine Stewards.
“If they understand that fishing licences are not really restricting them, but (ensuring) fisheries management so that everyone gets more fish then I think it's something that might be possible to push.”
However, given the myriad people who fish in Singapore’s waters, implementing a legislative framework for recreational fishing may not be so simple, warned Dr Jaafar.
“There are different kinds of people who fish, some of them are actually artisanal fishermen ... some of them do it daily to relax or to get food,” she noted in an interview with CNA. “It’s not just one homogenous group, it’s many people with different statuses and needs, so it’s actually quite complex.”
In addition, with more than 600 marine species on Singapore shores, Dr Jaafar said implementing restrictions on the type and size of fish could be a challenge.
“If we say (the fishing community) should only take up things which are mature, then they have to remember the maturity length for so many species and actually, for a lot of the species, the maturity length is actually unknown and the information may, sometimes, not be available,” she said.
“To flesh out a legislative framework to figure out what are the punitive measures and all that takes a lot of time, and then once the legislation is passed, then comes the question of how do we enforce it?”
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To better understand legislation surrounding fishing activities, Dr Jaafar said discussions are ongoing between stakeholders and government agencies.
“It's a very sensitive issue and so while it's easy for us to say (we should) ban it, what about the people who aren’t able to find other kinds of livelihood? I don't think there’s any easy solution or quick fix for this.”
Beyond law and enforcement, ground-up initiatives have also sprung up to encourage responsible fishing.
Last year, the Marine Stewards came up with several guidelines for fishermen, which includes releasing juvenile, threatened and endangered species. It also urged anglers to keep hybrid groupers as they may compete with native fish for food and disrupt the local ecosystem.
It has put up information on its website on the maturity lengths for about 50 species of fish commonly found in Singapore waters.
FISHING SUSTAINABLY AND RESPONSIBLY
Ultimately, education and more awareness will help to pave the way for sustainable and responsible fishing.
“You must remember that, in the past, fishing was allowed everywhere, then the PUB came and (some areas) were made into reservoirs, so in a way, we started restricting what was not restricted in the past,” said Mr Heng.
“So it became more and more challenging because people would say: Why can't I fish when I could last time?"
To spread the word, organisations like the WWS and the Marine Stewards regularly engage anglers to educate them on responsible fishing as well as the benefits of catch-and-release.
Studies have shown that with proper handling, the survival rate of fish released by anglers is typically above 90 per cent. However, in order to ensure high levels of survival, anglers must avoid playing the fish to exhaustion or keeping it out of the water for too long. In some cases, especially when the fish has swallowed the hook, cutting the line instead of extracting it could help to increase survivability.
The public, as well as the authorities, could also work closely with the fishing community to make the sport more acceptable, said the Marine Stewards spokesperson.
“Honestly, fishing is not a bad sport, it’s just people going outdoors to cast a line and try to catch a fish,” said the group’s spokesperson.
“Most of the people in the fishing community are responsible but it just takes one joker or bad example to end up in the news, to create an image that is not representative of the community.”