Only Aquaculture Can Make Seafood Production Sustainable

International students attending summer course at CEMACS. This was their field trip to the oyster culture farm. With them is Pak Su, the owner of the oyster culture farm at Sg. Merbok.

Malaysia is ranked sixth in the world for highest fish consumption.1 No surprise there – fish are, after all, a great source of dietary protein and healthy fats, along with vitamins and minerals.

Most seafood comes from wild-caught fisheries. The downside to this is the depletion of fish stocks all over the world through over-exploitation. The aquaculture sector will come to play a crucial role if this trend is to be corrected. Future predictions based on data projections indicate a heavier dependence on aquaculture to supply global seafood consumption compared to wild-caught seafood.2

In 2017 the production of marine or brackish water aquaculture – inclusive of ponds, cages, cockles and oyster cultures – was at 43,200.32 tonnes for Penang.3 With the inclusion of freshwater aquaculture, Penang’s production was at the top of the chart (RM1.0bil) in terms of retail value compared to other states in Malaysia.4 (In 2016 the retail value was at RM765.6mil.)

Marine and brackish water pond aquaculture in Penang mainly produces sea bass, Hawaiian white shrimp, tiger prawns and mangrove snappers.5 In fact, sea bass and mangrove snappers produced in Penang are the highest in the country in terms of tonnage.

Besides ponds, fish can also be cultured in sea cages. Floating cages are set up with wooden or bamboo platforms, with nylon mesh or netting creating enclosures for the cultured species in the sea. Penang produces groupers, mangrove snappers, red snappers, sea bass, horse mackerels and golden pomfret using this method of culture. In terms of tonnage, it is still the highest in the country. Its total of 23,380.32 tonnes constitutes a whopping 63.4% of the country’s marine cages production.6

Harvesting shrimp from a farm.

Besides fish, shrimp and prawns, other types of seafood range from crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers and squid to various types of bivalves such as clams, mussels, oysters and many more. For some organisms, not only is the meat eaten, but the roe or eggs can be consumed as well.

Certain species fetch very high prices in the market, and some are mainly consumed by the affluent. One example is caviar, or roe from the sturgeon fish – also known as “black gold”. These tiny salty pearls are an imported luxury commodity and are served in select restaurants to the more discerning consumer. Interestingly, an aquaculture farm in Tanjung Malim has managed to raise the cold-water sturgeon fish in Malaysian weather; and its caviar produce is commercially available in the country.7

A famous Penang dish is the fried oyster omelette, or oh chien. Preparation of oysters varies; some are cooked using various techniques, some are eaten raw. The general rule, though, is to eat oysters fresh.

There are several states in Malaysia that produce these organisms. In 2017 the highest oyster production was from Sabah (741.5 tonnes), followed by Johor (600 tonnes), Penang (37.9 tonnes), Kelantan (13.7 tonnes), Terengganu (5 tonnes), Perak (3.2 tonnes), Pahang (0.6 tonnes) and Kedah (0.5 tonnes).8 Be that as it may, live and dried oysters are still imported (value of RM243,137 in year 2016) to support the high demand. The only type of oysters which were exported are frozen oysters (value of RM40 mil).9

Another type of harvested bivalve, cockles, has raised serious discussion in the gourmet world. Many variations of char koay teow, Penang’s favourite street food, have cockles as its base ingredient. But cockle production is on a decline, and prices are rising10 – bad news for char koay teow lovers.

Ten years ago, the total tonnage for adult cockle production in Malaysia was 64,938.51 tonnes; in 2017, only 12,482.34 tonnes were produced.11 Cockle production for Penang state alone also shows a steady decline in recent years, dropping from 1,632.32 tonnes in 2015 to 1,008.21 tonnes in 2016, to 434.09 tonnes in 2017.12, 13, 14

Fish farm at Tanjung Piandang.

Cockles live in mudflat areas and are dependent on the surrounding waters. They are usually cultured in their natural environment. The recent decline in numbers could possibly be due to pollution and disturbances in their habitat, and a solution is currently being formulated. Aquaculture of cockles in a fully controlled environment is most likely the best answer.

At Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS), the oldest marine research centre in the country, research methods are being developed to address aquaculture needs. The centre has had a strong standing in oyster culture for the past 30 years, developing research technology and translating it into industry and local community development.

This same strategy is currently being developed with other marine organisms such as cockles, sea cucumbers, mud crabs and also mantis shrimp. All research conducted at CEMACS aims to address several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 14: Life Below Water. To this end, CEMACS strives to work hand in hand with the community, and spearhead sustainable aquaculture research.

To stay updated about CEMACS and their activities, follow their social media pages at and
Dr. Annette Jaya Ram is a lecturer and deputy director of the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies, USM. She is studying mariculture of mud crabs; currently working on best ways to culture them to reduce dependence on harvesting mud crabs from the wild.
2FAO. The state of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. Rome; 2016.
3Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2017 – Aquaculture production by state and culture system, Table 14.1.
4Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2017 – Retail value of aquaculture production by state and culture system, Table 14.3.
5Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2017 – Fish production from brackish water/marine ponds by state and species, Table 22.2.
6Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2017 – Fish production from brackish water/ marine cages by state and species, Table 23.2.
8Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2017 – Production of oysters by month and state, 2017, Table 28.2.
9Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Export and import of fishery commodities, 2016. Appendix A.<
11Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2009 – Estimated production of adult cockles by month and state, 2009, Table 24.3.
12Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2015 – Production of adult cockles by month and state, 2015, Table 26.2.
13Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2016 – Production of adult cockles by month and state, 2016, Table 26.2.
14Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Jadual Akuakultur 2017 – Production of adult cockles by month and state, 2017, Table 26.2.

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