The Middle Bank Can Anchor a Green Future For Penang

By Zulfigar Yassin

September 2021 FEATURE
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A group of marine ecologists in the early morning hours, on the Middle Bank at low tide to collect vital information on the health of the ecosystem.
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AIR PASANG PAGI, surut pukul lima (a high tide in the morning, ebbs at five) is a traditional Malay pantun (poem) that describes tidal movements in Penang. Over six hours and 40 minutes each day, the high tide recedes to its lowest level, only to rise again; it is this predictable pattern that fisherfolks use to decide their daily routine.

In the Penang Strait, water flows south towards the Penang Bridge as the tide rises, and as the tide ebbs, it flows north.

Ponder on this for a moment, and you will realise that whatever rubbish we dump into the sea will only come back to us. The water also bathes the Middle Bank and its resident marine habitats, carrying with it fish and nutrients that are essential to the ecosystem.

The Middle Bank performs a multitude of ecological functions that are core to Penang's survival. It is characteristically shallow but it has an abundance of seagrass. These seagrass meadows serve as breeding and feeding grounds for the larger fish and marine animals, which in turn sustain the local fisheries. Disruptions to this food chain therefore will have reverberating – and adverse – effects on Penang's population.

Seagrass meadows also go some way towards mitigating climate change by reducing the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and providing a durable ecosystem to ensure food security.

Enhalus, the largest seagrass species, is a flowering plant. Its fruits are fed on by dugongs in places like Semporna.

The Middle Bank runs from George Town in the north to Batu Uban in the south, and protects the shoreline from choppy seas and coastal erosion. It is here, too, that artisanal fishing traditions have survived. I once stood along the shore of Pulau Gazumbo, the small island on the Bank, observing local fishermen and their families forage for clams and seaweed on the sandflats. Some worked to untangle from nets the fish and flower crabs they had caught earlier at high tide, while a man tossed breadcrumbs in the mud to tease out ragworms, a bait for the fishing line.

The Middle Bank is also a living laboratory that the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS) at Universiti Sains Malaysia has studied for more than 30 years. Many students would remember wading through mud to observe minute shrimps and shells.

An aerial view of Pulau Gazumbo’s lush vegetation. The interior hides a build-up of plastic debris deposited here by the tide.

But close monitoring of the marine environment's overall health has also discovered worrying results. The Department of Fisheries has been recording a declining trend of nearshore catches since the mid-1980s. For cockle production along the Straits of Malacca (which includes Penang's sand banks), this decline has been particularly sharp. Given the cockle's importance as Malaysia's foremost contributor of fishery tonnage, it is surprising that no area in this strategic ecosystem has been placed under formal conservation.

Penang's thoughtless past is also on show behind Pulau Gazumbo's lush vegetation curtain. For four decades, Styrofoam waste, fishing nets, mineral water bottles and other forgotten synthetic wastes have haphazardly collected on the beach.

The seagrass meadows on the eastern side of the Middle Bank against a backdrop of the busy Butterworth port.

But all is not doom and gloom however. Since 2005, data from CEMACS have shown a significant improvement in the diversity of marine life in parts of the Bank. Creatures once thought to be locally extinct were repopulated following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Many seagrass species are thriving on the Bank as well; in fact, it is the only significantly sized seagrass ecosystem left on the Straits of Malacca.

The Middle Bank certainly shows promise as a marine reserve for combating climate crises and for sustaining fisheries. Beyond these, better awareness of Penang's rich maritime heritage would no doubt inspire a greener future, one that is envisioned in Penang's Green Agenda 2030.

Zulfigar Yassin

is a marine environmental scientist who is an Honourable Professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia and a Visiting Senior Analyst at Penang Institute. His work now focuses on the sustainable development of the marine environment.