KOTA KINABALU - Foreign fishermen are resorting to "cloning" local fishing vessels to conceal their illegal presence in Malaysian waters.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) found out about this after checking a fishing vessel manned by 14 undocumented Vietnamese nationals in waters off Pulau Balambangan in Kudat on July 24.
MMEA Kudat operations officer Lt Rody Bejie said the boat with the registration number SBF 46 was loaded with a variety of catches including lobsters, sea cucumber and sharks.
He said checks showed that the boat's documents were forged, adding that the actual fishing vessel with the registration number was in waters off Kota Kinabalu.
"We believe that a syndicate is involved in duplicating fishing vessels and forging documents. We are tracking down those believed to be involved," Lt Rody said.
He said such duplication was an offence under the Fisheries Act 1985 and the Immigration Act 1959.
State Fisheries Department director Datuk Rayner Stuel Galid had warned in April that Sabah's fish stocks and marine biodiversity could be reduced beyond sustainability within four decades.
He said tough measures were needed to protect Sabah's 1,700km coastline from illegal foreign fishermen and their damaging practices such as blast fishing.
These illegal fishermen were also involved in other damaging activities including using sodium cyanide to fish and illegal fishing nets, which scour the seabed trapping turtles and other marine creatures.
He said the illegal foreign fishermen, mainly from Vietnam and China, were drawn to Sabah's waters where there were more than 1,200 species of fish.
Sabah's waters, which contains 75 per cent of the nation's coral reefs, also has 476 species of coral, 400 species of marine algae and 16 species of sea grasses.
The waters off the state is also home to 22 marine mammal species and five out of seven species of marine turtles.
Rayner said there was a need for stiffer penalties under the Fisheries Act and the International Trade in the Endangered Special Act 2008.