PUTRAJAYA: The multi-million ringgit Malaysian cockle breeding industry is on the verge of collapse, and the Fisheries Department wants a ban on harvesting during peak spawning season to revive the swiftly falling numbers.
At its peak in 2005, Malaysia produced 100,000 tonnes of cockles for both local consumption and export.
But only 16,000 tonnes were harvested last year, in an industry now estimated to be valued at about RM160mil (S$54 million).
Ironically, Malaysia's coastline is a fertile breeding ground for cockles.
Abu Talib Ahmad, senior director of research at the Fisheries Research Institute, said all three main cockle breeding states - Selangor, Perak and Johor - were affected by pollution which resulted in high mortality of cockles and spats (young cockles).
The impact is being felt by consumers who now have to pay between RM10 and RM15 per kilo compared to just RM2 and RM3 previously.
"This is a problem to consumers, especially those of us who usually eat char koay teow with kerang (cockles)," he said.
Recognising the importance of the food source and how it affected the livelihood of fishermen, the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) allocated RM500,000 for a year-long study on how to revive the industry in Selangor.
Abu Talib said Selangor had overtaken Perak as the main cockle breeding state but only a mere 3,327 tonnes were harvested last year compared to 40,000 tonnes during its peak.
Research carried out by the department with the support of Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences recommended an annual "closed season" on cockle harvesting and permanent sites where harvesting is disallowed completely to allow natural spawning.
Abu Talib said these recommendations, part of an overall management plan, would only be implemented after getting the views of all stakeholders from fishermen and farmers right down to the char koay teow sellers.
The management plan also called on multi-agencies, including the Department of Environment, Pengurusan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd, to check pollution which is causing the high mortality rate, especially in farms near the mouth of Sungai Buloh.
This management plan would eventually be replicated in Perak and Johor, he added.
If these measures fail, he warned Malaysia could end up producing cockle spats in the lab with technology as a last and more expensive resort.
Selangor cockle research project chief Dr Alias Man described the cockle industry as "surviving" but was optimistic it could be revived.
He said cockles spawned all year but the peak seasons were between May and July, and between September and November.
Doing away with year-long harvesting will maximise spawning, while permanent protected areas will preserve spawning stocks.
Dr Alias explained that upon spawning, cockle larvae drifted with the sea currents for 29 to 30 days before they settled on mud flats or spat falls where they are collected by local fishermen and sold to cockle farms.
In Thailand, the currents are too strong and the spat falls are plentiful in the west coast of Malaysia. This makes smuggling the spats out to Thailand a lucrative business.
There were 33 cases of spat smuggling last year with the largest haul valued at RM300,000. In 2014, there were 35 cases.