Penang’s ‘golden zone’

Source: EIA report on proposed reclamation in southern Penang Island

This excellent piece about the southern coastline of Penang Island is by Khoo Salma Nasution. Bear in mind, this area is a source of prawns, fish, shellfish, crabs, even oysters. What happens to the supply of all this when reclamation work starts?

Malaysia is a nation with extensive coastlines, where fishing communities play an important role as stewards of the sea.

In celebrating World Oceans Day on 8 June, it is timely to highlight the relationship between fishermen and the sea, focusing on a small area south of Penang Island, which will be affected by the proposed Penang South Reclamation project.

To understand the potential impacts of the land reclamation in the waters off southern Penang Island, we should first get to know the special qualities of this area.

Penang Island is shaped like a turtle, looking north. George Town is laid out on the only flat foot (hence, the local name, Tanjung), while the other three “feet” of the turtle are hilly, rocky and forested.

The north-western promontory, formerly known as Pantai Acheh Forest Reserve, has been gazetted as a national park. The two hind feet of the turtle are Tanjung Chut in the east and Tanjung Gertak Sanggul in the west.

Like many locals growing up in Penang, I visited the kampungs, seafood stalls and beaches of Teluk Kumbar and Gertak Sanggul. But focusing for most of my adult life on what is now a Unesco world heritage area in George Town, I was scarcely aware of this unique area to the south.

The two feet of the Penang Island turtle straddle a sheltered, shallow seabed, flanked by Pulau Rimau and Pulau Kendi. This is the richest fishery area in the northwest of Peninsular Malaysia.

Bountiful marine life

As noted in an Al Jazeera report today, Penang Island’s southern sea is known as the “golden place” or “golden zone” (kawasan emas) and ought to be recognised as a “national treasure” (khazanah negara). Indeed, Universiti Sains Malaysia academics have at various times suggested that Pulau Kendi should be nominated as a national marine park.

Most of the small-time fishermen here operate within five miles of the coastline, where the marine bounty is plentiful. I spoke to a fisherman at one of the jetties.

“This is the main prawn area for the whole of Penang,” he said. “If we want to catch prawns, we take our boats there out in the daytime. If we want to catch fish, we go further out at night. If we want to catch crabs, we set our nets in the mudflats and come back a few days later.”

Indeed, we could see the horizon crowded with several dozen boats. A friend showed me his photographs of the boats at night, a thick cluster of small lights.

Many conditions make the sea off southern Penang Island an exceptional fishing zone. The curvaceous coastline hugs pristine beaches, small areas of mangrove and extensive tidal mudflats rich with nutrients.

About 3km from the western headland lies Pulau Kendi, surrounded by hard and soft coral, while 380 metres from the other headland is Pulau Rimau, where some fan coral survives.

Between 2008 and 2018, the Fisheries Department dropped more than a hundred artificial reefs around Pulau Kendi to boost the fish population.

The natural coral, the artificial reefs, several old shipwrecks and the tidal mudflats combine to make this “marine garden” an ideal fish spawning and breeding ground.

Fishing boats seasonally come to this “golden zone” from as far south as Pangkor Island, Perak, and as far north as Langkawi, Kuala Kedah and Kuala Perlis. Fishing trawlers and even Indonesian boats have been caught illegally encroaching in the waters of Pulau Kendi.

The marine life spawned in this area make their way to the waters of northern Perak, where they contribute to the fish landings of the Perak fishermen.

Penang Island’s southern sea is visited by the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and the Indo-Pacific finless porpoise.

Along the southern shoreline are five nesting sites for turtles, especially the green turtle (penyu agar), with rare sightings of the small migratory Olive Ridley Turtle (penyu lipas) listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “vulnerable”.

From the last Olive Ridley nesting at Pasir Belanda, 70 baby turtles were released into the sea as recently as March this year. In view of their endangered status, international nature conservation organisation Rainforest Rescue has released a petition to save Malaysia’s turtles. 

Artisinal fishermen

The fishermen native to southern Penang Island are traditional fishermen (nelayan tradisi) whose fathers and grandfathers were fishermen before them. Collectively, they have the know-how to deploy more than a dozen types of nets and a variety of traps, each net or trap customised for the desired catch.

These fishermen could be called artisanal fishermen, as they use traditional methods and fish in a more sustainable manner than commercial operators which tend to overfish.

They are also called inshore fishermen, as they use small boats and operate within eight nautical miles from the coastline. In contrast to commercial operators who engage in deep-sea fishing over days or weeks and refrigerate their catch, inshore fishermen typically stay out at sea for five to 10 hours at a time. The freshness and quality of their catch is unmatched by commercial vessels, and their return from sea is daily awaited by Penang’s local consumers, restaurateurs and food operators.

The Penang South Reclamation proposal has drawn attention to the backwater of Penang Island’s southern coast. The display period for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) over the month of Ramadan has just concluded. The proposal aims to create three islands totalling 4,500 acres, filling in the area between the two southern feet of the turtle.

In the immediate “impact zone” of the proposed reclamation area are four fish landing points: Gertak Sanggul, Teluk Kumbar, Sungai Batu and Permatang Damar Laut.

But the larger “impact zone” also includes landing points in Pulau Betong (west coast) and Sri Jerjak, Batu Maung and Teluk Tempoyak facing the Penang channel in the east coast.

The jetty at Batu Maung operated by the Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia (LKIM) is a major fish landing station with cold storage facilities, frequented by commercial boats that operate in the vicinity of southern Penang Island.

How many fishermen will be affected by the southern reclamation project?

The “18 nasihat” (18-point advice) released by the National Physical Planning Council in April this year mentioned 805 registered fishermen, with families totaling 3,140 people. But these figures only correspond to the study area of the EIA report.

The report itself gives a Fisheries Department figure of 2,757 registered fishermen operating within the impact zone for 2016. Of this number, the report says that up to 1,591 fishermen who landed their fish at the jetty in Batu Maung should be discounted because they tend to operate larger boats, catching their fish further afield. This leaves 1,116 registered fishermen.

The Penang Fishermen’s Association estimates that 1,800 fishermen will be affected. Many of Penang’s 4,817 registered fishermen – as well as about 6,000 unregistered fishermen – frequent this area at certain seasons. The area even attracts fishing boats from other states.

Mud and pollution

According to a fisherman from Sungai Batu, the EIA report for the reclamation project underplayed one important factor, the southwest monsoon. When the second Penang bridge was being built, the seabed which was dug up for the piling was dumped beyond Pulau Kendi, he said, pointing to the island to the southwest.

“There was a delayed effect, but the southwest monsoon brought all the sludge back here. Our beaches were covered with sludge mud (gelodak) and it took a few years for the fish and prawns to fully recover.”

Recent news reports about heavy metal pollution and rising toxicity levels in the sea off Penang – not far from ongoing reclamation work in Tanjung Tokong in the northeast of the island – suggest that our marine resources are already under stress.

The reclamation project off the southern coast is likely to adversely affect fisheries in the impact zone – where the wholesale values of fish landings (RM42m, not including those at the LKIM jetty); the marine cage culture especially near Sri Jerjak and Batu Maung (RM60m), hatcheries (RM8.8m), brackish water pond culture (RM19.6m) and oyster culture (RM0.4m) all using seawater; and recreational fishing (RM5.3m) – yielded a total annual economic value of about RM136m.

In a recent interview with Oriental Daily, Professor Zulfigar Yasin from University Sains Malaysia said that the EIA should have covered an even larger area, as the sea cage fish farms in Batu Kawan, clam aquaculture in Pulau Aman and north Perak, might also be affected.

In 2017, Penang’s marine aquaculture industry accounted for 55% of Malaysia’s RM2.9bn annual marine aquaculture harvest, which in turn constitutes a quarter of the fish harvest in Malaysia.

Think holistically

Prof Zulfigar urged the government to think in a more holistic manner. “For example, if a certain pollutant from a reclamation must exceed 10 units to be considered illegal, but now three reclamation (sites) are producing nine units each, none would be deemed to break the law – even though they total 27 units. Who is to be held responsible when the fish is dead in this event?”

Much more can be said about the Penang South Reclamation, purportedly undertaken for Penang’s ‘smart and green’ future. A well-known blogger has already written about the potential effects of sand-mining in Perak.

In view of the climate emergency and the worldwide depletion of fish stock, one questions the Penang state government’s wisdom in undermining our local fisheries, food security and climate resilience.

Check out this piece I wrote for Aliran: Five things we learned about Penang’s ‘three islands’ mega project

Please help to support this blog if you can.

Read the commenting guidlelines for this blog.
Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Switch Machine

Also Penang Forumer can organise bicycling trip during weekend to Gertak Sanggul southern island to understand the fishermen, whether they are seriously waiting for aid to improve fishing viability or whether they are lazy to fish with excuses and waiting for diesel aid only. Seeing is believing.

Switch Machine

Penangites can appreciate marine life with proper exposure and guidance from young. May be its not too late for Penang Forumers to organise educational trips to Batu Maung Government Aquarium or Chew Thean Tan Commercial Aquarium at Burmah Road. At same time, we can learn about the perils of plastics to the sea water.

Milk Tea

Please spend more time on keeping the cleanliness of the streets, deporting illegals and improving public facilities. Building those islands will bring in more illegals and crime. I do not want Penang to be a …hole.


Emulate Forest City to create a “Gold Mine” – mining the richness from wealthy 2nd home dwellers?


After doing the talk of migrating to pas kota bharu, spend time to do the walk

Milk Tea

They are going to speed up climate change. Waste from building those islands will be dispose to the sea (permanent damage to the seabed). I laughed out so hard when Minister Yeo are so concern about those imported plastic. Let’s also not forget about Lynas.


You going to keep thousands of used plastic containers as where to dispose them? Not concerned? You make me laugh and roll over.

Fang Yang

Most Hong Kong businessmen who have previous dealings with PRC are now very scared of the proposed Extradition Bill, fearing their past misdeeds could come back to haunt them.

Some of them are seriously considering relocating their families to Malaysia with Penang as prime destination. Therefore the property market in Penang will likely be stirred once again by such new immigrants.


HONG KONG, June 15 — Some Hong Kong tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore as concern deepens over a local government plan to allow extraditions of suspects to face trial in China for the first time, according to financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with such transactions.

Fang Yang

Hong Kong people will come to Penang to buy condominiums in fear of the new Hong Kong extradition law. Money laundered from China business in the past will find its way here via the Hong Kong buyers!


Among Asians, Hong Kees & Taiwanese are the most preying on victims via online scams. Extradition law means the long arm of the PRC law can corner them anytime in HK. No need to pity these scammers using human rights to spare these criminals.


hehe….they are called HongKonger , not Hong Kees ….always talk big about environment protection pretending holy yet has no respect for other people..what a disgraceful loser…


Politicians, they just dont cares about environment when it comes to what they called ‘development’…


Go and use well water, and candle and walk


The Malaysian authorities esp. in Penang are at the genius level. To finance an inland project (with demand exaggerated), just reclaim land from the sea. Ditto for a large airport. Other countries can learn from us.


What we have, we want to destroy. From living cultural heritage assets to natural bestowal. Eg. the tussle to ‘control & bastardise’ heritage zone development by greed-induced commercial interests supported by state power leading to disappearance of intangible assets. Experimentation of coastal beaches with a theme park (that failed) that didn’t understand the tides & seasons of the seas. Quiet botaking of a hill top until public outcry from as far as the mainland who witnessed from the Penang Bridge. And now, the itchy intention to change another coastline + sea which is a main seafood source in the northern… Read more »

Switch Machine

Endangered species need to be protected. Wild Malayan Tigers, Tapirs, and Black Bears (goodness sake became a pet in KL condo?). Don’t destroy them. Create a man-made safe haven closest to their habitat. Pulau Jerejak can create a specific park for them without a theme if this word is too sensitive. Money earned from visitors can be used to nourish them, win win for commercialists and environmentalists.

Fang Yang

Is pipit endangered? Helang is preying on them?


the local fishermen are on their way to become instant millionaire, that is the real “golden zone” for you…once in a life time chance ,take it or leave it…hehe

Switch Machine

Readers do read Anil’s Kampung Buah Pala aka Penang High Chaparral saga
Now fishermen can ask for equal or better compensation????


Fishermen see the Penang turtle island lays 3 golden eggs, their subsequent generations no more fishing in the sea for livelihood, but serving the rich in the F&B/tourism sector for income?

Switch Machine

This is my 3rd comment of the day so should not be under moderation for too long.
Many tourism marketing gurus of the 80s and 90s must have mindset paradigm shift now in 5G AI era. Some worth preserving some new ones need to explore. E.g. why more expensive bubble tea has become new generation choice over traditional chendol?

Fang Yang

Don’t fall into the hype of bubble tea.
Young people should find other means of relieving their stress, not drinking that sugary drink with high calories!