GEORGE TOWN: Illegal salvagers have plundered scrap metal from at least five shipwrecks, including two Japanese World War II vessels, off Penang waters since early this year and their activities have gone undetected by the authorities.
The unscrupulous salvagers were believed to have “cleared up” at least two wrecks – the Japanese gunboat Chosa Maru, called Kapal Jepun by locals, which sunk in August 1943, and Japanese light cruiser Kuma that went down on January 1944 – and have taken away metal worth millions.
The other three wrecks that are being salvaged are Japanese warship Haguro, Kapal Taiwan and Kapal Simen, which are all located off Kendi Island.
More than the value of the metal is the value of the wrecks as artificial reefs where fish thrive.
The Penang Malaysia Tourism board had, in December last year, launched a fishing tourism promotion at the wrecks off Penang as part of Visit Malaysia Year.
Fishing organiser Wan Hayazy Nayan said the promotion would simply be a waste of public funds as there would be no more wrecks off Penang.
He said it was pointless for the Malaysia Tourism Board to promote wrecks off Penang as a haven for anglers when it allowed the sites to be plundered.
Wan Hayazy said he had alerted the Marine Department when he and his friends chanced upon the salvage work but was surprised by the “lackadaisical attitude” of the authorities.
Northern Region Marine Department director Abdul Aziz Mahmud told The Star the agency had no knowledge of any salvage operations off Penang.
“The department has not issued any permission to any company to conduct recovery or salvage operations in Penang waters. The relevant parties must report all salvage activities to us,” he said.
He deemed the operations illegal and said the department had launched an investigation.
A source said the salvagers used barges and a crane to “fish” the wrecks out.
“Because these vessels have been underwater for so long, the crane would hover around the wreck and yank chunks of the metal from the rusty ships. The task of pulling pieces of metal from the rusty ships is relatively easy as the wrecks are brittle and easily snap into chunks.”
The source said the illegal operators would operate for two to three days, round-the-clock, on each visit to the site.
According to the source, anglers had spotted the illegal operators at Kuma three times and at least twice at the Chosa Maru. The last time anglers spotted the illegal activity at Kuma was on May 9.
The source said they estimated the illegal salvagers would “fish” between 80 and 100 tonnes of scrap metal from the wrecks on a single visit. This would then be sold to scrap metal operators.
“The old metal from the shipwrecks is sold at RM600 per tonne. The price could be even higher, depending on the condition of the metal,” said the source.
The source said there was money from these old wrecks as the metal was not entirely rusted.
Kumo was a 5,182-tonne vessel, Chosa Maru 2,538 tonnes, and Haguro 13,500 tonnes. The ships also carried cannons, anchors and other weapons onboard.