Meet Kevin Hiew, Malaysia's protector of the seas

  • Environment
  • Friday, 24 May 2019

Back in the 1970s, the setting up of marine parks tended to evoke protests from state governments and fishermen. At that time, the idea of restricting fishing activities to a designated zone was thought to reduce income and incur loss of opportunities for the fishing industry.

In 1994, Kevin Hiew, who had joined the Fisheries Department some 20 years earlier, was transferred to head the Marine Park Section and given the task of setting up marine parks around the country. It was a mammoth task because, for the protected areas to work, a delicate balance was required in engaging various agencies in the federal and state governments and reaching a mutual agreement.

“Actually, I owe a big thank you to all my colleagues who gave me cooperation and assistance in getting this done.

"Then there was the issue of ‘no take zone’, in which certain areas were gazetted where no living thing could be taken out at all. At that time, there was unhappiness. The fishermen were used to fishing on coral reefs where the fish breed and forage.

Pioneering marine conservationist Kevin Hiew
Map of Pulau Payar Marine Park with it's surrounding marine park islands. This is one of protected areas Hiew set up. Photo: Filepic

“It was also difficult because the tourists did not understand and we needed the tour operators to tell the divers (to stay away from reefs),” Hiew recalls, admitting that at times, there were even signs of hostility.

As fish stocks – like salmon and tuna – all over the world were showing signs of collapse from overfishing even back then, many governments were eager to find sustainable methods to harvest the seas using methods such as minimum catch-size and quotas. Marine parks, areas protected by legislation, were promoted as a way to conserve important fish habitats and breeding grounds.

Though Hiew was pioneering the setting up of marine parks, he could look to protected terrestrial areas as examples, and setting those up usually took years as state governments needed to reconcile their concerns over loss of revenue and development opportunities.

There were also internal challenges as the Fisheries Department at that time was primarily focused on increasing fisheries production rather than marine biodiversity conservation. There was also little public awareness about the role of coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and other marine ecosystems in protecting fisheries resources and maintaining healthy seas.

Through diplomacy, patience and with help from the respective state fisheries directors, Hiew managed to push through the gazettement of protected marine areas around 42 islands in the waters off Johor, Kedah, Labuan, Pahang and Terengganu.

“By the time that I retired, we managed to get the cooperation to manage the parks,” says Hiew, who also expressed his gratitude to former members of WWF-Malaysia for helping to get local stakeholders, communities, tour and resort operators and fishermen to cooperate with the authorities to manage the parks.

This is a considerable achievement but Hiew downplays it, saying that it was his duty to serve the government and people. Today, whenever Hiew meets fishermen near the protected areas – like those around Pulau Payar off Langkawi – he draws satisfaction from hearing how the coral reefs have contributed to securing their livelihood.

Scientific studies have now proved that protected marine areas are important for sustaining fisheries by helping, for example, to increase the size of fish in a fisherman’s catch in surrounding areas. Although this was something not foreseen initially, it did make a lot of sense to sustainable fishery practitioners afterwards, with marine refuges having allowed some fish to grow bigger and reproduce more. When these fish disperse, it benefits fishermen in neighbouring areas.

Hiew, who retired after 28 years in government service, has continued to pursue his conservation interest, joining NGOs such as WWF-Malaysia and ReefCheck Malaysia to promote scientific research, policies and advocacy for conservation. He has worked on various projects such as the transboundary Coral Triangle Initiative that protects rich coral areas in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.

In July, Hiew will receive the prestigious Edward T. LaRoe III Memorial Award from the international non-profit Society for Conservation Biology (SCB). Traditionally given to an individual who has been a leader in translating principles of conservation biology into real world conservation, the award will be presented during the International Congress for Conservation Biology at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

Running from July 21 to 25, the congress is themed “Conservation beyond boundaries: Connecting biodiversity with communities, governments and stakeholders”.

SCB-Malaysia president Dr Wong Ee Phin said in a statement that, “It is amazing that at 73, Hiew is still contributing to conservation efforts in various capacities, including as a mentor and an inspirational figure to the younger generation of biodiversity conservationists in Malaysia.

“The recent Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report highlighted one million species may face extinction and that has terrible repercussions for human survival on this planet.

“We definitely need more ‘unassuming heroes’ like Hiew in all layers of governance, working with diverse stakeholders to take pragmatic steps and make conservation happen.”

Asked to comment on his past work, Hiew eschews reminiscing and emphasises his green concerns instead: “The conservation of marine areas is not only vital for protecting our biodiversity richness but is important for our fisheries and food security as well.” Hiew is aware that marine conservation still has a long way to go in Malaysia. He may have retired but clearly his mind is still on unfinished work.

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