The Spectacular Display Of Marine Life
At Penang Fisheries Aquarium

Penang Fisheries Aquarium – keeping the
seas alive for our children's children

Living coral reefs are the foundation of marine life, and thus a crucial support for human life, yet all over the world they are being destroyed. Already 10 percent are lost, and scientists say 70 percent of all corals on the planet will be destroyed in 20 to 40 years unless people get serious about saving the coral reefs now. (Paul
Kretkowski et al,

Appearing as solitary forms in the fossil record more than 400 million years ago, corals are extremely ancient animals that evolved into modern reef-building forms over the last 25 million years. Coral reefs are unique and complex systems. Rivaling old growth forests in longevity of their ecological communities, well-developed reefs reflect thousands of years of history. (The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the United States and Pacific, Turgeon and Asch).

These days, one cannot talk of ecosystems and biodiversity without also mentioning the impact of development on plant and animal life. For the most part, development and conservation cannot coexist easily and harmoniously.

Regulations are necessary to ensure the survival of the species, and the gazetting and conservation of natural parks is one of the more effective methods of damage control.

The biodiversity of marine life in the oceans surrounding Malaysia is varied, interesting and colourful. It is also very fragile and easily upset by careless handling, human greed and sudden changes in the environment. For example, The New Scientist magazine reported that spawning of coral reefs in Australia can be wiped out by even low levels of copper pollution in seawater.

Offshore reefs near the Philippines, according to Ocean Channel have been stripped and poisoned by cyanide and blast fishing. The productivity of the Philippines' reefs has declined by one third and about 30 percent of the reefs there have been declared dead. In China, Japan and Singapore, coastal development has had a negative impact on reefs.

Closer to home, we've seen how the sea in Port Dickson used to teem with life, but all that is mostly gone as a result of development. Likewise, the ecosystem of the sea around Batu Ferringhi has also been irreversibly altered.

Malaysia's coral habitat and the role played by the
Fisheries Research Institute (FRI)
According to the World Wildlife Fund, one of the most amazing and spectacular wonders of the marine world is the coral reef and its staggering variety of inhabitants  – rare gobies , bivalves, cephalopods, fishes, anemones and turtles. But due to decades of over-exploitation and the effects of pollution, reefs are highly threatened and their loss can be very detrimental to us all. Although coral reefs occupy less than one percent of the marine environment, they are home to more than 25 percent of all known fish species.

It is not surprising then that one of the main focus of the FRI is in coral habitats. According to the FRI librarian Puan Nor Hadzirah Ramli, the Institute's Aquatic Ecosystem Section has for many years conducted baseline and advanced research on biology and conservation of coral reefs, the latest being the baseline study for Pulau Layang-Layang in Sabah. Research is also done on different types of living and dead corals found in Malaysian waters and neighbouring countries, the aforementioned life forms and other micro-organisms that coexist with the polyp colonies.

I'm not sure if it is factually correct to describe the work of the FRI in Penang as 'biological conservation' but one of its key roles is to help the public, particularly the younger generation, develop an interest in marine life. It is hoped that through this appreciation, the significance of other subjects, such as the protection and conservation of marine biodiversity, will be better understood. Although there is no school outreach programs as yet, Puan Nor mentioned that group discounts are given to visitors, especially those from schools, when a request is made in writing. Busy periods are Thursday to Sunday when the aquarium receives visitors from
around the country.

The FRI aquarium
The are a total of 25 tanks, each one housing different kinds of marine life, among them the beautiful lion fish,
unusual looking boxfishes, moray eels, colourful tangs, surgeon fish, cat sharks, the stone fish which resembles a coral rock in shape and inertness (that is until an unwary small fish swims too close to its mouth), brilliantly hued angels, blue spotted stingray, fox face fish, parrot fish, squirrel fish, damsels, bivalves and
many others.

Different types of corals are also displayed, for example the bubble coral, brain coral, mushroom coral and sea
anemones, whose cluster of tentacles superficially resemble a flower.

One of the most fascinating examples of near-perfect symbiosis is the relationship between the clown fish and the meat-eating sea anemone. In the wild, the anemone is protected from polyp-eating fish, like the butterfly fish, which the clown fish chases away.

Additionally, the clown fish provides the anemone with food by 'herding' small fish into the anemone's tentacles. In return, the clown fish is protected from predatory fishes by the anemone's poisonous tentacles. Because of this close co-existence, the demand for clown fish in the aquatic trade has also resulted in the indiscriminate harvesting of anemones

The last tank, which measures approximately 15ft by 10ft and situated in a room which also doubles as an auditorium, is quite the most mesmerizing of all the displays. Huge fishes, like
snappers, groupers (one of which measured at least 4 ft in length), tudung periuks and
nyior nyior swim constantly alongside a solitary green turtle. Huge rocks add authenticity to the underwater setting.

According to Puan Nor (who gave the writer and photographer a guided tour of the facilities), the massive tank is cleaned twice monthly by removing three quarter of the water each time. She also disclosed that the marine animals are sourced as and when needed mainly from Sitiawan and Pangkor in Perak and previously Indonesia. Fishermen are also approached to provide
some of their more exotic finds.

The other tanks are cleaned once a week (Wednesday). The seawater which is used to fill the tanks undergoes a triple- filtering process before being used. The correct salinity and temperature is monitored. Such precautions are taken because marine life forms are more easily
upset by sudden changes than their freshwater cousins.

Sick fish are treated in the Aquarium's lab by officers from the nearby Fish Health Research centre with appropriate treatment. Because marine fishes are not easily bred in captivity, dead fish have to be replaced with new ones. Some may be taxidermied for posterity.

The tactile approach
While the fishes and corals in the aquarium are admired from a distance (for safety reasons), there is a section located outside which allows visitors to gently pick up and hold immature and
adult green turtles (Chelonia mydas).

The tactile approach has been proven to be quite effective in familiarizing humans with other life forms, be they reptiles, amphibians, arachnids or mammals. The tactile area also displays the green turtle in three different stages of growth – babies, bigger turtles and adult.

Two large ponds are home to a large school of sprightly koi or carps, patin (a type of catfish) and a humongous arapaima gigas. Visitors may feed the greedy koi with fish food that can be purchased for RM1 from the souvenir shop, which also sells t-shirts, key chains, trinkets, and knick-knacks featuring fish motifs. A canteen nearby serves food and drinks.

There is no entrance charge to the tactile area, souvenir shop, canteen or ponds.

As mentioned in the opening quote, coral reefs are painstakingly built over a long time – some experts claim as long as 450 million years. Over time, coral reefs have become the largest ecosystem ever known, sustaining and supporting over 1 million species worldwide.

WWF revealed that more than 80 percent of this natural wonder is under threat from coastal development, tourism and fishing. Malaysia is no exception. If we don't do something now to prevent the damage, the only marine creatures the future generation will know are what they see in pictures. Or from a sculpture made with sea shells, like the cockerel above.

Opening Hour:
The aquarium is opened daily (except on Wednesdays) from 10am to 5pm. Get a glimpse of this fascinating creature on the right and many others at the Fisheries

  • RM5 for adults
  • RM2 for children from 7 to 12 years
  • RM1.50 per head for school groups
  • There is no charge for children below 7

Other facilites
The FRI library has many scientific books and journals on fishery from around the world. All reference books are categorized using the Dewey decimal classification. Some of journals are subscription copies which the library receives regularly so you get the latest information.

There is also an internet-ready computer available. At the moment, the library is opened to the Department's researchers, outside academicians and students, the latter two with prior written permission.

Getting There:
The Fisheries Research Institute and Aquarium is located in Batu Maung, opposite the Batu Maung post office. You can get there by bus no. 69 (the yellow bus which goes by the name of Milan), by cab or private transport. The signs are quite clear and you can't miss the building

The Aquarium of the Fisheries Research Institute
11960 Batu Maung, Pulau Pinang
Tel: 04-626 3925 / 6 • Fax: 04-626 2210

Written by Raja Abdul Razak and photographed by Adrian Cheah
Courtesy of www.penang © All rights reserved