Preserving our ocean’s jewels

by | Feb 19, 2024 | Local News | 0 comments

“The need to restore coral reefs is evident, not only for marine life but also for the livelihood and food security of coastal communities.”

SABAH is facing an increasing menace of fish bombing, with multiple incidents reported each year. Also known as blast fishing, this illegal method is disastrous for the marine ecosystem, leaving a lasting scar and posing a significant danger to human lives.

In March 2020, a 16-year-old boy lost his life in a fish bombing explosion. Another incident occurred in July 2019, claiming the lives of three divers due to a fish bomb blast.

The fish bomb, crafted from commonplace items, such as kerosene, nitrate fertilisers and handmade fuse in glass bottles, has the power to wipe out coral reefs and the vibrant fish communities living within.

Combatting fish bombing is just one aspect of coral reef protection, and although challenging, it is achievable.

Together with government agencies and enforcement authorities, the World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) has collectively improved the management of TMP, Malaysia’s largest multi-use marine park, over the years by incorporating a signature science-based approach, and advocating care among coastal communities.

Since 2016, WWF-Malaysia has worked diligently with TMP’s lead agency, Sabah Parks, to establish a balanced approach to park management, ensuring that economic opportunities align with marine conservation goals.

Blast detectors have been strategically placed in identified fish bombing hotspots, and enforcement authorities have intensified their surveillance efforts.

Recognising that fish bombing is a complex social issue, WWF-Malaysia has highlighted alternative livelihoods, helping coastal communities to establish businesses, and channelling profits back into marine conservation.

Encouragingly, from October 2019 to March 2022, the number of blasts recorded in TMP showed a promising 47.1% reduction, thanks to the TMP Anti-Fish Bombing Ground Task Force and the Joint Sabah Khazanah Operation.

Destruction, wrought by shipping vessels, and climate change remain the two main challenges in the coral reef saga of TMP.

In 2019, the pristine waters of Kalampunian Island in TMP witnessed an unusual sight – a huge cargo ship. Hindered by a malfunctioning navigation device, the vessel became ensnared in the shallow waters of the Marine Protected Area, its keel lodging onto a thriving, ancient and economically crucial coral ecosystem.

The unfortunate incident destroyed not just corals but also erased years of marine conservation efforts. In the aftermath, Sabah Parks initiated an investigation under the Sabah Parks Enactment 1984, leading to the closure of the area for further examination.

In addition, rising sea temperatures and acidifying oceans are turning coral reefs into ghostly white spectres. Although there have been no recorded mass bleaching events in TMP thus far, the looming threat of climate change to our marine ecosystem is undeniably real.

Our team is on the ground, closely monitoring the coral condition and sea surface temperature in TMP.

In 2021, divers from WWF-Malaysia, Sabah Parks, Banggi Coral Conservation Society and Kudat Turtle Conservation Society conducted reef check surveys.

The findings were disheartening, revealing that live coral cover comprised only 5.8% in excellent condition, with 44.2% in good condition, 44.2% in fair condition and 5.8% in poor condition.

The need to restore coral reefs is evident, not only for marine life but also for the livelihood and food security of coastal communities.

Following the coral reef destruction, numerous coral fragments were left behind. These “corals of opportunity”, including corals broken off the reef due to wave action or storms, can serve as a key to coral restoration.

‘Star’ attraction

In 2022, the European Union-funded Ocean Governance Project united various stakeholders for a coral restoration project in TMP. Over 100 people from government agencies, community-based organisations, non-government organisations and tourism operators were involved.

Coral fragments were carefully processed and placed on frames using a pioneering approach known as the Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System. This method proved to be effective, time-saving and easily scalable. It involved cultivating coral fragments on expansive frames coated in coral sand, which over time, developed into larger reef structures. The frame, structured in a hexagonal form, is aptly named “Reef Star”.

Approximately 1,512 square metres of degraded reef area near Maliangin Kecil Island, Pitas Floating Coral Bar and Tajau Laut were revitalised with 1,300 units of Reef Stars, restoring 18,600 coral fragments from over 30 species.

The impact is evident as fish populations are rebounding. After six months, one of four coral restoration sites showed a remarkable increase of 9.9% in live coral cover and a 20-fold increase in total fish biomass, all thanks to Reef Stars.

“Coral restoration is a challenging task, and it requires a collective effort. I am grateful to see many people coming together to install Reef Stars in my village’s water. We will work tirelessly to monitor and maintain these groups of coral frames for years to come,” said the owner of Tajau Laut Guest House, Junaidi Awang Bulat.

The coral restoration project has laid a solid foundation for Sabah Parks to continue in the ongoing efforts to restore coral reefs in TMP, simultaneously implementing measures to reduce local stressors on this marine habitat.

In a workshop held in October, stakeholders came together to forge the TMP Coral Restoration Roadmap, marking a historic commitment to strengthening coral ecosystems.

Park manager from Sabah Parks, Norhaslam, said: “The TMP Coral Restoration Roadmap is the first of its kind in Sabah. It also shows our commitment to work with other representatives across civil societies, community members, tourism operators and others to further strengthen our coral and marine ecosystems.”

If you have witnessed the scars of fish bombs and coral bleaching, remember that dedicated individuals are working tirelessly to protect our planet’s treasures. Together with our partners and community champions, we strive to expand marine conservation efforts, establishing more Marine Protected Areas such as TMP.

Working shoulder to shoulder, we aim to conserve 30% of Malaysia’s seas and coasts by 2030. In the grand tapestry of our world, where coral reefs are the most vibrant threads, let us all do our part to ensure they continue to thrive – so that humanity can “just keep swimming” in our only planet.

The article was contributed by the Marine Programme, World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia. Comments: