Published: Tuesday June 26, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday May 29, 2013 MYT 6:37:38 PM

Protecting Malaysia's richly diverse seascape

The twin scourge of tourism and pollution is slowly denuding our underwater rainforest.

OUR coral reefs are slowly losing their shine. That, more or less, sums up the condition of this underwater realm, said to rival tropical rainforests in terms of species diversity.

Surveys by volunteer divers show that our reefs have only “fair” coverage of live hard and soft corals. In fact, coral cover has declined over the last three years, from 49.94% to 42.57% last year. Sponges, algae, recently killed corals, rocks, rubble, sand and silt make up the rest of the reefs. (Coral coverage of 51% to 75% is considered “good” and above that, “excellent”.)

Some reefs are smothered by algae, pointing to nutrient pollution that is likely to have come from poor sewage treatment. Many species of fish which are routinely used to gauge healthy reefs were absent during the surveys carried out by volunteers trained in the Reef Check survey method.

Founded in 1996, Reef Check is an international coral reef monitoring programme involving volunteer recreational divers and marine scientists. The local chapter, Reef Check Malaysia, was set up in 2007. It runs several programmes dedicated to coral reef conservation and its annual reef survey is now going into its sixth year.

Reef scrutiny

It is important to monitor reefs on a regular basis, as changes can then be detected and corrective action taken to avert further deterioration of the reef. Last year, 100 surveys were completed – 52 covered islands off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Bidong, Kapas, Perhentian, Redang, Tenggol, Tioman and Yu), while 48 were at the Lankayan, Mataking and Mabul islands in Sabah, and Miri in Sarawak.

To see how reefs are faring, divers observe the substrate cover (whether it is live or dead corals, rubble or sand) and look for “indicator species” which include certain species of fish and invertebrates. They also note down damage to the reef caused by coral bleaching, anchoring, destructive fishing methods and pollution.

In its recently released report, Reef Check Malaysia states that table fish such as sweetlips, Barramundi cod and grouper, as well as giant clams and lobsters, were seen only in low numbers in many reefs, an indication of current or historical fishing pressure. Bumphead parrotfish were a rare sight too while humphead wrasses, which are netted for the live fish trade, were not recorded in a single site. On a more positive note, butterfly fish were fairly common – a good indication of low collection pressure for the popular aquarium fish. The high numbers seen at some sites reflect the fairly healthy status of these reefs as the fish thrive in areas with flourishing corals.

The abundance of these indicator fish species has changed little over the past three years – possibly due to low abundance in the first place and difficulties in monitoring them. What is clear, however, is that the population of these species has not grown over the last three years. So Reef Check Malaysia advocates greater protection of coral reefs and fishing restrictions to aid recovery of the fish population. It says the absence of some fish species has dire consequences for reefs. For instance, parrotfish, being herbivores, are important for protecting corals from a proliferation of algae.

Several marine invertebrates which are sought after for the aquarium and curio trade – such as pencil and collector urchins and triton shells – were absent in all the surveys conducted in the peninsula. Sea cucumbers, widely collected for food and medicinal use, have also become uncommon. Although known to be uncommon in some of the sites, the rarity of these species suggests that small populations might have been affected by previous over-harvesting activities and are recovering very slowly.

Tourists’ footprints

Island tourism has grown massively, but without the ensuing supporting infrastructure such as sewage treatment, garbage disposal and ecologically mindful construction. Reefs off the east coast have high levels of algae, suggesting nutrient pollution. This, coupled with low herbivorous fish populations (which feed on the algae), can spell disaster for the reef. Algae is a natural and essential part of the reef but if allowed to grow unchecked, can smother corals, cutting off the sunlight they need for photosynthesis.

Algae-smothered reefs were most extensive off islands with many resorts and villages, namely Perhentian, Redang and Tenggol. Fuelling the algal growth is the discharge of raw or inadequately treated sewage from these facilities. This is consistent with data from the Department of Environment, which shows Escherichia coli (a bacteria associated with raw sewage) contamination in waters off islands and marine parks.

Eventually, the shift from coral- to algae-dominated reefs can reduce the tourism appeal of these places. Most resorts and village houses on the islands rely on septic tanks which, if not correctly designed and maintained, can overflow, releasing sewage into the sea. To improve sewage treatment on the islands, the report recommends that state governments establish a system for regular desludging of septic tanks to ensure that they operate effectively. This will be cheaper and less disruptive than constructing big, centralised sewage treatment facilities.

Plenty of trash

Growing visitor numbers has also left many islands with a garbage problem. Only Pulau Tioman has a trash incinerator. At the other islands, garbage is shipped to the mainland for disposal but sometimes, ends up indiscriminately dumped or buried in secluded corners and eventually, gets washed into the sea. Waste segregation needs to be encouraged among resort operators and villagers, as it will allow for easier recycling of valuable waste, composting of organic waste and separation of hazardous wastes (such as used engine oil and batteries). To promote better waste management and reduce littering, there should be more education and awareness campaigns.

Reef Check Malaysia also voices concern over the mushrooming of resorts and tourism infrastructure, such as jetties. It says if poorly planned and lacking in environment protection measures, construction activities can be destructive to the marine realm. Resort development should be managed to ensure minimum land clearing, otherwise, silt will cloud up the sea and smother reefs. Jetties should be sited where they will have the least impact on water movement, and should not be built directly on reefs. It is also important for tourists to be briefed and supervised by tour operators on “reef etiquette”, to minimise their impact on coral reefs. Harmful actions include touching and standing on corals, and littering.

Harmful fisheries

Illegal fishing around some islands, particularly Perhentian and Tenggol, often occur during the monsoon season when visitor numbers drop and enforcement patrols are restricted by the rough sea.

In Sabah and Sarawak, dynamite fishing is still rampant and has reduced many reefs to rubble, as observed in the islands of Mataking and Pom Pom off Sabah. The devastation is long-lasting as it will be years before the reefs regenerate.

The growing population in Sabah and Sarawak is also raising fishing pressure, with commercial trawlers sweeping up fish from the reefs in some areas. Bumphead parrotfish, the last large fish species in Miri, are commonly sold in the local fish market. In the Lahad Datu market, traders tout the meat of giant clams.

Educational programmes for local populations are needed to curb the use of bombs to fish, and to create awareness on the economic importance of reefs for future generations. Presently, large areas of coral reefs in Sabah and Sarawak remain unprotected. Gazetting more reefs as protected areas, and ensuring effective enforcement, can reduce threats such as dynamite fishing.

Another threat to reefs comes in the form of silt from the mainland. Sabah and Sarawak are drained by long rivers, resulting in huge outflows of sediment into the sea. During surveys, divers detected layers of silt covering corals. They also saw accelerated algal growth in reefs formerly free of the plants. This is linked to fertiliser-laced run-offs from oil palm plantations.

Reef Check Malaysia asserts that managing and reducing local threats such as dynamite fishing, over-fishing and damaging tourism development, will ensure coral reefs are healthy and resilient enough to face what is to come – climate change. Higher sea temperatures will lead to coral bleaching and ocean acidification. Reefs have barely recovered the massive coral bleaching event of 1998, which killed an estimated 40% of corals in reefs around the peninsula, before soaring sea temperatures in 2010 again caused the corals to expel the life-supporting and colourful algae that live within their tissues (a phenomenon known as coral bleaching).

Scientists foresee more widespread coral bleaching as the world warms up. The Marine Parks Department and Reef Check Malaysia have prepared a bleaching response plan which includes tracking the severity of a bleaching event and closing off affected areas to tourists, to prevent more damage. Also, scientists are slowly recognising that reefs should be connected as this will provide a corridor to support coral larvae flow, and encourage the development of networks of marine protected areas rather than isolated ones. Such underwater connectivity will enable coral larvae to move from resistant and resilient reefs to damaged sites.

Monitoring of additional coral reefs, including those outside of marine parks, is essential to provide better information on the health of our reefs and fish stocks, asserts Reef Check Malaysia. This will help managers draw up improved management plans and fishing policies. Getting more locals, tour operators and tourists involved in reef monitoring will enhance the sense of ownership and responsibility while creating awareness about the reefs. It also allows for large amounts of data to be collected at a lower cost.

Reef Check Malaysia trained 50 people – five of whom are officers with the Marine Parks Department – in the reef survey method last year. But with some 4,000 sqkm of reefs skirting the country’s coasts and islands, the group certainly could do with more help.

Reef Check Malaysia general manager Julian Hyde asserts that the laws to set up marine parks are in place; what is required now is heightened awareness among all related parties so as to improve legal compliance. “If more people understand how important reefs are, they will take a more active role in protecting them. I used to operate a dive centre on Tioman and I recognised that the reefs were my key business asset. Without the reefs, I would have no more customers, no more business. We need more people to start thinking like that so that conservation is embedded in the way they operate their businesses.

“Let’s not forget that reefs are valuable both ecologically and economically. They are an important source of biodiversity, not to mention an important habitat for marine species. Economically, they provide jobs for thousands of people in the fisheries and tourism industries. Once reefs are destroyed, these values are also gone, along with the food source and the jobs. But are we ever truly going to understand just how important reefs are to so many people? If we don’t, will we really commit to controlling these threats to allow damaged reefs to recover and become productive?”

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