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Tuesday September 26, 2006

Checking on the reefs

A new project hopes to tap into the force of volunteers to monitor reef health, reports TAN CHENG LI. 

SOME 3,600sqkm of coral reefs fringe Malaysian coasts and islands. This makes up a mere 1.27% of the world’s reefs but plays a major ecological role, providing nursery and breeding ground for marine animals. However, much of this underwater rainforest remain unchartered and unexplored.  

Worse, we do not even know how these reefs are faring – are they still pristine or have they succumbed to the ill effects of coastal reclamation and development, unbridled island tourism, marine pollution and overfishing?  

The Marine Parks Division has long ignored the task of scrutinising coral reefs, leaving the job to scientists and conservation bodies. Hence, surveys have been piecemeal and occasional, depending on interest, fund availability and intermittent scientific studies by universities. 

Consequently, little is known about the health of our reefs. Yet, they face much pressure. In 2002, the report Reefs At Risk found 85% of Malaysian reefs to be under medium to high level of threats from mostly human activities. 

A group of individuals hope to change all that and has set up Reef Check Malaysia to make reef monitoring an annual – and if possible, quarterly – exercise.  

Divers doing a reef check.
Project manager Julian Hyde says a review of records shows that 50 reef sites have been assessed previously, but most not on a regular basis and some, not for a long time.  

“So there is no baseline data for comparisons to see if the reef has degraded and no good information for making management decisions. 

“With Reef Check Malaysia, we hope to get a co-ordinated thing going, so you get more people, more surveys and more useful information.” 

To do the job, the group hopes to exploit a vast store of labour out there – the sport diving fraternity. By using keen and available volunteers, more data can be gathered over a wider area than scientists are able to on their own. Involving the public in assessing reef health also encourages people to take responsibility for their local reefs. 

Relying on volunteers to inspect reefs is the unique feature of Reef Check, an ocean conservation programme founded by a marine biologist in the United States in 1996. Reef Check employs a simple survey method designed for use by non-scientists. Divers basically record species which have been identified as indicators of a healthy reef, such as live corals, butterfly fish, groupers, sweetlips, humphead wrasses banded coral shrimps, giant clams, sea cucumbers, triton shells and lobsters.  

The Reef Check method is used to monitor reefs in 70 countries, and the findings are compiled into a global coral reef status report.  

Reef Check is not entirely new in Malaysia, however. Various individuals and the Malaysian Nature Society had employed the survey method in the past. In 2001, Reef Check appointed a co-ordinator for Malaysia, who has carried out a number of training and awareness activities. But a lack of funds and manpower prevented the programme from taking off like it has in Indonesia and the Philippines. 

Hyde’s group plans to train the staff of dive centres on the Reef Check survey method who will in turn instruct their divers. The first training is targeted for February. Hyde, a dive instructor who also runs a dive centre in Tioman, says many recreational divers have expressed interest in volunteering for reef checks as it is one way to contribute to marine conservation, apart from giving them new skills.  

Surveys will initially cover the islands of Perhentian, Redang and Tioman, before extending elsewhere. Reef Check Malaysia will analyse the collected data and make it available to all. Currently, such findings, more often than not, stays with the researchers instead of being disseminated for lack of a sharing mechanism and single repository of information.  

Hyde says the group will not be a profit-making entity. A grant of RM115,000 from the British Government has got it started but more funds and support are needed, particularly from corporations which are now involved in marine conservation efforts. 


  • For information, contact Reef Check Malaysia ( 03-2164 5407 or e-mail reefcheckmalaysia@gmail.com). 

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