Malaysia plans to do more to protect our coral reefs and marine life

Healthy coral reefs in the Tun Tun Mustapha Marine Park located off the north coast of Sabah. — ERIC MADEJA/WWF-Malaysia

Malaysia has an extensive coastline of 4,675km in total and is hemmed in on all sides by seas – the Straits of Malacca, the Sulu Sea, the South China Sea and the Andaman Sea. And all these waters are located within the Coral Triangle, a rich marine ecosystem with nearly 600 species of corals and more than 2,000 species of fish.

While we have a number of marine parks that help to protect Malaysia’s part of this crucial area of biodiversity, we need to do more, says the Fisheries Department.

Malaysia is supposed to set aside at least 10% of our coastal and marine environs as marine protected areas (MPAs) by the end of this year to meet one of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. However, with 25,357.9sq km currently gazetted as MPAs, we are only at 5.3%. (The targets are a part of the Convention on Biological Diversity that Malaysia has been a party to since 1994; Aichi is the Japanese city where the meeting that agreed on the targets was held.)

This is why there are plans to gazette the Kepulauan Pulau Besar in Melaka, Kepulauan Pulau Lima in Johor, Kepulauan Pulau Song Song in Kedah and Tanjung Tuan in Negri Sembilan as new marine parks under the Fisheries Act 1985, a spokesperson from the Fisheries Department says.

Marine moneymaker

According to the department, marine parks are vital as breeding grounds for fish and other marine life, and for providing various important ecosystem services such as the sequestration of carbon dioxide, maintaining genetic diversity, offering coastal protection and regulating climate effects.

Within Malaysian MPAs, all human activities are regulated to minimise threats to biodiversity; this includes a one- or two-nautical mile “no-take zone” from the shore where fishing is prohibited. All of this offers vital and much needed protection to coral reefs.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world has lost 27% of its coral reefs and if present rates of destruction continue, 60% will die over the next 30 years. And scientists warn that half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016 due to an increase in ocean temperatures brought about by climate change.

Much of the coral reefs in Malaysia, however, have so far proven fairly resilient; in fact, the reefs in the Straits of Malacca, says WWF-Malaysia, have an economic value of RM2.3bil.

If biodiversity conservation is not a compelling enough reason to increase the country’s MPAs, then the economics of marine parks might be.

For instance, in 2018 Pulau Payar (off Kedah) collected RM2.3mil in conservation fees from 102,700 visitors, of whom most were foreign tourists. The area has the potential to generate RM174mil a year, says a Fisheries Department spokesperson.

The overall number of visitors to Malaysia’s marine parks averages 650,000 annually, showing that the marine ecotourism sector in Malaysia has high potential.

“The diversity and uniqueness of marine life preserved via MPAs can attract visitors, especially diving and snorkelling enthusiasts, and fuel tourism, ” he says.

Local communities are also given opportunities to earn an income when waters surrounding their islands are gazetted as MPAs.

“Tourist entries to marine parks will also indirectly increase the income of local communities, as they can provide services such as lodgings and food.”

Management matters

The Fisheries Department currently manages 42 MPAs and seven fisheries prohibited areas and turtle sanctuaries in waters surrounding the peninsula. (Sabah Parks manages the state’s seven marine parks while Sarawak’s eight marine parks are managed by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation.)

To achieve its target of 10% of marine environs under MPAs, the department needs support and cooperation at all three government levels involved in the management of marine parks around the peninsula: federal, state and local governments.

The federal government is responsible for the overall management of peninsula marine parks (and the federal territory of Labuan) as well as drafting and implementing policies. However, the development of marine park islands is under the jurisdiction of the state governments, whose plans are implemented by local authorities.

“There is a need for coordination and cooperation to ensure that plans for development and conservation do not contradict each other, ” says a Fisheries Department spokesperson.

Making local connections

Other than adding more MPAs, the department is focusing on good governance and effectively managing the MPAs while working with local communities. This is an important part of ensuring the protected areas remain protected.

When the first of the country’s marine parks were established in the 1980s, there was much backlash from state governments and local fishermen. Nowadays, the department carries out various initiatives that involve local communities and residents to ensure that does not happen.

“We brought in biodiversity conservation devices like artificial reefs that function as a breeding ground for fishes and a source of standing stock for the fishing community, ” the department’s spokesperson says, explaining that spillover effects from within the MPA into fishing activity zones outside can help ensure commercial fish stocks are maintained.

Alternative livelihood programmes, such as courses on boat steering, boat engine repairs and tour guiding, are also conducted to build capacity within local communities. This is to reduce their dependence on fishing activities to make a living.

Pulau Payar Marine Park in Langkawi. — Tourism MalaysiaPulau Payar Marine Park in Langkawi. — Tourism Malaysia

Awareness and educational programmes are also carried out continuously with these communities to increase their support and cooperation with the department and to curb activities that can threaten the reefs.

The effectiveness of these measures can be seen in the higher live coral cover of 51.14% noted between 2007 and 2018 within the 42 MPAs the department manages compared with the national average of 33.56% in non-marine park areas.

“The department also works with state and federal governments, as well as non-governmental organisations such as Reef Check Malaysia to monitor coral reef health using the citizen science method, ” the spokesperson says.

Besides gazetting more MPAs, the department’s other long-term objectives include establishing a National Marine Park Research Centre to gather more scientific data for effective management of marine parks as well as building the capacity of its researchers. The centre will also provide a platform for collaboration with other research institutions.

It also plans to widen its partnerships with stakeholders, including local communities, federal and state government agencies, NGOs, local business owners, research institutions, and more.

“Other initiatives include realigning the department’s main focus towards the conservation and protection of our aquatic resources.

According to the spokesperson, the Fisheries Department is also looking into future objectives: “The plan is to also transform ‘business as usual’ and target proactive actions and innovative mechanisms, such as smart partnerships, implementing Industrial Revolution 4.0 tools, inculcating a sense of urgency in the work culture across administrative levels, and addressing bureaucracy within the department and in inter-agency cooperation efforts.”

Looking to the future

Malaysia’s success in managing marine parks has been recognised by the Coral Triangle Initiative, a multilateral partnership involving Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

It rated the Pulau Tioman marine park as a Category Four Flagship Site, which is defined as a “large, effectively-managed site with regional ecological, governance and socioeconomic importance” and which meets the highest level criteria for management effectiveness.

Pulau Tioman is a prime example of working with the local communities around it, with an estimated 3,500 residents having undergone major socioeconomic changes with the gazetting of the island and its waters as a marine park.

The beautiful  coral reefs of Pulau Tioman.The beautiful coral reefs of Pulau Tioman.

It is estimated that the island receives over 250,000 visitors every year. Despite the high number of visitors, though, it has one of the healthiest reefs in Malaysian water.

This is mainly because ecotourism is emphasised where anthropogenic (human-caused) threats are minimised in the daily operation of resorts, F&B outlets and dive centres.

Pulau Tioman, however, may be the exception rather than the rule: “Population increase and rapid development has made biodiversity conservation increasingly challenging.

“However, Malaysia is committed to conserving biological diversity and ensuring benefit-sharing that is fair and balanced in terms of the usage of biological resources usage.”

Indeed, under the National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016-2025, the Fisheries Department is obliged to protect – and where necessary, restore – ecosystems and habitats such as mangroves, seagrass, limestone hills, wetlands and coral reefs.

Malaysia’s biodiversity riches must be managed and conserved properly so the benefits can be passed down to the next generation, says the department.

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