SEMPORNA: Malaysia’s marine biologists say human factors can be ruled out as the cause of the mysterious skin disease plaguing sharks near popular dive spots in Sipadan Island near here, but further investigation is needed to find definitive answers to help the sharks.
Marine experts were prompted to conduct further investigations into the phenomenon but their efforts were limited to a short-term basis.
They need funds to support a long-term research on the disease, which reports have gone viral on the Internet.
Davies Austin Spiji, a senior marine biologist with non-profit conservation group Reef Guardian, said an investigating team led by Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) had conducted the first field work from April to early May.
Besides Davies, the team has five researchers – Dr Mabel Manjaji Matsumoto, Dr Rafidah Othman, Muhammad Ali Syed Hussein, Dr Zarinah Waheed and Dr Mohd Tamrin Mohd Lal – from the Borneo Marine Research Institute of UMS (BMRI-UMS).
“The researchers were able to see skin disease on the sharks they encountered, but could not catch the afflicted sharks to obtain samples of the affected skin for lab analyses on the microbes responsible for the disease.
“Human factors can be ruled out. Warming ocean could be one of the factors as the investigating team found the sea surface temperature at Sipadan had risen to 29.5°C in May, a degree higher than in 1985, but still more research is needed to find the answer.
“It will probably take two years at least to be able to fully monitor and address the diseased shark phenomenon,” he said.
Sipadan Island, which is 600m from the seabed, is home to around 400 species of fish and hundreds of coral species.
Named for the distinctive white tips on their fins, whitetip reef sharks are typically found resting in schools around reefs in the daytime and are a popular attraction for divers.
Davies said efforts to do further field sampling were hindered by a lot of factors, such as the movement control order restriction, lab closure and researchers’ reluctance to do sampling until they have been fully vaccinated.
“We will continue with data collection and gathering all the supporting information. The research team is actively seeking funds from elsewhere to support a longer-term multi-stakeholder effort on this issue,” he said.
Davies said the research team was supported by Sabah Parks officers and rangers based in Sipadan, adding that Sabah Parks, as the manager of Sipadan Island Parks, was providing seed funding to mobilise the research team.
He said the fund was sourced from the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI), namely Sabah’s grant under the CTI Sabah Goal 3: Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) Established and Effectively Managed flagship. — Bernama