Major outbreak of coral predator starfish detected off Lahad Datu

A bucket full of crown of thorns starfish.

KOTA KINABALU: Marine conservationists and government agencies are hard at work containing a major outbreak of crown of thorns starfish (COTS) off Sabah’s east coast Lahad Datu district.

The outbreak was detected in Darvel Bay, where hundreds of these coral predators are threatening to destroy reefs in the area.

Reef Check Malaysia (RCM), partnered with the Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry, has organised a COTS clean-up team to eradicate the outbreak before it is too late.

The outbreak response team also includes divers from Sabah Parks, the Lahad Datu Fisheries Department, Darvel Bay Diving Group and the NGO Larapan Youth.

RCM programme manager Nadhirah Mohd Rifai, one of the members of the outbreak response team, shared her experience handling COTS outbreaks over the years in Sabah.

“Although COTS is a natural predator of corals, major outbreaks such as the one happening now can cause major harm to the coral reefs,” she said on Friday (June 2).

“One COTS can consume an average of 13 sq m of reef per year.

“Imagine the potential damage that could be incurred by thousands of COTS,” she added.

The team collected 485 COTS at Pulau Balik on June 1 (Thursday) and will spend the next three days controlling the population of the invasive starfish species in Darvel Bay.

If the COTS had been feeding for months unattended, Nadhirah said, most of the corals would have been dead.

“We need to take immediate action to reduce the COTS population before they inflict irreversible damage.

“COTS outbreaks can be influenced by changes in the marine environment, such as reduced water quality and increase in water temperature.

“Due to overfishing, there are also fewer natural predators, such as the Giant Triton Snail and the Titan Triggerfish, to keep the number of COTS in check naturally,” she said.

Nadhirah said the team uses an efficient and reef-safe method for the clean-up, which is physically removing and burying the COTS on land.

Conveying RCM’s appreciation to the ministry for supporting the clean-up, she said an effective communication strategy was the key to the outbreak response plan.

She added that the response plan prepared by the RCM Sabah team was used to carry out the preparation for this activity by identifying different stakeholder groups and decision-makers.

“I am thrilled that we are able to do our part to keep our reef healthy and safe,” she said, as they finished the first day of the COTS clean-up.

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