Major starfish outbreak detected

Coral threat: A diver carrying a bucketful of crown-of-thorns starfish from the bottom of the sea; (below) the crown-of-thorns starfish waiting to be buried. — Photo courtesy of Reef Check Malaysia

KOTA KINABALU: A concerted clean-up is underway in Darvel Bay, off Sabah’s east coast in Lahad Datu district, after a major outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) was detected.

Marine conservationists and government agencies are hard at work containing hundreds of those coral predators, which are threatening to destroy the coral reefs in the area.

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

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

RCM programme manager Nadhirah Mohd Rifai, a member 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 yesterday.

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

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

The team collected 485 COTS at Pulau Balik on Thursday and will spend the following 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 population of the COTS before they wreak any further irreversible damage,” she said.

She said COTS outbreaks could be influenced by changes in the marine environment such as reduced water quality and increased water temperature.

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

Nadhirah said the team used 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 state ministry for supporting the effort, she said an effective communication strategy was the key to the outbreak response plan.

She noted that the response plan prepared by the RCM Sabah team was used to identify different stakeholder groups and decision-makers.

“I am glad 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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