WORLD-renowned dive haven Sipadan is on a break from humans.
Its sea beds, coral, fish and other marine ecosystems are taking a breather from activities such as scuba diving when Sabah Parks officials decided to close the island for a month starting Nov 1.
Researchers feel that the one month is insufficient for Sipadan’s marine ecosystem to fully recover, but feel that a short “rest” is better than non-stop “work” for this pristine sea world.
During a recent study of the area by Muhammad Ali Syed Hussein and Dr Zarinah Waheed of Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Borneo Marine Research Institute, they noticed some coral rubble patches, particularly in a few dive sites like Barracuda Point and Mid Reef.
These patches could be from natural causes, such as storms or cumulative human impact over time, said Zarinah.
She said determining the exact cause was challenging due to infrequent surveys.
“Over the past 20 years, subtle changes in the fish population have been observed but there is a noticeable difference in the abundance of fish life, which includes smaller schools of fish and smaller fish sizes compared to earlier times,” she said.
Zarinah said while coral reefs are essential for the ecosystem, it is the large iconic marine life such as sharks, barracuda, jacks and turtles that are the stars of Sipadan.
“As with other well-known attractions, expectations from dive communities are high. To avoid negative publicity due to poor visitor satisfaction, there is a need to minimise negative impacts on Sipadan,” she said.
Therefore, well-planned management to ensure the main attractions are not affected is needed, she said.
Zarinah said since there is a high demand, dive quotas have been increased over time to accommodate the popularity of Sipadan’s coral reefs.
She said the presence of divers and other visitors can increase direct anthropogenic impacts on the island and its surrounding reefs through groundwater extraction, marine traffic and underwater interactions between humans and animals.
She hopes the month-long closure of Sipadan to visitors will provide a short respite, saying closing an ecosystem for any period can be beneficial, provided there are no stressors to the ecosystem during that time.
“While one month may not allow for the coral reef ecosystem to fully recover, it can have some positive effect by offering temporary relief from potential tourism-related stressors such as physical damage,” said Zarinah.
During the one-month “break”, there will be fewer people using the island’s resources, including freshwater for showers and toilets, she pointed out.
She said this reduction potentially helps restore the groundwater table of the island, and the longer the duration of the closure from human access, the better.
Nevertheless, it is important to conduct regular monitoring before and after the closer to assess its impact on the reef, Zarinah said.
“Additional pressures are exerted on Sipadan from activities taking place in Greater Semporna and the Celebes Sea,” she noted.
Zarinah said despite Sipadan being known as an oceanic island located in deeper waters off the continental shelf, it is in reality only 28km from the coast.
Therefore, uncontrolled discharge of waste and sedimentation from the mainland and surrounding areas could further impact the island, she said.
Fishing activities in the vicinity of Sipadan could also affect the abundance of fish that migrate within the area and beyond, she added.
Zarinah said ultimately, it is essential to strike a balance between conserving the coral reef and island ecosystem and allowing responsible and sustainable tourism that can contribute to local economies while promoting environmental awareness.
As researchers, they hope to see thriving fish populations back in Sipadan although in reality, a month-long break alone is not a magic cure for all the issues facing Sipadan, she said.
“But it has to be seen as part of the process to ensure the sustainability and well-being of the island and its coral reef,” she said.
Managing human activities around the coral reef and island ecosystem should be an ongoing process, considering the dynamic nature of these ecosystems, she added.