The Dying Reefs Of Malaysia

The country is facing challenges in protecting and conserving coral reefs. This is the first of three series that explores the issue.

Sakini Mohd Said Bernama 19 Nov 15;

KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- When Gress Anthony found that her employer had assigned her to a task in Pulau Tinggi, Johor, she was determined to avoid all water activities.

The 31-year-old was still traumatised from the time she went white water rafting in the Padas River of Sabah and nearly drowned.

It all changed the moment she set her eyes on the marine park at Pulau Tinggi. The clear aquamarine water revealed the aquatic world underneath, including the beautiful corals that live there. The weariness from the five-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to the island seemed to dissipate at the sight of it.

More importantly, it cured her fear of open water.

"The gorgeous view made me realise that it would be a shame to listen to my fears and miss out on the opportunity to explore the beauty of the marine life here," she said to Bernama.


Pulau Tinggi is one of the 13 islands gazetted as the Johor Marine Park.

It is known for the beauty of its colourful corals and diverse marine life. However, it is only one of the many islands in Malaysia with such an impressive marine ecosystem.

Today, 42 islands have been awarded the marine park status. Among them are Pulau Perhentian, Pulau Redang and Pulau Payar.

As of 2012, more than 500 species of corals from that ever recorded in the world can be found in the country. This makes Malaysia the country with the highest marine biodiversity in the region.


Therefore, it is unsurprising that nearly half a million tourists visit Malaysia's marine parks every year.

However, marine environmentalists have raised their concern that the high tourist arrivals might affect the conservation and preservation of coral reefs in the 4,006-sqkm marine park.

They fear that tourist activities may physically damage or degrade reefs and threaten its survival.

In addition to that, the rapid development of coastal zones, the unsystematic sewage management system and the lack of appreciation of some tour operators towards the environment also challenges the survival of rare and beautiful coral reefs.

It is sad to see that all of thes takes place in a marine park; an area that has been marked as a marine sanctuary, aimed at protecting and conserving aquatic life, said Alvin J.C, the programme manager of Reef Check Malaysia.


"Marine parks are important and popular tourism products. When tourist numbers increase, the probability of coral reefs getting damaged also increases. It is best to limit tourist arrivals," he said.

However, there are no regulations at the moment to limit the number of tourists into a marine park.

There are other rules, though, governing tourists who visit marine parks.

They are prohibited, among others, to step on or collect corals, to litter, feed the fish, engage in fishing activities and collect any flora or fauna from the marine parks.

However, not all tourists who come in are wary of the dos and don'ts and may unwittingly contribute to the destruction of coral reefs.


Reef Check Malaysia marine biologist Kee Alfian said that coral reefs and aquatic life are often threatened with damage caused by activities like diving and snorkeling.

"While we acknowledge that there are also natural threats such as the increasing temperature and acidity of seawater, it cannot be compared with the human threat, which occurs often, consistently and within a short period.

"We have to take control of this because we can. Natural threats are something that is harder to prevent," he said.

Irresponsible tour operators have regularly brought in large numbers of tourists into the water for snorkeling activities, with less than five people allocated to handle the crowd.

"These tourists are given snorkeling equipment and then left there without further explanation. They may be wearing life jackets, but not all of them know how to float properly, thus many of them stand and trample on the corals.

"They will think that all they are stepping on are stones when in reality they are standing on living organisms and may have killed them," he said.

This is an ecological disaster that should be taken seriously as coral reefs take up hundreds of years to form, but can be killed in mere seconds.


Their concerns were based on several studies by Reef Check Malaysia that proves the rapid development of tourism in the area as a threat to the survival of coral reefs.

Reef Check is the world's largest international coral reef monitoring programme involving volunteer recreational divers and marine scientists.

Corals have a way of surviving against natural threats. Some species may even be able to adapt to warmer oceans. However, the constant threat and damage caused by human beings reduces its chances of survival and ability to adapt to climate change.

For example, a study last year found that the poor management of the sewage pollution has resulted in it being discharged into coastal waters. The resulting nutrient enrichment in the waters promotes the growth of seaweed while threatening the survivability of corals.

"The sewage system is there but when it is not maintained, the waste would flow into the ocean, polluting it. This ultimately leads to the overgrowth of seaweed, which competes with the corals for space and light and eventually kills the latter," he explained.

Alvin lamented that there were also tour operators who emptied septic tanks into the oceans during the monsoon season.

"However, this year Indah Water Konsortium came for the first time to two villages in Pulau Tioman to help address the sewage water issue.


Great attention must be paid to the survival of coral reefs as they play a major role in the survival of marine life as well as humans.

This is because it is the breeding area and nursery for most of marine life, with 25 percent of the country's seafood source coming from it.

"Studies show that only 48.11 percent (as of 2014) live coral reefs are left in Malaysian waters. If they are not protected, the figure would go down.

"All development should be regulated and done sustainably. There should be stricter regulations and enforcment."


Protecting Marine Parks Easier Said Than Done
Can the Department of Marine Park Malaysia effectively protect the country's precious marine resources? This second of the three series on the country's marine parks explores the issue.

Sakini Mohd Said Bernama 19 Nov 15;

PUTRAJAYA (Bernama) -- A recent news report highlighted the concerns of an NGO of the impending decline of the country's fishing industry.

The World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) said that this was due to several pressing factors. Among them are the non-environmentally friendly methods of fishing, sea pollution and unsustainable coastal development, which all contribute to the marked degradation of coral reefs.

Coral reefs support more species than any other marine environment, making them of significant ecological importance to the survival of marine life.

WWF-Malaysia CEO Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma in a news report said that the RM8.79 billion fishing industry might see the extinction of popular seafood like groupers and snappers, unless sustainable ocean management practices were implemented.

"Just 10 percent of commercially valuable fish remain available for consumption after being largely fished out in the last fifty years," he said.

Quoting the "Living Blue Planet" report, Sharma said the destruction of the world's coral reefs have resulted in the global reduction of marine populations by half. Some fish species have declined by close to 75 percent, all of which have impacted the fishing industry.


Perhaps some would question how the statistics would impact them, as it did not specifically relate to Malaysia. However, the findings are more relevant than they think.

"Malaysia, with its expanse of open seas, is highly dependent on sea resources," said Robecca Jumin, the Marine Division Head of the Marine Programme of WWF-Malaysia.

In fact, in 2014, Malaysia surpassed Japan as one of the biggest consumer of fish and seafood in the region.

"On the average, every person in Malaysia consumes at least 56.5kg of fish every year," she said.

The government has tried to address the problem using various measures such as continual monitoring and enforcement operations.

However, a more pragmatic approach would be the gazetting of marine parks.

Robecca said that the waters around 42 islands in the country have been gazetted as marine parks. The move is for the protection and conservation of marine biodiversity, particularly coral reefs, which are essential to the propagation of aquatic life.

Thirteen islands have been gazetted as marine parks in Terengganu, nine in Pahang, four in Kedah, three in Labuan and 13 in Johor.


Marine parks were first established to address the decline of fishing resources around coral reefs.

Healthy coral reefs provide habitat, spawning and nursery grounds for most of young marine life until they are mature enough to go out into the open sea.

The Marine Parks Department Director General Dr Sukarno Wagiman said marine parks were a treasure trove of marine diversity with high socio-economic value.

This inevitably tempts many a rogue parties to trespass into the area and violate the regulations for economic gains.

This presents a challenge to the department as some of the breaches happen during permitted activities such as swimming, scuba diving and kayaking.

Unrestricted water recreational activities such as diving and snorkelling also have adverse effects on the ecosystem of coral reefs due to the collecting and trampling of corals.


To address the problem, the department is running a study with Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) on the "carrying capacity" of marine parks.

"The study lets us find out how many people can an area accommodate at a time (without ecologically disturbing it). For example, how many people should be permitted to go snorkelling at a time?

"The study has so far only been carried out on Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Redang. Perhaps next year, we can get a comprehensive report and from there a policy can be formed," said Sukarno.

However, the findings would still be subjected to the joint decision of the tourism industry, state government, local authorities and Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

This is because the business and tourism operator licensing authority lies outside the jurisdiction of the department.


The department has also split marine parks into four zones in the bid to protect the diminishing marine resources, namely for tourism/recreation, conservation, preservation and protection of habitats.

This is to ensure the survivability of coral reefs, which are a crucial part of the ecosystem of over 3,000 marine species.

"For example, the El Nino in 2010 caused severe bleaching of the corals in Malaysian waters.

"The department had to close down several areas and classify them as a conservation zone to let the diseased or dying corals recover naturally," he explained.

Twelve of the 83 diving sites at marine parks were closed in 2010 following the repercussions from the El Nino. However, 48.33 percent of the corals recovered by 2013.


In the bid to protect the biodiversity in marine parks, the department is teaming up with several marine authorities to curb illegal fishing activities in the area.

Among the agencies involved are the Fisheries Department, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the Royal Malaysia Police. The joint effort has resulted in 2,634 patrols in 2014.

"It is the Department of Marine Park's main duties to ensure the survivability and sustainability of marine biodiversity for the sake of the future generations," Sukarno said.

Besides patrols, the department also monitors the bottom of the sea for activities that can damage coral reefs such as fish shooting, collecting corals or stepping on them.

"We previously only monitored the ocean surface, but today we also monitor down to the bottom. This is to ensure that divers or snorkellers don't disturb marine life or drop their boat anchors onto corals," he explained.

There have been 566 of bottom sea patrols in 2014, resulting in a decrease of activities violating the Fisheries Act 1985.

As at September 2015, there have been 32 arrests in marine parks for the violation of the Act, involving RM29,850 in fines.

Marine parks are prohibited zones for any fishing activity under the Fisheries Act (Amendment)(1994) and anyone caught fishing in the prohibited area can be fined not more than RM20,000 or sentenced to two years in prison or both.


Coral Restoration Helps Marine Conservation Efforts
Sakini Mohd Said Bernama 19 Nov 15;

This is the last of the three series on the protection and conservation of the ecosystem in Malaysia's marine parks, particularly at coral reefs.

MERSING (Bernama) -- The scorching sun seemed to hardly affect those who came down to help with the conservation of corals in Pulau Tinggi that morning.

The heat was offset by the cool water that they stepped into, as they took in the breathtaking view around them.

"We will bring these assembled PVC tube frames into the ocean. We do not need to go the deeper parts. As this is for educational purposes, it would suffice for us to simply go into the shallower areas," said Zulkifly Mohd Supri to the group. He is a diver and coral planter with the Department of Marine Park in Johor.

Excitement registered on everyone's faces, but they had to be careful in carrying the frames in as the rolling waves added some difficulty to the process.

"For this to succeed, we would need to find a coral at least 10cm in size. Carefully tie it together so that we can properly plant it. This is what we call the restoration of corals," Zulkifly explained.


Coral restoration is one of the conservation efforts by the department in improving the sustainability of coral reefs.

Efforts in Malaysia kicked off in 2011, focusing on the regeneration of areas where corals suffered damage and degradation.

The first restoration site was in Kampung Tekek, Pulau Tioman. Sixty-one PVC frames were planted to help with the restoration of severely bleached corals, due to the El Nino in 2010.

The higher than normal seawater temperature then (28-29 degrees Celsius) caused the destruction of five to 10 percent of coral reefs in the country then.

To address the worrying matter, the Department of Marine Park teamed up with NGO Reef Check Malaysia to conserve the priceless ecosystem through coral restoration projects.

They also established an advisory panel for action on bleached corals as well as an action committee for bleached corals to facilitate faster and more effective response in the future.

This is in anticipation of the more frequent occurrences of El Nino, as forecasted by local and international researchers due to the global climate changes.

"Next year's forecast predicts the El Nino to severely affect the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea may also be impacted.

"So there is a high possibility that the marine parks in the East Coast will also be affected," said the department's director general Dr Sukarno Wagiman to Bernama.


Projects like coral restoration is one of the methods of adapting to natural threats such as climate change and the crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on the fastest growing or diseased corals.

In addition to that, it also helps against man-made threats such as irresponsible coastal development, rogue fishermen or irresponsible tourists.

The project, carried out based on the recommendations and advice of experts from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, has successfully helped restore 2.7sqkm of destroyed coral reefs in a cost-effective manner. More than 15,000 coral nubbins have been planted in marine parks since Oct 2014.

In view of the success, the National Biodiversity Council through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, has given the mandate to the department to implement the project nationwide.

This includes areas in Malaysian waters not gazetted as marine parks.


The restoration programme in Pulau Tinggi has helped a group of media persons to better understand the process of coral restoration.

The process is divided into several stages, with the first being the preparation of PVC frames as the nursing ground for corals.

The site for which the frames are to be placed depends on the location, taking into account the quality of seawater, weather and depth of the area.

"The coral nubbins must be healthy and taken from a broken coral," said Zulkifly.

As soon as a suitable coral is found it would be tied to the artificial reef using a cable tie, taking care to handle the coral as minimally as possible.

Some 1,050 coral nubbins are tied to 15 PVC frames and brought down to the bottom of the sea. Whether or not the effort is successful in generating a coral reef can only be seen after a year.


'Branching' or 'staghorn' Acropora corals are the ones normally used in coral restoration, said the Johor director of the Department of Marine Park, Mohd Nizam Ismail.

This is because of its fast growth and the ease in acquiring it at marine parks, compared with other species. Other species may take up to 50 years to recover once damaged.

"On an average, corals grow only one to two centimeter a year. In Johor, 1,380 nubbins have been planted since last year around Pulau Tinggi.

"This year, 4,000 more nubbins will be planted, half of it in Pulau Tinggi and the rest in Pulau Aur," he said.

Besides that, scuttling ships, concrete reefs and reef balls are also used to ensure the survivability of marine life.

Scuttling ships is the practice of sinking decommissioned ships to create wreck diving sites to produce artificial reefs and provide a site for recreation activities like wreck diving.

The department, together with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and Ministry of Tourism and Culture, has sunk six old ships belonging to the MMEA for the purpose.

"This is done to divert the attention of divers from coral reefs to the wreck site," said Sukarno.


The department is also committed in helping the public improve their knowledge on marine life.

Among them is the launching of the Green Fins programme for scuba diving operators.

The joint project with Reef Check Malaysia encourages members to run water recreation activities responsibly by prioritising conservation efforts.

The department has also trained 65 boat operators in Pulau Perhentian the environmentally friendly way of operating their boats.

"Some of the operators of small boats sometimes race. We teach them to drive boats with courtesy and without polluting the sea with boat fuel.

"Our coral reefs are worth RM145 billion and benefit everyone. Therefore, we should all be collectively responsible in protecting this unique treasure of Malaysia."


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