Conserve the coral reefs or lose them

Beautiful coral reef at Miri-Sibuti Coral Reef National Park. — Photo by Choa Yee Hui

HAVE you ever wondered what coral reefs are? Animals or plants, and how do they reproduce, thrive, and survive?

Marine life expert and Malaysian Society of Marine Sciences vice president Dr Aazani Mujahid asked a group of scuba diving tour guides the same questions during an awareness talk last December, and unsurprisingly, received a puzzled look.

Aazani, an avid diver for nearly three decades, feels education and environmental awareness must be imparted and promoted diligently and constantly to better prevent the reefs from deteriorating in the name of tourism.

“The number of reef species, which are sessile animals and other sea creatures, do not necessarily determine the quality level of the ecosystem but understanding them and executing early conservation efforts can protect them long term,” she said.

Dr Aazani Mujahid

Understanding coral reefs and their ecosystems, she added, would help pan out a good conservation programme for Miri’s coral reefs, especially with the Resort City moving towards becoming the next underwater tourism destination in the country.

Aazani visited the Miri-Sibuti Coral Reef National Park (MSCRNP) two years ago and calls it a precious gem that can use good conservation planning. This is to sustainably protect the largest offshore national park in the state with over 40 known dive sites.

According to a research paper by Browne N McIlwain, Nagarajan, and Zinke titled ‘Borneo coral reefs subject to high sediment loads’, published by Peer J in 2019, Miri’s reefs have comparatively low coral species diversity, yet these species, dominated by massive and encrusting forms — diploastrea, porites, montipora, favites, dipsastrea, and pachyseris — have between 22 and 39 per cent healthy cover.

The research found the reefs, also known as turbid reefs, tended to be more resilient to various environmental factors such as coral diseases and lower prevalence of compromised health signs such as bleaching, bio-erosion, pigmentation respond, and excessive mucus production.

Despite experiencing a decline in corals cover over the past two decades, the reefs in Miri are found in a temporally stable state.


Early conservation needed

Growing up on Tioman Island where she spent most of her childhood by the sea, Aazani has witnessed first-hand how tourism can do damage to nature in the absence of awareness and intervention.

Coming from a maternal family of Hing Hua Chinese, who worked as fishermen for generations and her father being a member of the marine police, the appreciation of nature, especially marine life, came naturally to her.

“The tourism industry on Tioman Island started in the 1980s and the island evolved from a sleepy fishing village into a beach resort.

“Inevitably, the tourism industry has changed the face of places like Tioman Island, attracting visitors to help generate revenue.

“While it means more employment opportunities and better incomes for the locals, the environmental aspects must not be compromised,” Aazani stressed.

Likewise, for Miri’s diving tourism industry, she feels while it has a lot of potential, early education on environmental conservation to safeguard this tourism asset is equally important.

Iqbal and a team member sort out ghost nets removed from coral reefs.

“From my experience diving in Miri, the diversity of the reefs is an interesting subject for photography. The artificial reefs and shipwrecks are attractions too, creating alternatives for divers to explore while reducing pressure on the natural reefs.

“On top of that, the national park has many sites within a half-hour boat ride, which should interest visitors from amateur to expert levels.”

She noted that many outside Sarawak tended to be surprised to learn there are thriving natural reefs in the state, most likely due to little documentation done on the coral reefs.

“The Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) report 2019 mentioned that from a total of 180 sites — 97 in Peninsular Malaysia and the remaining 83 in East Malaysia – only one was surveyed in Sarawak — which is in Miri.

“This, in a way, has misled many to think there are no reefs in Sarawak. Hence, frequent exploration by hobby divers and commitment from tour operators play a very important role in correcting this misconception.”


Destructive conditions

Six sites within the national park had been surveyed in 2019, showing live coral coverage at 50.94 per cent — higher than the national average of 40.63 per cent.

Sadly, pollution, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and climate change that leads to global warming are among the damaging elements which are killing the coral reefs.

As for the human impact on the coral reefs, comparing Reef Check Malaysia reports for 2017, 2018, and 2019, gives a clearer picture of the damage caused.

An abandoned fishing net stuck on the coral reef becomes a breeding ground for algae. — Photo by Archier Chung

The reports used diadema urchin (DU) and crown-of-thorns (COT) as indicators to highlight pollution levels at the detection of the slightest change.

“Diadema urchin consumes algae and pollutants in the water. The greater its number, the higher the level of pollutants. RCM 2017 and 2018 recorded a very low number of DU but it increased by 10 per cent in 2019.

“COT appeared to be higher in 2017 but reduced drastically in 2018 and 2019. COT population increases during the bloom of phytoplanktons — a form of microscopic marine algae.

“The higher the level of pollutants, the more prevalent the blooming of phytoplanktons, hence, more COT. The downside is that it devastates hard coral communities, contributing to the coral loss,” Aazani explained.

According to her, these organisms, used as indicators to monitor the water quality, help us to understand and keep track of the health of our seawater.

When there is an outbreak of any of these organisms, it can be due to the release of wastewater, leakage of sewage, or other reasons.


Water quality

The greater the number of suspended materials, the higher the turbidity or murkiness of the water.

This explains why the seawater in Miri is not sparkling blue but persistently brown all year long.

“Turbidity can increase with soil erosion. The type of naturally occurring soil in Miri is alluvium, which is predominantly particles of silt, clay, and peat.

“While it’s not surprising the water remains murky, we must acknowledge land clearing by humans can cause these materials to enter the river and run off to the sea,” Aazani noted.

She said the other sad reality was Miri losing mangroves, wetlands, and other coastal habitats due to human development.

“Peat swamps, wetlands, and mangroves, which used to naturally infringe Miri coasts, especially at the river estuaries, served many functions, the most important of which was acting as sieves for runs-off from the land towards the sea.

“As we are losing the protection provided by natural coastal and riverine habitats, we’re seeing the persisting effects of murky waters.”

Fertilisers, among other urban discharges, used in plantation and agriculture and often found in rivers as run-offs to the seas, are another concern.

“The impact of these sediments, which also contribute to turbid waters, is choking our coral reefs and inhibiting sunlight needed for photosynthesis. These heavy particulates sink in coastal habitats and on reefs and enter the food chain (seafood).

“Although the pollution levels are now relatively low, those who are sensitive may experience side effects,” Aazani said, urging more monitoring, given the rapid development in the state.


Ghost nets  

Three years ago, a voluntary body, Future Ocean Borneo (FOB), banded with divers to form the Borneo Ghost Nets Hunters and have since removed hundreds of kilograms of abandoned nets from different dive sites in Miri.

The reef clean-up operations included locating the ghost nets and measuring the impact of trawling nets on the coral reefs.

FOB founder Iqbal Abdollah noted three types of fishing nets — monofilament, drift and trawler — were usually found entangled on the coral reefs.

“Monofilament fishing nets are mostly used by traditional fishermen within five nautical miles from shore. But our findings showed they would use it beyond five nautical miles, giving rise to the presumption there is illegal fishing going on.

“Drift nets, more than 50 metres long, were also part of our findings. As they aren’t used to catch any selective species, non-targeted marine life such as turtles, sharks, and marine mammals are often dragged up, creating a certain level of ecological damage.

“Trawler nets may have been abandoned by illegal fishermen when spotted by the maritime police. As the nets are very long — usually more than 200 metres — the amount of damage caused is considerable.”

The national standard for fishing is divided into five categories: Zone A — one to five nautical miles (nm) using traditional anchovy purse seines; Zone B — five to 12 nm using trawlers and purse seiners; Zone C 12 to 30 nm using trawlers and purse seiners; Zone C2 — 30nm to EEZ boundary using trawlers and purse seiners; and Zone C3 — high seas using tuna long-liners and tuna purse seiners.


Destructive techniques

A 1997 research paper by Abdul Hamid Yassin from the Department of Fisheries on fisheries management policy in Malaysia highlighted the use of destructive fishing methods and gears that are endangering the fish-marine population and damaging coral reefs.

Destructive fishing techniques such as using fish traps (bubu), trawls, muro-ami, and kelong in and around coral reef areas and also small fishing stakes and stationary gear in the estuary and mangrove areas, have adverse impacts on fisheries.

As for the muro-ami or netting technique using a combination of weighted nets and plastic strips to startle the reef fish, it breaks the corals during fishing operations according to the research paper.

Aazani stressed as the human impact such as through damaged anchors and discarded fishing nets on the reefs was alarmingly high, issuance of the fishing licence must be closely monitored.

“The fishermen depend on the sea for a living, therefore we cannot view them as the enemy but partner. I believe changing fishing equipment according to the geographical features will be a win-win situation for fishermen and marine life.”

She said in Miri, turtles spotted in the national park could mean the area is suitable as a feeding and breeding ground.

“Thus, if we want to continue seeing turtles, other marine creatures, and coral reefs, we should be more protective of them by changing fishing practices.”


Role of education

To successfully educate recreational divers-tourists, the role of tour guides is vital.

According to research by Surya Poudel and Gyan P Nyaupane on ‘The role of Interpretative tour guiding in sustainable destination management: A comparison between guided and non-guided tourists’ published in February 2013, effective interpretation of the environment minimises adverse environmental and social impacts on tourism through creative pro-environment attitudes and behaviours.

The research concluded that interpretative tour guiding could be a good tool to facilitate co-existence between tourism, conservation, and development to benefit tourism while ensuring socio-cultural, economic, and ecological sustainability of destinations.

Since government agencies as the monitoring and implementing body could not keep track of every movement during diving tours, Aazani suggested tour guides fill in by educating their clients.

“Even a simple one-line message can be useful. I believe it can be achieved if every tour guide takes environmental responsibility.”

She looks forward to diving courses on marine ecology and conservation for new divers to instil early awareness and appreciation of marine life and the ecosystem.