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Feature Article: Coral Reef Protection Reaching for the Stars

Coral Reef Protection Reaching for the Stars

by Marine Programme, WWF-Malaysia

9 November 2023, Petaling Jaya: 

"Boom!" The muffled sound of an explosion echoes through the pristine waters of Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), Malaysia's largest multi-use marine park, spanning nearly 900,000 hectares across 50 islands in the northern tip of Sabah. While the gazettement of TMP in 2016 was a reason to celebrate, it's just the beginning of an incredible story. Fish bombing and the looming threat it poses to coral reefs is the villain in our tale. We won't even touch on the elephant in the room – climate change, yet. But for now, let's focus on the relatively “brighter” side.

Balambangan Island, Tun Mustapha Park. Photo © Eric Madeja / WWF-Malaysia

The escalating threat of fish bombing is a harsh reality in Sabah, with multiple incidents reported each year. Otherwise known as blast fishing, the illegal fishing method is disastrous, leaving a permanent scar on the local marine ecosystem and endangering human lives. In March 2020, a 16-year-old boy tragically lost his life due to a fish bombing explosion. In another heartbreaking incident in July 2019, three divers met their untimely demise due to a fish bomb blast.

The “fish bomb”, made from everyday items like kerosene, nitrate fertilisers, and a handmade fuse in a glass bottle, has the power to wipe out coral reefs and the vibrant fish communities living within. The aftermath of fish bombing is not just alarming; it's heartbreaking - see it for yourself.

Composited photo to show the before and after of a fish bombing incident. Photo © Eric Madeja / WWF-Malaysia

Bombs in the form of kerosene, nitrate fertilisers, with handmade fuses. Photo © Kee Alfian / WWF-Malaysia

Combating fish bombing is just one facet of coral reef protection, and while it's no easy feat, it's entirely possible. Together with government agencies and enforcement authorities, we have collectively improved TMP’s management over the years, all while adding a sprinkle of our signature science-based approach and care to coastal communities.

Since 2016, WWF-Malaysia has worked diligently with TMP's lead agency, Sabah Parks, to create a balanced approach to park management, ensuring economic opportunities go hand-in-hand with marine conservation. Blast detectors have been placed in identified fish bombing hotspots, and enforcement authorities have ramped up their surveillance efforts. Recognising that fish bombing is a complex social issue, WWF-Malaysia has highlighted alternative livelihoods, helping coastal communities establish businesses and channelling profits partially back into marine conservation.

Devastation by shipping vessels and climate change remain  the two main ‘giants’ in TMP’s coral reef destruction saga

The results? From October 2019 to March 2022, the number of blasts recorded in TMP showed a promising 47.1% reduction, thanks to the TMP Anti-Fish Bombing Ground Taskforce and The Joint Sabah Khazanah Operation. However, devastation by shipping vessels and climate change remain the two main ‘giants’ in TMP’s coral reef destruction saga.

In 2019, crystal clear waters in Kalampunian Island, TMP surround an unusual vessel - a gigantic cargo ship. Due to a faulty navigation device, the vessel found itself trapped in the shallow waters of the Marine Protected Area, its keel stuck on a healthy, ancient, and economically vital coral ecosystem. The unfortunate incident destroyed not just corals but years of marine conservation efforts. In the aftermath of the cargo vessel’s unfortunate misadventure, Sabah Parks has opened an investigation under Sabah Parks Enactment 1984 and closed the area for further investigation. 

Coral destruction by a cargo vessel in Kalampunian Island, TMP, September 2019. Photo © Samri Magunding / New Straits Times

In addition, rising sea temperatures and acidifying oceans are turning coral reefs into ghostly white spectres. While there are no mass bleaching events recorded in TMP so far, the threat of climate change towards our marine ecosystem is very real. Our team is working on the ground to closely monitor the coral condition, along with sea surface temperature in TMP. In 2021, divers from WWF-Malaysia, Sabah Parks, Banggi Coral Conservation Society, and Kudat Turtle Conservation Society conducted Reef Check surveys. The results were disheartening - live coral cover comprised only 5.8% excellent, with 44.2% in good condition, 44.2% in fair condition, and 5.8% in poor condition.

Live coral cover in Tun Mustapha Park, 2021. Graph © Marine Programme / WWF-Malaysia

The need to restore coral reefs is crystal clear, both for marine life, the livelihood and food security of coastal communities. As they say, when one door closes, another opens. Coral reef destruction leaves behind countless coral fragments, these “coral of opportunity” (including corals that have been broken off the reef due to wave action or storms) could act as the key to coral restoration.

A remarkable 9.9% increase in live coral cover and a 20-fold increase in total fish biomass

In 2022, the EU-funded Ocean Governance Project united various stakeholders for a coral restoration project in TMP. Over 100 people from government agencies, community-based organisations, non-government organisations, and tourism operators were directly involved. 

Coral fragments were carefully processed and placed on frames with a first-in-Malaysia approach named Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System (MARRS). The process of restoration is effective, time-saving, and easily scalable, it entails growing coral fragments on large frames coated in coral sand, which over time, develops into larger reef structures. The frame, which assembles a hexagonal structure, is aptly named “Reef Star’. 

Locations of coral restoration sites with Reef Stars in TMP. Graphic © Marine Programme / WWF-Malaysia

Harvested fragments of “coral of opportunity”. Photo © Sabah Parks

Members from coastal communities and civil societies tying coral fragments onto a Reef Star frame. Photo © Sabah Parks

Building the web using Reef Stars at Maliangin Kecil Island. Photo © Addin Mazni / WWF-Malaysia

300 units of Reef Stars deployed at Maliangin Kecil Island. Photo © Addin Mazni /WWF-Malaysia

300 units of Reef Stars deployed at Maliangin Kecil Island. Photo © Addin Mazni /WWF-Malaysia

Approximately 1,512 square metres of degraded reef area near Maliangin Kecil Island, Pitas Floating Coral Bar, and Tajau Laut were revitalised with 1300 units of Reef Stars, restoring 18,600 coral fragments from over 30 species. 

Thanks to Reef Stars, fish populations are rebounding. After 6 months in one of four coral restoration sites, there was a remarkable 9.9% increase in live coral cover and a 20-fold increase in total fish biomass. “Coral restoration is not an easy job and it cannot be done by one person. I am very grateful to see many people coming together to put Reef Stars in my village’s water. We will be working tirelessly to monitor and maintain these groups of coral frames for years to come,” said Junaidi Awang Bulat, owner of Tajau Laut Guest House.

TMP Reef Star coral restoration project in a glance. Graphic © Marine Programme / WWF-Malaysia

The coral restoration project has provided a solid foundation for Sabah Parks to continue restoring coral reefs in TMP, all while implementing measures to reduce local stressors on this precious marine habitat. In a workshop held in October 2023, stakeholders came together to forge the TMP Coral Restoration Roadmap, marking a historic commitment to strengthening coral ecosystems. 

Mr. Norhaslam, Park Manager from Sabah Parks said: “The TMP Coral Restoration Roadmap represents the first of its kind in Sabah. It also shows our commitment to work with other representatives across civil societies, community members, tourism operators and more to further strengthen our coral and marine ecosystems.”

TMP Coral Restoration Roadmap Workshop conducted in Oct 2023. Photo © Marine Programme / WWF-Malaysia​

Sabah’s first coral restoration roadmap for Marine Protected Area, co-created with representatives from government agencies, community organisations, tourism operators and research institutes. Photo © Marine Programme / WWF-Malaysia

So, if you have witnessed the scars of fish bombs and coral bleaching, remember that there are dedicated individuals working tirelessly to protect our planet's treasures. Together with our partners and community champions - we strive for expansion of marine conservation endeavours, establishing more Marine Protected Areas just like TMP, and are working shoulder to shoulder towards conserving 30% of Malaysians seas and coasts by 2030. In the grand tapestry of our world, where coral reefs are the most vibrant threads, let's all do our part to ensure they continue to thrive - so humanity can “just keep swimming” in our one and only planet.

- Ends -

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