by Jo-Ann Tan
Malaysia is blessed with beautiful beaches and underwater splendour. However, if we do not safeguard their cleanliness and safety, this natural beauty will be washed away.
According to a report, “Reefs at risk revisited in the Coral Triangle”, by World Resources Institute, nearly 99% of reefs in Malaysia are threatened by human activities, and of this figure, more than 40% are under high or very high threat.
The areas most affected by pollution are mainly in Peninsular Malaysia water because of the high tourism rate, says Alvin Chelliah, programme manager of Reef Check Malaysia. “Our tourism industry is growing at such a fast pace that the islands cannot cope with the pressure. We see new resorts pop up every year, yet problems like waste and sewage are still not properly addressed.”
This is a huge problem because when sewage spills into the sea, the high content of nutrients will promote algae growth, which will kill coral reefs, he says, adding that this is the reason why Reef Check is advocating proper sewage management.
He says 85% of Malaysia’s reefs are also threatened by destructive fishing method such as bombing and poisoning. These threats are concentrated along the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak.
“Every time they use a bomb, the shock wave breaks the corals, and you’re left with small pieces of rubble and nothing new can grow on them for some time.”
To combat this, Reef Check is collecting reports from dive shops, divers and resorts to build a database. This way, they can pinpoint the areas that are hot spots for fish bombing as the two states’ coastlines are just too vast for enforcement agencies to monitor, notes Chelliah.
If an incident happens in a protected area, the report will be forwarded to the agency in charge, and if it happens outside such areas, the report will be given to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and marine police, he adds.
The least affected areas are the islands located in the marine parks. For example, Pulau Sipadan controls the number of divers arriving there each day, and the divers have to stay elsewhere as no more new resorts are allowed to be built on the island.
Working together to protect marine life
Reef Check is a non-profit organisation that engages with the local community to raise awareness of the importance of coral reefs.
Its core programme is to carry out surveys on Malaysia’s many islands to monitor the health of their reefs. Each year, it will try to return to the same sites to check on them.
With so many sites to monitor, its staff are unable to cope so they are reaching out to volunteers, says Chelliah. These volunteers have to be licensed divers.
As the data collected from the survey is for scientific purposes, the divers are required to go through another training programme to become certified eco-divers.
“They need to sit an exam, and when they pass it, they can become our volunteers,” he says.
He shares that it is very expensive to get to the different sites and the dives are also not cheap. This is because the dives are different from the leisure ones and Reef Check has to rent the whole boat.
Recently, Reef Check teamed up with La Mer in conjunction with World Oceans Day 2014.
“La Mer has been involved in marine conservation for quite some time, and last year, it started working with Reef Check Malaysia. It is sponsoring some of our surveys, mainly those in Lahad Datu,” says Chelliah.
La Mer sponsors many marine organisations worldwide. In Malaysia, it is working with Reef Check to collect data for its annual global reports.
Chelliah says that it is more costly to dive in Lahad Datu because it is not easily accessible yet. It takes five divers to carry out a survey and costs RM130 per dive per person. Furthermore, six to nine surveys need to be done at each site.
“So, La Mer is basically covering the cost of the volunteers carrying out the surveys. If not for La Mer, we will have to look for other sponsors.”
La Mer has donated almost US$2 million (RM6.4 million) to organisations all over the world in its effort to promote ocean conservation.
Reef rehabilitation and stakeholder engagement are also at the focus of Reef Check.
“We are trying to re-grow corals in certain parts of Pulau Pangkor, but again, if we don’t address the other issues like land developments and sewage management, there is no point for us to try to do that. Basically, it has to go hand in hand,” says Chelliah.
Therefore, in its stakeholder engagement programme, Reef Check is getting those who come in contact with coral reefs to understand the need to do something to protect the reefs. These people include the islanders and dive and snorkel shops’ guides.
“We are trying to get the locals to be more involved in recycling, waste separation and sewage management,” he says, adding that the people are also trained to rehabilitate reefs and conduct surveys.
He believes that by promoting resilience, Reef Check can remove the local threat.
He says many islanders are not aware that corals are living creatures because they are called batu karang in Malay, which makes them think that they are rocks.
He adds that there have been numerous incidents of snorkel guides bringing corals to the surface to show their guests who can’t snorkel, not realising that such acts can kill the corals.
He points out that there are laws to protect the reefs in marine parks, but enforcement is not strict enough. So, ignorant tourists and guides continue to do what they are doing without realising the damage they are causing to the reefs.
Recently, Reef Check introduced Green Fins, a United Nations programme to promote eco-friendly diving and snorkelling.
According to Chelliah, the problem lies in not maintaining dive standards. He says some dive shops are not taking enough care to ensure that new divers do not fall or crash into reefs.
With Green Fins, Reef Check is getting dive shops to sign an agreement on the dos and don’ts and open themselves to annual assessments in upholding standards.
Additionally, Reef Check is working with schools on the islands and some in Kuala Lumpur on environmental programmes such as educational talks, walks around the islands to observe the various things in the surroundings and snorkelling for schoolchildren.
“Surprising enough, many kids living on the islands have not been snorkelling, so they’ve never seen live corals in the water. They don’t know what they really are, so they don’t protect them. It’s like tak kenal, tak cinta,” says Chelliah.