Gavin Macaulay talks to Helen Brunt about the establishment of a new marine park in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
What is happening in Semporna and what has been your involvement?
30 years ago this area was identified as an area of outstanding marine biodiversity by Dr Elizabeth Wood of the Marine Conservation Society in the UK. This applied not just below the waves but above the surface too. The islands were identified as being surrounded by very rich seas and were also home to exceptional flora and fauna with animals such as bats, wild boar, hornbills and so on. Finally, a few decades later, her work is coming to fruition with the area becoming a state marine park under the protection of Sabah Parks.
I am project officer of a 3 year Semporna Islands Darwin Project which is a collaboration between the MCS in the UK and Sabah Parks here in Malaysia. So we are working together to implement the management plan for the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. The main objectives of the Semporna Islands Darwin Project are:
So this is a totally separate issue from the resorts being removed from Sipadan then?
Yes! Sipadan's resorts have been removed from the island as a protective measure to ensure the environmental well-being of this tiny island. The Tun Sakaran Marine Park does not include Sipadan Island. They are actually quite far apart although they are both accessed from Semporna. The islands of the Tun Sakaran Marine park are only 20 kms off shore.
What does it mean to be a Marine park? Is it under Malaysian or internationally recognised criteria?
This is not a national marine park it is a state park under the jurisdiction of Sabah rather than the federal government. This means it will be managed by Sabah Parks, so everyone in it (living or entering) will be subject to certain regulations.
For example, to protect fish stocks a zoning system will be introduced, similar to that on the Great Barrier Reef - e.g. no take zones, general use zones and preservation zones. There are about 2,000 people on the 8 islands of the park which covers some 350 sq km, most of whom are fishermen and seaweed farmers. Therefore they are relying on the marine resources and currently are using them in an unsustainable way. As a result some are resorting to destructive fishing practices such as bombing and cyanide use.
If key areas are made off-limits to fishing it is hoped that stocks will improve and spill over into adjacent areas where they can fish, so the benefits will be there for the fishermen to see. We are also actively promoting alternative livelihoods for the inhabitants of the islands. Seaweed farming has great potential and can be developed into a livelihood for much greater numbers than currently. The same is true for sea ranching activities such as giant clam farming and abalone breeding. There is also a longer term plan for the local community to get more involved in the tourism industry with homestay programmes, employment as trekking guides and other ancillary roles.
How do you go about creating a protected marine park?
Well firstly the area needs to be proposed for a valid reason. It needs to be an area of exceptional value (such as high levels of biodiversity) and under threat. You cannot simply declare anywhere to be of value. The key is that its potential loss needs to be to the serious detriment of the country in particular and the world in general.
If it is inhabited it is crucial to have the support of the local community who will be affected. There are some very good examples of community managed marine parks such as Apo Island in the Philippines.
It is also crucial for the proposal to have the support of government. There are several government agencies involved here. Thankfully Sabah Parks have so much experience in managing protected areas in their state : Mount Kinabalu, Turtle Islands and Pulau Tiga, that they were quick to listen and act when the information was presented and the local community expressed their willingness to get involved.
Why was it felt that this area needed such protection?
Simply put it is to safeguard the area's exceptionally high level of biodiversity. Experts agree that there are higher levels of biodiversity in the Tun Sakaran Marine Park than at Sipadan. This means that while there are not the large size of fish, nor the abundance of turtles, sharks and other marine creatures found at Sipadan, Tun Sakaran Marine Park actually has more biodiversity of species and habitats.
Certain dive spots have been monitored on an annual basis to gauge the condition of the marine environment. Sadly fish bombing is still widespread. The regulations are yet to be fully introduced and the continuance of such practices only highlights the urgent need for protection.
I have done some diving in this area of Sabah and the good news was that we saw 12 eagles rays, turtles, barracuda, bumphead parrotfish, lots of nudibranchs and found some new sponges, so there is great hope for the future. The diving is very varied in the park with lots of big walls (undamaged by bombs), and a great deal of incredible macro-life in the Bodgaya Lagoon. There are also vast sandy areas with big gorgonian fans, sea pens and rocky outcrops with plenty of activity. However we did hear bombs on almost every dive!
In July 2006, the Semporna Islands Darwin Project (SIDP) released 25 juvenile Napoleon (humphead) wrasse into the Bodgaya Lagoon (which has been off limits to fishing for several years) with the hope that they will breed in the safe waters of the lagoon and spill over into adjacent areas, thus re-populating the park's fish stocks. These individuals were bought from a local fisherman who was growing them up to 'marketable' size in a cage, thereby saving them from the dinner plate.
What difficulties have been faced?
Initially the local community was the biggest obstacle. How to convince them that reducing the areas they can fish in was a good thing.
To overcome this we are conducting a series of travelling boat-shows visiting the settlements within the park, touring around the islands with a range of interpretive materials in 3 different languages. We had locals talking to inhabitants, explaining the purpose and potential results of the project.
We talked to the fishermen, we had local women talk to the women in the park and organised fun, interactive activities with the children. It was important for us to invite feedback from the local community to gauge their perceptions about living in a marine protected area and now we seem to be at the stage where we have general acceptance from the inhabitants of the park about the potential rewards of the scheme. Getting them to buy into the goals of the project really is fundamental to its success. There is also a plan to engage representatives of these communities to work alongside Sabah Parks as honorary rangers to help enforce the regulations.
Implementing a management plan is never an easy task since there are so many stakeholders to be consulted and, as everybody knows, getting things done through governmental channels always takes time and effort in any country.
Another difficulty is that due to the geographical location of the park there are quite a number of nomadic people passing in and out of the park and that is, and will probably continue to be, quite a problem.
Will it ever be enjoyed by divers?
It is hoped that tourism will become one of the features of the park. Tourism will in fact be encouraged as an alternative means of income so long as the projects are sustainable and well-managed. Any resorts could be privately owned but the plans must be approved by Sabah Parks, an environmental impact assessment must be carried out and operators must adhere to the regulations of the park on an on-going basis. There will also be an emphasis on resorts being owned and run by members of the local community.
At present there are no facilities in the park to accommodate visitors, however a park headquarters with a cafá, toilets and gift shop is currently under construction. However, until these necessary facilities are completed, tourism is not encouraged. Nevertheless, the park is already being enjoyed by divers. Divers from Mataking can and do visit several sites within the park. Potentially there will be resorts or dive trips from Semporna. There is talk of a water village being built out from the islands which is much more environmentally sound than building on the islands themselves. Divers can also assist with the conservation of the park's underwater environment, serving as the 'eyes and ears' and reporting any untoward activities.
There is a big future for the park as a dive destination as well as a marine farming area, so if we work hard and everyone pulls together the area can have a very bright future. The benefits will be enjoyed by everyone: divers, the local community and of course the marine life which has the potential to really flourish if given the chance.