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Divers demand more protection for Semporna reefs

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Divers demand more protection for Semporna reefs

Post Number:#1  Postby timyang » Mon Dec 27, 2010 3:34 pm

KOTA KINABALU: Professional divers in Sabah are ecstatic over Semporna’s newly-discovered status as the richest marine biodiversity spot on earth but worries over the fate of the eco-system of the region.

“We need to protect Semporna and Darvel Bay even more now, resources permitting, and not just rely on the government,” said American diver Randy Davies who, along with some locals, pioneered the now famous Borneo Divers in Labuan.

“Everybody should play a part, including tourists,” he added.

Semporna’s new status was announced last week by Bert Hoeksema, who led the recently concluded 17-day Semporna Marine Ecological Expedition 2010.

The expedition’s 18 marine scientists – from Malaysia, Holland and the United States – have unearthed evidence that Semporna may have the highest marine biodiversity in the world. This means that it has now dethroned Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Davies recalled the many times that he sped out to sea to confront fish bombers who fled upon seeing his boat approaching. He reckons that they were just making use of the fact that Sabah’s waters were generally unprotected.

“We need to have people out there who will stop this hurt,” said Davies. “Like anywhere else which is not protected, people are going to hurt it.”

He does not know whether expanding the 300 sq km Tun Sakaran Dandai Marine Park would help, especially since the present area is not fully protected.

“The government has to figure out what it can protect to the best of its ability with the resources it has at the moment. In Sipadan, we did the best that we could in the early days to chase way potential destroyers,” he said.

Public hue and cry

The government stepped in only later, after a public hue and cry.
Davies said the best way of protecting Semporna was through education and the government would embark on it.

“Tell the children why they shouldn’t damage the environment,” he said. “Adults should also take the lead. We need to practise what we preach.”

Davies’ longtime local partner, Clement Lee, concedes that it’s not that easy to stay number one.

The way forward, in the expert opinion of Samson Shak of Borneo Divers, is to increase enforcement against illegal fishing, monitor fish bombing and cyanide fishing and control coastal pollution.

“Fortunately, coastal pollution is minimal now because Semporna has no major coastal development,” said Shak. “But we have to constantly watch the situation.”

Semporna alone has 49 islands, offering plenty of investment opportunities.

Shak disclosed that professional divers all along knew that Semporna was rich in marine bio-diversity and had been advertising this fact as long as they could remember. However, not many people believed them.

So, he considers the scientific verdict as a huge boost to efforts to protect the place.

Situation critical

The verdict from the scientists is that fishermen are ruining Semporna’s rich heritage with fish bombing. During their 1,000 hours of diving, the scientists heard 15 fish bombs going off and came across four unexploded bombs.

They have warned that conservation action is urgent because of high threats from overfishing, destructive fishing and pollution.

“The situation is critical,” said Hoeksema last week.

“Coral reefs are showing signs of stress from local pressures at the same time that climate change is starting to have a bigger and bigger impact on reefs.

“Overfishing has reduced the quality of many reefs.

“The people of Sabah should be very proud that they own such a top marine eco-system in the world. Semporna is not only a world-class diving spot.”

The expedition, according to Hoeksema, encountered 844 species of fish, including 756 species of reef fish, more than 90 coral shrimp species and more than 100 algae species.

The scientists also discovered some coral shrimp and gall crab species that were new to science and a rare mushroom coral species, the lithophyllon ranjithi.

“Fish species counts, in some of Semporna’s diverse reefs, were greater than what we have encountered in Indonesia and the Philippines,” said American Ken Carpenter.

However, while biodiversity is extremely high, the downside is that the population is glaringly low due to over-exploitation, noted Universiti Malaysia Sabah macrobenthos lecturer Muhammad Ali Syed Hussein.

Coral reefs provide a haven for fish and other creatures, and larger fish tend to congregate around reefs because they are good places to feed. Bleaching – a whitening of corals that occurs when symbiotic algae living within coral tissues are expelled – is an indication of stress caused by environmental triggers such as fluctuations in ocean temperature. Depending on many factors, bleached coral may recover over time or die.

Semporna is within the 5 million sq km of sea straddling the waters of Sabah, the Philippines, Indonesia, Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. These waters contain the Priority Conservation Area designed under the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion and the larger Coral Triangle initiatives funded by the respective governments and the international community.

In addition, Sipadan Island and the reefs inside the Tun Sakaran Marine Park have been protected under Sabah Parks. The remaining reefs need to be managed for sustainable use, which includes sustainable fishing, tourism and aquaculture.
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