June 26, 2024

Coral Bleaching and Ghost Nets Mark Start of Malaysia Survey Season

Submitted by Reef Check Malaysia

Spring has signaled the beginning of Reef Check Malaysia’s 2024 survey season. With annual surveys scheduled at over 200 sites across the country, EcoDiver monitoring teams have a lot of work ahead of them! In addition to EcoDiver training, RCM has also held dive courses for local communities, getting them poised to join future surveys and activities. Tackling destructive ghost nets, rolling out a new waste management program and monitoring coral bleaching as it happens have also been priorities these past few months.

EcoDiver training with divers from the two villages (Kudat)

Skills Training Courses for Local Stakeholders

Reef Check Malaysia conducts annual surveys at more than 200 sites across the country. Our EcoDivers are volunteer divers, and we’re glad to have the local community we work with showing interest and coming on board with our efforts. Our survey data is published as a report every year, made available on our website.

Our team has been actively training and organizing training sessions for various stakeholders, equipping them with new dive-related skills.

In the Mersing group of islands, we recently organized an Open Water Dive course for six representatives from the local community. All are now certified SCUBA divers, bringing the total of local divers to 10! These islanders will now be able to gear up for advanced training in marine conservation and rehabilitation efforts, such as getting certified as Reef Check EcoDivers.

An activity during the Coral Bleaching Monitoring Training

Besides the Open Water Dive course, our colleagues from RCM conducted an EcoDiver Training with the local communities from Kg. Tajau Laut and Kg. Malubang, Kudat. Organized by Sabah Parks, this training aimed to empower divers from the two villages to participate in reef conservation efforts and monitor the health of their marine ecosystems. We’ve conducted similar training for other local community members from other islands, and these representatives were able to join us for activities such as reef rehabilitation and Reef Check surveys. Our team also completed the EcoDiver training course with nine Sabah Parks staff, who are based at several marine parks around Sabah.

RCM also carried out a Coral Bleaching Monitoring Training with representatives from Sabah Parks, as well as the Borneo Marine Research Institute (BMRI) from Universiti Malaysia Sabah. This training was held in response to the NOAA Coral Reef Watch Satellite Bleaching Alert. Sessions included a detailed look at bleaching, as well as understanding the coral bleaching watch protocol used to monitor coral reefs affected by rising water temperature.

Tackling Ghost Nets

Ghost nets removed by RMCG

Ghost nets contribute to ocean pollution by causing extensive social, economic and environmental impacts. They trap and entangle marine life, besides smothering and damaging important ecosystems such as coral reefs and seagrass beds.

Reef Check Malaysia’s teams on the islands have been receiving reports of ghost nets, and have been working hard to remove them from the marine environment before they cause extensive damage. In just the first quarter of 2024, our local group on Redang Island, the Redang Marine Conservation Group (RMCG), successfully removed approximately 140 kg of ghost nets, all found near the village jetty! The nets collected were given to the local youth of the island, who planned to recycle them into football goalpost nets.

There has been limited data on ghost nets in Malaysia, specifically from Tioman Island. RCM began training the local Tioman islanders in 2015 to locate and remove ghost nets from any reefs and beaches around the island. We also helped set up a reporting hotline to gather information about ghost nets. From 2016 until 2022, we recorded a retrieval of 145 ghost nets, weighing more than 21 tonnes (21,000 kg) from around Tioman Island alone. Today, most of the retrieval work on the island is done by the Tioman Marine Conservation Group (TMCG), with the help of volunteers from local dive shops.

Due to the extensive work done on ghost nets, our colleagues on Tioman Island and a member of TMCG recently published a paper titled “Incidence of ghost nets in the Tioman Island Marine Park of Malaysia”. It details the amount of nets collected, where and when they were found, and offers recommendations to help deal with this issue.

Tioman stakeholders working together to remove ghost nets
Collected ghost nets on a beach in Tioman

Rolling out a New Waste Management & Recycling Program in Mersing

In the last few months, our waste management and recycling programs have been progressing well in Mantanani and Mersing Islands. In Mantanani, we began a trial on composting, which is now slowly being adopted by the local community.

Meanwhile, consultation activities with the communities of Pulau Aur and Pulau Pemanggil in Mersing have determined that most of the island residents support starting a community recycling program on their island, similar to the recycling program that has been conducted on Pulau Sibu and Pulau Tinggi for the past two years.

Islanders of Aur and Pemanggil Islands gather to discuss the community recycling program

Waste management is a challenge faced by many communities in the Mersing islands. Unlike the mainland, solid waste on the islands is managed by individual households themselves. The community recycling program is a simple yet effective initiative to reduce the impact of waste on the environment, contributing to the preservation of the island’s marine ecosystem.

Local community in Sibu Island segregating collected recyclable materials
Transferring recyclable materials to mainland Mersing

Coral Reefs Surveys in Malaysia

A diver conducting a Reef Check survey

Our colleagues here at RCM have begun conducting Reef Check surveys around the country, with several sites in Tioman, Redang, Mersing, Sabah and Sarawak already completed. These surveys are usually led by RCM staff, with assistance from volunteer EcoDivers, or volunteers from other NGOs or government partners.

Aside from the Reef Check surveys, our team has also been actively monitoring coral bleaching. In Malaysia, we are experiencing what is now accepted as the 4th global coral bleaching event. Our surveys over the recent weeks show that, in some areas, over 80% of corals are bleaching. The normal recorded water temperature off the East Coast of Malaysia stands at 28-29˚C, which has increased to 32˚C in the last few days. This temperature is alarming, as it is beyond the temperature corals start bleaching (which is approximately about 30˚C).

There is little we can do on a local level, but we are doing what we can. Bleached coral reefs are vulnerable to attack by predators including the crown of thorns starfish (COTs) and drupella snails – both are corallivores, eating corals. Our field teams are doing their best to identify sites worst affected by these corallivores and will try to remove them where possible. If you go diving in Malaysia, please help us by letting us know (email us at hello@reefcheck.org.my) if you see a site with either COTs or drupella. You can also report coral bleaching to us by scanning the QR code below.