By Reef Check Malaysia General Manager Julian Hyde
August 3rd marked the 15th anniversary of Reef Check Malaysia. Who would have thought that an organization that started off with one full time staff would grow into one with national programs and field staff in four locations (and counting!).
Our evolution saw us start with a survey program covering just 16 sites on Tioman, Redang and Perhentian. We now monitor the health of coral reefs at over 200 sites around Malaysia, with a pretty impressive data set that gives us good insights into changing reef health. We work with the Federal (DoF/Marine Parks) and State authorities (Sabah Parks), volunteers and, more recently, local communities.
On top of that foundation, we built education and awareness programs for schools and science-based programs investigating coral bleaching, restoration and resilience, finally emerging as a partner in managing marine resources, encouraging the participation of local communities and introducing standards such as the IUCN Green List and the UNEP Green Fins program.
What have we learned after 15 years of surveys? Well, on average, the sites we survey are in “fair” condition, according to a widely-used index. But the average masks a wide range and some areas are healthier than others.
We have learned that management needs to be local to take into account local threats to reefs, which differ from site to site and island to island. More recently, we have learned from the interruption of the tourism industry that reefs will recover if left alone – a possibly vital management tool as we witness the growing impacts of climate change on our reefs.
More importantly – what have we achieved? We like to think quite a lot! Our program on Tioman – now eight years old, and funded by Yayasan Sime Darby all these years, has shown us the importance of working with local stakeholders to build resilience of both reefs and communities. Our data show Tioman has among the healthiest reefs in Malaysia.
We have also learned that building capacity among local communities is critical. The Tioman Marine Conservation Group (TMCG) now has 65 members covering all the villages on the island – and they are taking an increasing role in carrying out the annual coral reef survey program as well as other conservation programs such as ghost net removal and reef restoration.
Partnering with the Department of Fisheries in the Reef Care program has allowed us to introduce participatory management, and we are hoping to replicate that program to other islands this year.
On Mantanani, our program to establish a new marine protected area (funded by Yayasan Hasanah) has been slow. However, with funding from the Small Grants Program, we have helped the villagers to develop community-based tourism, with a robust homestay market now empowering the villagers to diversify household incomes out of fisheries and into tourism. We also operate the waste management system on the island, and arrange monthly disposal of waste and recycling of plastic and other recyclables.
So what’s next on our radar?
One important field is operationalizing the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the current text of which calls for protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 – that’s a global target, not a local one; Malaysia is merely called upon to contribute what it can.
We would like to see more MPAs, and particularly in Peninsular Malaysia, networking of existing Marine Parks to include the biological connectivity corridors between both reef areas and also other marine ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass beds, which are important ecosystems in their own right.
We also want to see a greater role for what the Convention on Biological Diversity calls IPLCs – Indigenous People and Local Communities – we believe that local stakeholders can significantly strengthen marine resource management – and our own successes demonstrate this.
We couldn’t survive without significant support – not only from our funders, but volunteers who help with surveys, training, clean-ups and other programs – names too numerous to mention, but you know who you are; we are deeply grateful and always recognize your role in protecting our coral reefs.
So here’s to the next 15 years! Please celebrate with us; spread the word and help to make more people aware of the need to protect Malaysia’s marine treasures.