August 31, 2021

Reef Check Malaysia Talks Reef Resilience (Part 2)

By Reef Check Malaysia

Reef Check Malaysia is currently operating long-term marine resource conservation programs in three locations: Tioman island, Mantanani island and the Johor islands. We also have on-going programs – such as our annual coral reef monitoring survey program – that take us to other islands in both Peninsular and East Malaysia. As we work increasingly closely with local stakeholders (islanders, tourism operators, etc.) and develop a deeper understanding of some of the challenges facing communities and managers alike, several inter-linked themes are starting to emerge that need more attention: resilience, livelihoods and co-management.

In Part 1 of this article series, we suggested that one approach to conserving reefs is to support resilience. What we didn’t address was what the impact of doing so has on communities and livelihoods.

Resilience broadly describes the capacity of an ecosystem to recover from degradation, thus maintaining ecosystem services. Supporting resilience contributes to long term conservation of reefs. But how do we support resilience? One way is to reduce our impacts on nature, to achieve several goals:

– Prevent physical damage caused by marine tourism
– Reduce sewage pollution from resorts and other sources
– Manage fishing activity to protect key species
– Control the release of siltation from construction sites

These are just a few examples. But one common denominator in all of them is: how does this affect the livelihoods of communities associated with reefs?

Coastal communities earn their living from the sea. They are either fishermen or they work in the tourism industry – both of which rely on healthy ecosystems. But maintaining healthy ecosystems by implementing projects to achieve the above goals can have negative consequences for jobs:

– Controlling marine tourism might lead to a reduction in numbers of tourists, which reduces jobs in guiding.
– Insisting on strict adherence to sewage regulations might reduce investment in resorts, which might mean less job opportunities for coastal communities.
– Restricting fishing to certain areas can increase costs to fishermen who have to travel further – or can even lead to job losses due to loss of fishing grounds.
– Improving the management of construction sites in coastal areas could lead to reduced investment in resorts, again meaning less jobs for communities.

On the other hand, there could just as easily be positive outcomes for jobs – healthier ecosystems mean a better tourism product; beaches and seas clean of sewage pollution makes for a popular tourism destination; and managing fishing can eventually lead to recovery of fishing stocks. So long-term reef conservation means much more than just managing biological factors.

If we want healthy oceans, we also have to look after the interests of the local communities who depend on the ocean. It is essential to manage the related economic factors – jobs and food security – if we want the support of the communities that will be affected by the proposed conservation measures. Because if they don’t – then those measures are more likely to fail.

Think, for example, of the resources needed to effectively patrol an island with a coastline of 169 km – and a marine protected area stretching 2 nautical miles from the coast. If the island community supports the marine protected area, then they will comply with the fishing restrictions, reducing the patrolling and enforcement needs. But if they don’t support the protected area – perhaps because they were not consulted when it was imposed – then compliance with regulations will be low and the need for patrolling and enforcement increases dramatically.

Another area in which we often see conflict is tourism. Tourism can bring economic benefits, but at the same time, growing visitor numbers can put stress on both local communities and ecosystems. If the benefits of tourism are not shared with the local communities affected – as is often the case – then why should local communities comply with regulations that focus on growing tourism? On the other hand, if we ensure that local communities do benefit from tourism – specifically by actively involving them in community-based tourism initiatives – then once again, compliance with regulations increases and the cost of management goes down.

At Reef Check Malaysia, we’ve been working closely with communities on several islands, and we’ve seen first-hand how communities rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. Over-reliance on fishing – or tourism – can eventually have negative consequences for livelihoods. We are working with communities to diversify livelihoods, with skills training and investments in community-based tourism.

Empowering local communities is important. There is no simple fix or methodology to improving management of marine resources. We are just part of the puzzle, and at the end of the day, a whole raft of stakeholders – government agencies, communities, tourism operators, etc. – should be part of the conversation. We will continue to raise awareness on how important it is that local communities are involved in management, to ensure their voices are heard and their interests protected.