June 28, 2021

Reef Check Malaysia Talks Reef Resilience

By Reef Check Malaysia

coral reef

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.

This article discusses the first of these – resilience; the other two topics – and how they integrate and impact our own strategy – will be discussed in future articles.

Everyone is talking about conservation, protecting the environment, ecosystems, sustainability…lots of words, lots of jargon…but what does it all mean to you, the coastal communities, the divers – the people? More importantly – and assuming these things are important – how can we engage with these various stakeholders to get their input into achieving agreed, necessary conservation goals? How can we ensure that everyone benefits equally?

Let me start by defining the conservation argument. One definition of an ecosystem is “a community of living organisms in conjunction with the non-living components of their environment, interacting as a system”. Ecosystems provide a number of what are called “ecosystem services” to society – things that we need (such as food and oxygen), without which we could not survive. So we need to “conserve” these ecosystems in order to continue to receive those services and benefits. Simple.

But to go back to an old argument, I would contend that you can’t actually “do” conservation; conservation is something that happens when certain activities are undertaken to reduce impacts to ecosystems, thereby ensuring they remain in the same condition over medium to long timeframes.

So what is it we can actually “do” to support reefs and achieve those conservation goals?

Ecosystems such as coral reefs have a natural property called resilience. In the context of coral reefs, resilience has been defined as “the capacity of a reef to resist or recover from degradation and maintain provision of ecosystem goods and services”.

Bleaching on reef
Bleaching on reef

But coral reefs are losing their resilience because of pressure from human activities (such as tourism and fishing) combined with increasing climate impacts (such as ocean warming that leads to bleaching). Resilience is a characteristic that can be both readily assessed and actively supported. Many scientists believe that supporting resilience needs to be a management priority and that local actions can influence the future resilience of reefs.

Essentially, we are looking for ways to reduce negative impacts to ecosystems – coral reefs, seagrass, etc. It’s not rocket science: imagine you are on a small island on holiday; think about what you might do during the day…and then think about what impacts on coral reefs those activities might cause. Snorkeling trip? Standing on coral, anchor damage, feeding fish…; lunch in a restaurant? Trash, grease from kitchens, grey water…; beach-side chalet? Sewage pollution, trash, beach erosion…

In essence, pretty much everything we do can have an impact on ecosystems. So how do we “do” conservation? How do we support resilience? By taking action to reduce our impacts:

  • Training for snorkeling guides so that they know not to use anchors, they dissuade you from feeding bread to fish, they teach you to snorkel correctly and not to stand on corals
  • Programs for resorts to help them identify changes that can reduce their impacts – better sewage treatment systems, eco-friendly cleaning products, reducing energy and water consumption
  • Managing fishing activity through engagement, consultation and awareness – backed-up with patrols and enforcement, to ensure populations of reef fish are protected 
  • Controlling development so that physical damage to reefs is avoided and release of siltation and other pollutants is managed
  • Awareness programs for tourists – to help them understand how they can contribute to reducing the impacts of their visit.

Management must be based on resilience principles, and management plans need to incorporate activities to reduce impacts so that we can build the resilience of reefs over the long term. One of the great things about resilience is that it is very democratic – everyone has a role to play. Resort operators, tour guides, local islanders – even tourists; so it’s not just left up to the government to do everything. 

So now we know what we have to do: support resilience. Are we doing it? Data from our annual coral reef survey suggests the answer is “some of it…in some places”. 

Which raises the question: who is responsible? Government? Management agencies? Tour operators? Local communities? And just what is it they should be doing? These will be discussed in the next article of this series.

Posters at Tioman jetty
Posters at Tioman jetty
Snorkel guide training session
Snorkel guide training session