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Fighting Dynamite With Marine Protection in Borneo

Our small skiff is anchored at the edge of a remote coral reef a mile off the North end of a small Malaysian island few outsiders will ever visit.

Beneath us is a shallow seascape of complex and colorful corals. Branching Acroporid corals provide refuge for neon blue damsel fish. Large plate-like forms two meters in diameter resemble swirling brown mushrooms, while other forms look like large orange boulders. Soft corals and anemones wave in the gentle current. The bottom is covered with over 100 species of corals painted in purples and neon greens and blues. Numerous species of small fish flit within the branches.  As part of an online series called Borneo From Below, we are diving and filming the local reefs and sharks in a small island group off Malaysian Borneo, including this episode called Coral Reef in Crisis. The reef is a colorful complex and other-worldly, until we kick to the edge of an open area of broken and bleached coral. Collecting some of the fresh fragments, we surface.

Kalapuan
Healthy Coral Reef Photo Courtesy David McGuire

Our guide, Dr. Steve Oakley of the Malaysian based Tropical Reef Conservation Center (TRACC), hands me a broken piece of coral rock the size of my hand. “Fresh fragments. See this sheared rock?”  He points where the tiny cups left behind by the coral polyps line the rounded surface where the last living coral organisms had been. Beneath that layer are hundreds of years of calcium carbonate deposited by overgrown generations of living coral cups. A kind of living fossil, the side of the shorn coral indicates centuries of growth, one layer above the next. “This kind of damage only comes from fish bombing.”

At the edge of healthy coral reef we find the source of the scattered fragments. A moonscape of broken rubble centers a circle with a diameter of 5 or 6 meters. We kick over a patch of healthy coral to an area where soft corals edge the margins indicating an older bomb site. Not a single living coral has recolonized the blast zone. No sharks or large fish are visible, and even the small reef fish are being extracted using this destructive practice.

Fisherman holding homemade fish bombs. Photo Courtesy Project Stop Fish Bombing
Fisherman holding homemade fish bombs. Photo Courtesy Project Stop Fish Bombing

This is the devastation left by blast fishing also called fish bombing, an illegal but rampant form of fishing here in the Coral Triangle. In the practice, a fisherman tosses dynamite, or homemade bombs made from a bottle filled with fertilizer and kerosene lit by a short fuse into the water. The blast kills or stuns all fish within the vicinity, which are easily collected for market. Dangerous to the reef, this method also maims and kills fishermen, and it is not uncommon to see men with fingers or hands missing. What is left behind is a wasteland of flattened coral rubble that can take centuries or more to recover.

Fishermen blast bombs reef. Photo ©ScubaZoo
Fishermen blast bombs reef. Photo Courtesy ScubaZoo

Across the shallow lagoon lives a community of approximately 300 people. Many are of the Sama-Bajou, a tribe of sea gypsies who live on the island’s edge or on houses above the lagoon. Near the village is a resort where visitors stroll along the perfect white sand and palm lined beaches. While the affluent enjoy the resorts, the villagers live a hand to mouth existence and fishing pressure on the reef is heavy, added by supplying fresh fish to the resort guests.   Most of the local people rely on the sea to survive and many ply their lines and nets from small open boats. Some local fishermen resort to fish bombing, a short term practice with long term consequences. This dangerous and destructive practice is rampant and virtually unenforced here and in other countries nearby like the Philippines and Indonesia. As we dive we feel the double percussive shock of a destructive fish bomb. The source of the explosion is difficult to determine, but a group called Project Stop Fish Bombing is applying detection technology to triangulate the location of the underwater blast. This tool when deployed can immediately identify the source and help increase enforcement of this illegal practice.  The Hong Kong non profit Tenghoi (Cantonese for ‘Listen to the Sea’) and Malaysian media producer ScubaZoo are partnering on this project in Malaysia to implement the program and increase awareness on the issue in Malaysia.

Fish bombed reef. Photo ScubaZoo
Fish bombed reef. Photo ScubaZoo

Besides thousands of species of invertebrates, the Coral Triangle hosts over 2000 species of fish and 500 species of corals, with many species endemic to the region. The coral reefs of south-east Asia currently provide food for over half a billion people, provides coastal protection, and attracts millions of tourists each year. Recent estimates place the value of goods and services provided by coral reefs worldwide between US$172–375 billion annually.  Malaysia has few marine protected ares, and most of these do not have resources to enforce them. Besides combatting fish bombing, promoting community engagement and management through traditionally managed marine protected areas (MPAS) can be more effective solutions for local reef protection than government sanctified MPAs that receive no enforcement.

Sama Bajou fisherman peers beneath the surface Photo Courtesy Aaron Geronski, Borneo From Below
Sama Bajou fisherman peers beneath the surface Photo Courtesy Aaron Geronski, Borneo From Below

On Kalapuan, TRACC is helping support a locally managed marine protected area called a Tagal. This will legally allow villagers to keep fisherman – especially blast fishers- out of the area, and allow locals to charge tourists a small fee to dive one of the few healthy reefs remaining in the immediate region.  Economic support for local enforcement and technology through the Stop Fish Bombing Project combined with dive tourism are solutions that will, with hope, protect the reef we are diving.  Local’s harvesting in a sustainable manner and self enforcing their own interests may be the only long term solution for protecting coral reefs in developing and remote regions of the world like Malaysia.

Learn more about the efforts supported by Shark Stewards and partner organizations in Malaysia at www.sharkstewards.org.