Protecting our marine resources

Story by Koh Lay Chin 
Photo of Pulau Payar by Harun Rahman

hrahman_payarIt is tough to reconcile the country’s push for tourism and the need to protect the precious marine resources but, as Fisheries Department director-general Datuk Hashim Ahmad says, things are steadily improving. This positive situation is thanks to the Marine Parks, begun in 1994, which have been relatively successful in turning around many people’s perceptions about coral reefs and the need to conserve them.

People’s perceptions, says Hashim, are very important in the fight to protect our corals and marine re-sources. Fishermen, he says, think that where there is sea, there will always be fishes, while most others do not appreciate the beautiful and fragile corals.

“We need to step up awareness among Malaysians as they do not value (the corals).” Hashim and his department have also had to deal with the State Governments and the Tourism Promotion Board when conservation and tourist promotions cross paths. One example is the extremely popular Pulau Payar Marine Park situated off Kedah, where tourist arrivals have numbered 857,000 since 1988. Its flourishing underwater wildlife is the main tourist attraction.

Last year, the Kedah Government announced plans to build chalets on the island as part of a “small-scale development” plan.

“We have expressed our concern,” says Hashim gravely. “We feel the building of chalets is unnecessary.” He says this because Pulau Payar, which currently has only a marine park centre, is close to Langkawi, Penang and Kuala Kedah. It takes just 45 minutes to travel by ferry from Langkawi to the island which visitors can enjoy from the floating reef platform that includes an underwater observation chamber and glass-bottom boats. Visitors can also snorkel and dive from a snorkeling platform.

“People come here only for day daily trips,” says Hashim. “Furthermore, there is no freshwater on the island, so if you are going to have facilities on land, you would have to transport freshwater or desalinate sea water. To us, any activity on land will directly affect life in the water.” Visitors to the marine park are not allowed to bring soap and shampoo to prevent them from polluting the waters. They also have to take their rubbish back with them to the mainland for disposal.

Limited empowerment

The Fisheries Department is empowered to protect the waters off the Marine Park, but have no jurisdiction on what happens on land. Herein lies the problem.

“Maintaining the flora and fauna here is extremely important,” says Hashim. The number of tourists coming to Pulau Payar is increasing, he said, and this is definitely due to them wanting to see the corals, “not buildings or hotels”.

Many Malaysians do not understand the function of marine parks, thinking it is a tourism attraction. “But that is not so. Marine parks are one of the tools of fisheries management and eco-tourism a by product.” Other tools of management include licensing to control the number of entries into the fishing industry, rehabilitating resources that had been exploited and controlling the type of equipment and boats used to catch fish.

Marine parks are also one of the ways to replenish the marine resources such as corals that are damaged by tourism activities.

“Corals are sensitive to any change in the environment. The marine parks allow the corals and fishes to to feed, breed and grow, and corals take time to grow. “Corals are not like lalang which will grow back the next day if you cut it. A staghorn coral, for example, will take more than one year to grow just one centimetre,” says Hashim.

Marine parks do not allow fishing, collecting coral, shells and other marine organisms, collecting sand, littering and polluting, and anchoring boats directly above the reef.

Marine parks of Malaysia

In Malaysia, some 40 islands in five States are grouped into five marine parks. They are the Pulau Payar Marine Park in Kedah (with four islands), Pulau Redang Marine Park in Terengganu (11 islands ) Pulau Tioman Marine Park in Pahang (nine islands), Mersing Marine Park in Johor (13 islands) and Labuan Marine Park in Labuan (three islands).

The pressure on the environment is more now, what with the increased development along coast lines and tourism activities. In 1983, the Federal Government directed the Fisheries Department to take the responsibility of establishing and managing marine parks.

At that time, there was plenty of opposition to the marine parks, Hashim remembers, with people protesting that the department was depriving fishermen of their traditional fishing grounds and livelihood. However, now the people realise that when an area is protected, there would eventually be more fishes to catch.

“In Pulau Payar, people used to catch ikan bilis (anchovies) using the pukat jerut. But by the 1980s, resources were so bad that many fishermen moved to Thailand as they could not make ends meet “Today, fishermen are catching anchovies every day without having to go far.” Soon, fishermen from other areas were asking the department to gazette their areas as marine parks.

Conservation – a role played by many

Conservation is not the responsibility of one person or organisation, says Hashim. “We need the support of other agencies and government departments. We also need our policy makers to understand what we are trying to do.”

The Marine Park Advisory Council, which is chaired by the secretary-general of the Agriculture Ministry, gives input to the Government and its agencies. It has members from the Economic Planning Unit, the Treasury, non-governmental organisations, universities and also representatives from the private sector and State Governments.

As difficult as it is to convince some on the need for conservation, others have taken to it like fish to water.

“In the past, tour operators did not comply with the rules. Rubbish would be thrown anywhere and to them it was not their business,” says Hashim. “But now with training and more information given to them, all tour operators co-operate with us to save the environment. Since 1999, we also have education and awareness programmes in schools to educate the younger generation about the value of our corals and resources.”

Hashim says there will still always be conflict between tourism promotion and conservation. His job is to ensure that marine resources do not deteriorate further.

Source: As published in Focus, The New Straits Times Press (NSTP) 23.2.2003.
Note: The above photograph was not published in NSTP.