Corals in Mukut, Tioman (Alvin Chelliah)

One Thousand and One Ways to PROTECT the Ocean

Rantau Abang, Miri-Sibuti and Sipadan are protected areas conserving many things, from turtles to jobs. They are now being joined by new coastal and marine parks as Malaysia ramps up its protection game.

Writer: SL Wong

Editor: YH Law

Map: Lee Kwai Han

Published: October 12, 2023

This story is part of Macaranga’s #SeaWorld series.

(Feature image: The benefits of Marine Protected Areas are many, including protecting rich coral reefs such as these in Tioman  |  Pic by Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)

 MALAYSIA is working hard to increase its biodiversity-rich coastal and marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2025. Sarawak is gazetting the seas along almost all of its 750km coastline as a marine protected area. 

Melaka has 3 new marine parks, and Johor, 13. Sabah has an IUCN Green List Site, globally benchmarked in protected area management. All this happened in the last 2 years.

The goal is to protect at least 10% of its total land and marine areas, in line with the National Biodiversity Policy and the international Convention on Biological Diversity to which Malaysia is signatory. 

For now, Malaysia has protected only 5% of its ocean area. To achieve its goal, the country is increasing and strengthening its coastal and marine protected areas (MPAs).

This is not just a feel-good effort on paper. Protecting coasts and oceans has multiple benefits for the environment, economy, society and culture (see infographic).

The sea is key to the health of Earth and humans. Oceanic plankton supplies half the oxygen of the planet. At the same time, the ocean absorbs 25% of carbon dioxide, the planet’s largest carbon sink. Coastal and marine ecosystems keep the ocean balanced and are critical natural forts against climate change impacts.

Protection secures sources of food and livelihood for coastal communities, particularly the poor. It holds keys to medicines, human knowledge and cultural heritage.

And the economic value of MPAs is proven. In 2021, the fisheries sector in Malaysia produced 1.75 million tonnes of edible fish, worth nearly RM15 billion. Divers who flock to Sabah’s rich coral reefs could generate up to RM800 million for the state.

And in Kuching, Sarawak, protecting just 20% of its deltaic mangrove forests is potentially producing benefits worth nearly RM28 billion.

Mangroves such as these in Bako National Park, Sarawak contain soil erosion and absorb more carbon than rainforests (Photos: SL Wong)

A recent Blue Economy position paper by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia pushes for sustainable development of the marine and maritime economic sectors. With these sectors valued at RM288 billion, the paper says Malaysia should develop this further as it “has lagged far behind its neighbours in terms of economic productivity”.

Sectors being promoted include maritime transport, ports, and related services; ocean ecosystem services; and climate change management.

There is a lot to consider when managing coasts and seas, from fisheries and biodiversity, to shipping and security. Therefore, protected areas must necessarily sit on a spectrum to serve different purposes. This ranges from no-take zones prohibiting fishing, to multiple use zones that allow fisheries, recreation and other activities.

For this, a plethora of federal and state laws and regulations is employed. Likewise, there is no one authority overseeing protected areas. Instead, the mosaic of oversight agencies reflects the nature of Malaysia’s federalism and its constitution of the three entities – the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak. (see map)

Explore the map to see what Malaysia’s MPAs are, what laws they are gazetted under, and who is managing them. The MPAs shown comprise legally protected coastal as well as marine areas. The primary source of this information is Enhancing Uptake of Nature-Based Solutions for Informing Coastal Sustainable Development Policy and Planning: A Malaysia Case Study (Chee et al, 2021). Click here for detailed notes on this map.

Overlapping jurisdictions complicate matters, but they also offer opportunities for cooperation. To strengthen the management and functions of MPAs, experts call for various measures.

Governance and management

The federal-state dichotomy is something that affects decisions and the management of MPAs. “Everyone is aware of the cross-cutting issues where jurisdiction is concerned,” says Affendi Yang Amri, coral reef ecologist at Universiti Malaya. “So rather than look at it one state at a time, we need to look at the big picture.”

Adopting the National Ocean Policy could be a solution, as is reviving the National Oceanographic Directorate within the Environment Ministry, which developed the policy with stakeholders.

However, state government support is essential to make federal marine policies and plans work, says Kevin Hiew. He was former Johor state fisheries head, and the head of the federal Department of Marine Parks for 8 years, overseeing parks in Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan.

“You have to go to every state to have dialogue with them. If possible, include the Menteri Besar.” A proposition is to use the vehicle of the National Land Council, the highest decision-making body on land-use chaired by the Prime Minister.

Non-state-run alternatives should be considered too. Malaysia’s first IUCN Green Listed MPA, the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA) in Sabah, is gazetted as a Conservation Area and privately managed.

The “non-profit company” appointed by the state government 2 decades ago functions as a government agency, from habitat rehabilitation and tourism to co-enforcement. The 2022 IUCN listing recognises its good governance and conservation efforts.

SIMCA is an award-winning privately run MPA where staff check for fish-bombing (left) and have  increased turtle populations (Photos: Reef Guardian)

Overall, biological conservation should be emphasised rather than recreation, says Hiew. “For marine management, habitats like coral reefs, mudflats, mangroves, rocky areas, and seagrasses are very important for fisheries.”

But so is the socio-economic dimension, says Hiew, who regrets the no-take zone policy of  Marine Parks.

“Depending on which area, we have to think of the traditional local guy who has to make a living, say using 2—3 fishing lines. Protecting these areas means these areas can remain or become rich in biodiversity, rich in fish, so we should allow them to fish using traditional gears; it’s harmless to coral reefs.”

He also advocates stronger laws for marine parks, so “officers can carry out enforcement in a more clear-cut manner; they can make more detailed regulations for example, the speed of private speedboats taking tourists into marine parks, and so on.”

Local participation

Experts also emphasise the importance of integrating local communities in ocean management. “The sea belongs to no one and everyone,” says biocultural conservationist Dr Jarina Mohd Jani of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. “But it is resource users who are the best people to govern their commons. The best thing that researchers and technocrats can do is advise.”

The fact is, more communities are participating in MPA management.

In Sabah, locals were involved in the 30 years it took to make the Tun Mustapha Park a reality. The second largest gazetted MPA in the country, it covers almost 9,000 sqkm of coral reefs, mangroves, islands and coasts. The state park is also the country’s first multiple-use park, zoned for preservation, community use, multiple uses, and commercial fisheries. It continues to engage with and serves the 80,000-strong community.

Meanwhile in Selangor, the Department of Fisheries Malaysia (DOFM) is exploring the concept of ICCA, a term referring to territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities. It is the first time a government agency is looking at this framework in Malaysia. DOF’s pilot study involves documenting the fisheries of the Mah Meri Orang Asli community of Pulau Carey.

In Pahang, the islander Tioman Marine Conservation Group and NGO Reefcheck Malaysia (RCM) are working alongside the DOFM in its Reef Care programme, which gives some management responsibility to communities.

“Locals should be in the council to have a say in what is happening, in policies,” says Hiew, who is a member of RCM’s board of trustees. “Now everything is top down. All of them have to be able to make decisions [for their own island].

“Then only will we get to know the problems of fishermen. They are the people who are impacted directly, not government servants siting in a room not knowing what’s happening in the sea, what’s happening to the tourism sector, which is bringing in money to people and country.”

Locals should be more involved in management: Tioman islanders at a briefing on the now-cancelled airport (left) and Terengganu boatmen struggle to negotiate a giant sandbank post-monsoon (Photos: Alvin Chelliah/RCM and SL Wong)

Network of MPAs

Another call is to link MPAs. “Small individual MPAs offer a certain amount of protection but there is plenty of science to suggest that protecting larger areas improves the level of protection,” says Julian Hyde, general manager of RCM. This is because marine life, from turtles and sharks right down to coral larvae travel beyond park boundaries.

The larvae in particularly are critical in establishing reefs in the shallow areas between islands, what he calls “hidden reefs”.

Affendi, who is researching this with RCM, agrees. “Right now, we have marine parks on the north east and south east of the east coast. Which is the source [of marine life] and which is the sink? Because they seed each other.”

Hence, the need to protect larger seascapes, says Hyde. “[Otherwise], there is a risk they will be damaged, for example, by fishing and coastal development, breaking the connectivity corridors and therefore the [coral reef] re-supply chains.”

On Borneo, Sarawak is connecting its MPAs along its coastline by eventually gazetting 16,000 sqkm of sea. This new area follows the locations of reefballs, which they had been dropping onto seabeds since 1998.

The objectives are multifold. Chief is to deter trawlers overfishing Sarawak waters, and jeopardising the livelihoods of artisanal fishers. But the reefballs also serve as substrates for coral growth and erosion control. When the whole area is gazetted, this MPA will be the largest MPA in Malaysia by a long stretch.

Sarawak’s new million hectare MPA will conserve wildlife from the east [left] all the way to the west [right] (Photos: Lau Chai Ming)

Frameworks and data

Frameworks such as Nature Based Solutions and Blue Carbon offer opportunities to increase, strengthen and fund the protection of coastal and marine habitats, says Cheryl Rita Kaur, marine research analyst at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia.

“There has already been a push by various stakeholders [to] conserve our ecosystems. But having [these] mechanisms is further adding the pressure in a positive way.”

Collective protection of these ecosystems should be considered. The tsunami that hit Malaysia 20 years ago flagged mangroves’ importance as coastal forts. With climate change, mangroves together with seagrasses and coral reefs, are crucial in mitigating the more intense storm surges and rising sea levels that worsen coastal erosion, flood coastal areas and destroy infrastructure.

At the same time, there is a need to research and document what there is and prioritise what to protect, says Affendi. For instance, the DOFM’s latest gazetted marine parks in Malaysia (2022) protect coral species that are potentially resilient to climate change.

“The Straits of Malacca are very turbid and yet these reefs are thriving,” he says. “This could indicate that they [have] the same characteristics as the corals just 50 km north of Melaka in Port Dickson. We feel that if Port Dickson’s corals are the resilient ones, it would be the same in Melaka. This could indicate that the waters shared with Melaka could be special for coral survival.”

In the last couple of years, the DOFM has been researching potential MPA sites in these very straits. “We have been collecting data on the west coast of the Peninsula to determine ecological biodiverse sensitive areas,” says Izarenah Md Repin of the fisheries conservation and protection division.

Special Straits

“We want to know where the important habitats are, the critical ones that need protection. The Straits of Malacca is very special: it’s small and narrow but has large productivity – and that includes mangroves.

“It’s also where these habitats have to compete with a lot of development, such as reclamation and sand mining. We’re not against development, but we need the data to make sure that if there is development, the proper mitigation measures are applied.”

The 3 new Melaka marine parks are the outcome of DOFM’s surveys on Melaka and Negeri Sembilan. The department is concluding research on Selangor, and surveying Perak this year.

The new Melaka marine parks have large Gorgonian fans [left]; Mah Meri fishers fish locally in Selangor for food and income [right] (Photo: Quek Yew Aun and [right] SL Wong)

Good food for all

Protecting coasts and seas protects people, jobs, heritage and health. As the ninth largest seafood consumers in the world, Malaysians care about eating fish. But they care less about where the fish come from and how they are caught. However, that is what is needed, says Jarina, particularly when it comes to eating local.

And that is where MPAs come in, says Hiew. “If you protect all these [marine] habitats, you are managing fisheries, and you won’t lose ikan bilis, tenggiri, bawal putih, kerapu .. everything we love to eat.”

In terms of governance, Cheryl points out that “there is federal push on certain priorities [in marine management] for the country. It’s very crucial that the state governments work together with the federal government to realise these… If [states] have different priorities, it will be difficult to achieve this.”

Likewise, the need for a stable government. “When Ministries and agencies change with the political changes… these things have impacts. When you change ministries, your priority, focus and mandate changes – it then becomes more difficult for us to say, is this still the same direction you are pursuing?”

This feature is part of #SeaWorld, our series on marine issues. The series is supported by the French Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Also read: Grandfather Stories Can Save Our Seas  |  Nature’s Forts Key to Weathering Storms  |  Urgent Search for Malaysia’s Super Corals

Correction 14/10/23 @ 3.30pm: We had mistakenly identified the Tun Mustapha Park as the largest marine protected area when in fact, the honour belongs to the Luconia Shoal National Park at 10,172.72 sqkm. The new total MPA area in Sarawak which runs along its coast would be 16,000 sqkm.

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