We helped deliver Malaysia’s largest marine park

At 898,000 hectares, Tun Mustapha Park is one of the few systematically planned networks of marine protected areas in the Coral Triangle- the epicentre of the world’s marine biodiversity. It is Malaysia’s largest marine park and is home to 187, 000 people, nearly half of which depend on TMP’s reef ecosystems for their livelihoods and sustenance. As such, TMP is a flagship project of the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral reefs, Fisheries and Food Security.

Above photo: Sea cucumber farms in a remote village in Northeast Banggi Island

The University of Queensland played a central role in establishing TMP, which used an iterative consultation process underpinned by the decision support tool, Marxan in collaboration with WWF-Malaysia. Our recent paper in Oryx describes the challenges of this decade long process and shows how zones changed at each planning stage. Importantly, the paper profiles how a scientifically robust process helped facilitate decisions about resource allocation by both stakeholders and government agencies.

Above photo: The evolution of the zoning plan throughout the prioritisation process (Jumin et. al 2017).

Five years into my collaboration on TMP, I found myself back on the island of Borneo. In April-May 2017, I joined WWF-Malaysia on a three-week expedition, (funded by the GEF small grants program and with the generous help of the Winifred V. Scott Charitable Trust), to conduct baseline biodiversity assessments of coral reefs, benthic habitats and fish.

Impacts to coral reefs

Above photo: An intact vs bombed reef along our surveys

Coral reefs around the world are facing the impacts of climate stress and while we saw evidence of bleaching in some low flux areas, the far more prevalent impact on the region’s biodiversity was from dynamite fishing - a destructive fishing practice that is widely used throughout the Indo-Pacific in order to collect a lot of fish very quickly. The more remote the reef, the more bombs we heard while surveying in the water.

Coral rubble was present at almost every site we visited- an obvious sign of past dynamite fishing. Rubble was generally accompanied by low fish biomass and large predators were scarce across the marine park. We saw no reef sharks or marine turtles on the expedition.

Some good news

Above photo: A protected, healthy reef in TMP by E. Meijard/WWF Malaysia

In many cases, the rubbly slopes of previously bombed reefs showed signs of recovery and successful coral recruitment. This is encouraging for the future success of TMP where the objectives are to both protect biodiversity and the rights of villages to access traditional and productive fishing grounds.

Where WWF and local communities tend locally managed protected areas, we found prime examples of intact, healthy reefs supporting abundant fish communities with noticeable differences in trophic structure, including the presence of large groupers. Even at a small scale, management makes a large difference for the communities that depend of reefs and the 2016 gazettement of TMP is a massive victory for Malaysia and coral reefs worldwide.

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