Sabah plans new rules on sea salvage after WWII wreck controversy

Tourism Malaysia diving advisor Clement Lee estimated that the removal of the wrecks have cost the state some RM2 million in potential tourism receipts per year. ― AFP pic
Tourism Malaysia diving advisor Clement Lee estimated that the removal of the wrecks have cost the state some RM2 million in potential tourism receipts per year. ― AFP pic

KOTA KINABALU, Feb 16 ― New rules and guidelines for salvaging in Sabah will be introduced following a massive controversy over the removal of three World War II shipwrecks in Usukan Bay here.

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun conceded that the controversy was “not a good first time experience”, but that authorities could learn from the mistakes moving forward.

“To prevent a similar incident in the future, we will get the experts to lay down some ground rules. Each application will be vetted by all the ministries involved, and will involve my ministry via the permanent secretary.

“The exploration license issued by the Sabah Museum has to be followed up by report before any salvaging or removal works can be carried out,” he said, adding that the historical value and other welfare has to be taken into consideration before such a decision can be made.

The issue made global headlines when the tourism and diving industry complained that three World War II shipwrecks, about half an hour boat ride from Kuala Abai here, have almost disappeared from uncontrolled salvaging.

The Japanese cargo vessels ― Kokusei Maru, Higane Maru and Hiyori Maru ― sank off the coast of Sabah in 1944 along with the crew, and later became popular dive sites and fishing spots for locals.

Tourism Malaysia diving advisor Clement Lee estimated that the removal of the wrecks have cost the state some RM2 million in potential tourism receipts per year.

“The World War II shipwrecks were definitely an attraction to Sabah. It is irreplaceable,” he said.

A local company ―  Ugeens Berjaya Enterprise ― had commissioned a China-registered vessel to salvage materials from the shipwrecks while Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) were to conduct research and documentation on the wrecks.

They had obtained salvaging approval from the Marine Department in Sabah, which has no jurisdiction over the wrecks, and an exploration licence from the Sabah Museum Department, who insisted that the permit did not allow the removal of any artifacts or the wreck.

Masidi said the debacle was a result of confusion and inadequate consultation.

“There is no clear demarcation of authority in this case and hazy areas of what can and cannot be done. But we cannot just give blank approval for salvaging.

“We have to be more observant and mindful especially in this case where there are other overriding concerns,” he said during a meeting with all stakeholders involved at his office today.

The meeting was attended by UMS’s vice chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Harun Abdullah, deputy vice chancellor Prof Shahril Yusof, archeological research unit head Baszley Bee Basrah Bee, Ugeen’s assist manager retired commander Abdul Rahman Md Saad, Sabah Museum Director Sintiong Gelet among others.

Abdul Rahman said that he had commissioned the China firm with experience salvaging over 100 shipwrecks to salvage this ship after hearing of looting incidents, and would make a profit selling research books of the shipwreck.

Baszley also said that the ship was in poor condition and salvaging had to be done to extract any remaining artifacts before these were further looted or the wrecks, destroyed.

He also said that the ship was carrying 3,000 metric tonnes of hazardous material and posed a danger to the region, although this was not verified by an expert.

Masidi said that the claim that the ship had to be lifted and removed to prevent poisoning was dubious as it was not proven and there have been no reports of it so far.

He said that he will invite the proper authorities to take samples and verify whether there was toxic material still in the ship and whether it posed danger to the environment and the people in the area.

Abdul Rahman said that after salvaging a number of ceramic, anchor and some plates from the wrecks, other parts of the wrecks were placed back in the sea, albeit at a different location.

“The new coordinates can only be revealed by the Museum,” he said.