FEBRUARY 23 ― International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), a global partnership aimed at preserving coral reef ecosystems worldwide declared 2018 as an International Year of the Reef (IYOR).
I used “an” because IYOR was, in fact, declared two times prior to this; in 1997 and 2008.
But why, you might ask.
Twenty years ago, in 1997, coral reefs worldwide bleached* simultaneously. This was brought upon by the rise in sea temperatures from global warming and the coinciding El Nino effect.
Prompted by the realisation that we could lose all our reefs, and that the loss would be permanent, IYOR 1997 was created.
By IYOR 2008, global warming did not show any signs of slowing down. As a result, coral bleaching events became more frequent.
The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) reported as much as 19 per cent of coral reefs “effectively lost” and another 15 per cent in “critical state” in 2008.
At the same time, new threats like ocean acidification, human induced coastal pollution and storm intensification due to global warming were thrust into the limelight.
That brings us to today: 2018. The decade since 2008 has seen global warming, ocean acidification and coastal pollution further intensify. 2016 was the warmest year ever to be recorded; followed closely by 2017, 2015 and 2014.
And this doesn’t come without consequences. Two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world, was severely bleached last year. It is still unclear whether these affected areas will ever recover.
Does this then make worldwide reef ecosystem loss imminent? Or will reefs rise again in an age where global temperature records fall every year?
I refuse to be crippled by news of doom and gloom, instead have prepared a list of five suggestions that can better protect reef ecosystems in Malaysia. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, my IYOR 2018 wishlist:
1. A government that fulfils international commitments
The Malaysian government is party to several international conventions related to the environment. While this piece does not attempt to explain every single one of them, I intend to highlight the importance of fulfilling these commitments.
Often times, conventions are formed to tackle a common global problem like climate change (which includes global warming) and decline in species diversity.
However, since countries have respective sovereignties, conventions allow for leaders to act locally while remain consistent with the rest of the world.
For example, in response to climate change, a concerted effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions can lower global sea temperatures and lead to healthy reefs.
2. Malaysia to gazette more (well-financed) marine parks
Speaking of international commitments, Malaysia signed on to the Aichi Biodiversity targets in 2010 which promises 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas protected by 2020. Although Tun Mustapha Park which measures more than one million hectares was gazetted in 2016, there is much to be done before this target is reached.
Current marine parks are all fringing reefs. Perhaps the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM) should look into other equally threatened but lesser known marine ecosystems like sea grass beds, tidal pools and open sea as potential marine parks. I welcome the proposed Sibu-Tinggi Dugong Sanctuary as a perfect example of this.
3. The creation of a special federal agency for marine conservation
At the federal level, all agencies that carry out conservation efforts are under the purview of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE); save for one.
The Department of Fisheries, which is empowered by the Fisheries Act 1985 to safeguard our marine resources, is under the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries (MoA).
I argue that there is a misalignment in priorities when the agency roles are structured in this manner.
On one hand we have NRE which strives to manage and conserve, while on the other, we have MoA, tasked to improve yield.
Additionally, while coral reefs are safe within state or federal marine parks, the same level of protection is not afforded outside these boundaries.
This is also true for large reef fish species like sharks and bumphead parrotfish. Such a situation is disconcerting since coral reefs are known to be nurseries of open sea fish while marine predators regulate the health of a marine ecosystem.
The creation of a centralised agency for marine conservation, empowered by a new act is able to solve both these problems.
This agency can follow the mould of Perhilitan where critically endangered marine species could be placed under federal jurisdiction while the habitats remain under the state.
4. The fishing industry to play its role in reef conservation
In 2015, I interviewed about 100 artisanal fishermen from Penang island as part of my university honours thesis. They lamented the reducing catch and cited the increased presence of trawlers as the main threat to their livelihoods.
Although this hardly represents the overall picture, trawlers have been reported to flout laws by using smaller than regulated mesh sizes and encroach into shallower waters despite enforcement efforts by the authorities.
The fact is, fish stocks worldwide are in decline.
That is precisely why the industry players need to regulate themselves. Fish are not generated from thin air. Healthy fish stocks need healthy nurseries which encompass reef, seagrass and mangrove ecosystems.
Awareness of this needs to be improved alongside investment on habitat restoration if the industry wants to be sustainable.
5. A Malaysian society that stands up for the reef
Last on my wishlist are actions from everyday people like yourself. Show your passion by joining campaigns or be involved by volunteering for reef causes.
Even better, write to your Exco/MP when critical issues arise. Keep in mind that policy or legislation change can only happen when there is demand from members of civil society.
The fact is that IYOR is merely a milestone that will come and go. Whether the reef will follow suit, is up to us entirely. The scary part is that failure to act now might leave us with nothing to celebrate come 2028.
* Corals consist of both animal and plant working side by side. Coral bleaching is an event where the coral polyp (animal) is agitated and releases the algae (plant). It is this algae that gives the coral its colour. Without it, only the white calcium carbonate skeleton is visible; hence the term bleached. These algae also help the coral produce food. If conditions do not return to normal, the coral polyp will starve to death.
** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.