‘State needs active marine conservation’

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Diving instructor Martin Wong.

MIRI: Repeated calls by environmentalists for stricter laws to protect the marine ecosystem show that more effort is needed to make marine conservation a success.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Miri branch chairman Iqbal Abdollah said that law enforcement and public education are vital to marine conservation.

“Sarawak faces the South China Sea which is full of magnificent marine resources.

“The extensive and very diverse coral reefs are natural gems located within the Coral Reef Triangle and its fauna are the fishes, marine mammals, the dugongs and the turtles.

“Recently, with heart breaking news of turtle carcasses found floating and gruesomely found on beaches, we are worried that the same could happen in Sarawak,” he told The Borneo Post.

Without strict laws and enforcement by state and federal agencies, Iqbal lamented that marine life is endangered.

He is grateful to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) for a ‘commendable job’ in Sarawak and for the cooperation of local fishermen who gave information on foreign fishermen ‘trespassing in our waters.’

Foreign vessels which encroached Malaysian waters not only rob local fishermen of their source of income but also harm various fish species caught with illegal fishing tools.

A juvenile zebra shark sold at a local market.

Another matter of concern, Iqbal highlighted is related to how MMEA would handle the seized marine creatures caught by foreign fishermen.

“A special case worth mentioning here is the live shark and other frozen fish seized in September this year. I was told that the frozen fishes will be auctioned off, but how about the live shark?” he asked.

It belongs to a species of shark — Bamboo Cat Shark or White-spotted Bamboo Shark (Chiloscyllium plagiosum) —which is not protected under the Fisheries Act of Malaysia 1985, Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species of Fish) Regulation 1999 and Sarawak Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.

The species is native to the Asian region under the family of Hemicyllidae and is quite common in Sarawak waters.

However, it is listed as a Near Threatened (NT) species in the Red List of Threatened Species by International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Foreign fishermen caught and kept the sharks alive as the species has good market value as aquarium fishes at RM300 to RM400 per fish. It has much less value if sold for its meat.

“Having said this, I really hope that the authority would not auction the shark to businessmen but released it back,” Iqbal pleaded.

Iqbal also wants to see stricter laws that will prohibit fishermen from selling any endangered marine species that were accidentally caught.

He cited a recent incident when he came across a juvenile zebra shark — listed as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species — at a market here.

Iqbal, who is also the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) divemaster, described how sighting valuable marine species is a great and priceless experience to divers.

“More importantly, sharks of any species have great value and attraction for eco-tourism. It is one of the largest attraction because divers really look forward to seeing sharks during their dives,” he pointed out.

Scuba diver and diving instructor Martin Wong is one of the handful in the country to be awarded CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques) three-star scuba diver status. He opined that before the Sarawak Government promotes Miri’s eco-tourism, the conservation work must come first.

“Sadly, there are a lot of people who may love diving but lack knowledge and understanding of marine life and the importance of protecting it.

“The government should make it a point to include marine studies into the school curriculum. Miri’s underwater has more than 3,000 species of fishes and coral reefs.

“With the human activities that are going-on, I must say that they are quite ignorant about how human activity has been threatening marine life,” he observed.

Such education, he suggests, can be incorporated into subjects like geography and biology so the young can develop a greater appreciation of nature.

Wong is of the same mind with Iqbal concerning the law and its enforcement.

Law enforcement is important, he said, to help ensure that ‘endangered species are protected from extinction.’