Monday, October 2

Saving coral reefs from choking ghost nets


A fascinating underwater view that has drawn divers from around the world to the diving sites of Miri.

CONSERVATION issues have frequently hogged the headlines amidst heightened concern over widespread environmental pollution through habitual littering and wanton dumping of rubbish and toxic waste.

Time and time again, the importance of protecting the environment has been highlighted, resulting in campaigns after campaigns being organised to rid beaches, recreational parks and other public places of junk and detritus, jettisoned mostly by human defilers.

Choa (fifth left – front row) with the divers after the third Ops Nemo City on July 7.

While most of these campaigns focus on terra firma, the oceans need attention too as they support a myriad of marine life and the ecosystem.

Callous human activities such as over-fishing, discard of abandoned fishing nets (or ghost nets) and garbage into the sea are putting many aquatic creatures and coral reefs under threat.

Recognising the urgency to address such escalating degradation of the natural surroundings, Future Ocean Borneo (FOB), a non-profit social enterprise, has taken a “local Borneo” initiative to protect the marine environment.

Moving forward, FOB has formed the Borneo Ghost Nets Hunters with professional scuba divers to clear fishing nets,  left drifting or lost in the open sea by fishermen and which  have become entangled on rocky or coral reefs.

Divers jubilate underwater after removing all the ghost nets at Nemo City diving site. — Photo by Lo Kiun Sin

Ghost nets are hazardous because they encourage algae growth which can proliferate and block sunlight, needed by coral reefs for photosynthesis.

Like land forests, the most important source of energy for tropical coral reefs is light. Long-term deprivation of this life-sustaining energy will cause the coral reefs to shrivel and die.

Two divers extricating nets entangled on the coral reefs. — Photo by Amei Wong

Despite taking up the formidable challenge to remove ghost nets two years ago, Future Ocean Borneo and Borneo Ghost Nets Hunters have been involved in various conservation efforts, passing a milestone in mid-April this year by successfully completing Ops Nemo City, 1, their first coral reef clean-up operation.

Six divers, led by FOB founder Iqbal Abdollah, removed 84kg of abandoned nets, stretching some 50 metres, from the Nemo City diving site.

“The main purpose was to locate the ghost nets and measure the impact of trawling nets on the coral reefs. We were also able to estimate the time needed to clear the nets,” Iqbal explained.

After the first clean-up, there are reportedly still more than 200 metres of ghost nets to be removed from the coral reefs.

Iqbal (left) pulling in the ghost nets from a dinghy boat. The third clean-up dive on July 7 removed 137kg of nets from the Nemo City dive site.

Media influence

The success of Ops Nemo City 1 had caught the attention of avid diver, Choa Yee Hui, who is also a journalist with a local news agency in Miri.

Choa would leap at the opportunity to go diving at any of the domestic or foreign sites.

As a certified diver and nature lover, she is at home swimming among the marine life in a colourful and peaceful world beneath the waves.

“With my media job and money and time constraints, I cannot say I have been to many diving sites around the country but I will keep them in my bucket list.

“I love diving at foreign sites because of the rare marine life I get to see. The experience is beyond description. There are several world class diving sites in Malaysia such as Tenggol Island and Sipadan that offer a memorable experience.”

Choa opined the diving sites in Miri were equally beautiful although the marine species tended to be less compared to other well- known sites.


Life’s mission

She has made highlighting and promoting awareness of oceanic conservation part of her life’s mission, and was the organising chairperson of the second Ops Nemo City in early May, one month after the first operation.

“I have joined diving adventures at every given opportunity and seen, during these dives, the amount of damage ghost nets are causing the marine environment. I feel I have to do something about it – like it has become a responsibility.

“As a journalist, I understand the power of the media in not only creating greater awareness of the urgency to address this problem but also getting the message across to a whole lot more people,” she said.

Divers prep for the third operation. A total of 32 divers participated in Ops Nemo City 3.0.

Subsequent operations

The second Ops Nemo City was jointly organised by Northern Sarawak Journalists’ Association (NSJA), Future Ocean Borneo and a private enterprise known as Co.Co Dive.

Twenty divers worked in unison to extricate a total 193kg of ghost nets – about 115 metres in length – from the coral reefs.

The difficulties encountered in the second operation, as in the first, were mostly financial.

According to Choa, diving is an expensive sport and every dive requires funds, time and energy. Some people may even say diving is like dumping a whole load of money into the sea.

“We had difficulties looking for money. The lack of funding meant restricting the number of divers. So we only included experienced divers with CPR and First Aid certification.

“It’s not easy – unlike clearing rubbish on the beach. The weather plays a huge role too as diving is permitted only in good weather,” she said.

The third Ops Nemo City had been completed just last Sunday (July 7). All the ghost nets – 137kg in all – entangled among the coral reefs at the diving site, were said to have been removed.

Thirty-two divers from Fire and Rescue Department Zone 6, NSJA, Sarawak Forestry Corporation, Borneo Ghost Net Hunters, and Co.Co Dive Miri took part in the operation, including volunteers from Miri, Brunei and Singapore.

“We’re grateful to the volunteers who paid their own way over to help us for the love of the oceans and marine life,” Choa said, adding that these divers had responded to an open invitation from Co.Co Dive, Miri, which posted Ops Nemo City on their Facebook.

This macro marine life easily captivates the divers with its bright colours. (Photo by Choa Yee Hui).

Impact on marine life

After Nemo City, the next mission will be called Sea Fan Garden, targeted for this year.

“We’re looking to make it happen – best before September because after that, the weather is usually uncertain and could be dangerous to divers. If we can’t make it this year, it will most probably be March next year,” Choa said.

Although getting rid of ghost nets is a daunting task, the positive impact created on the marine ecosystem in the long run is worth striving for.

Miri-Sibuti is known to have 20 diving sites with pristine patch reefs. They are known as Nemo City, Eve’s Garden, Anemone Garden, Siwa Reef, Sea Fan Garden, Sunday Reef, VHK Reef, Kenyalang Artificial Reef, Santak Point, Belais Reef and Sri Gadong Wreck, among others.

Although sport diving only started here in the late 90’s, it has opened up a plethora of diving sites.

In Feb 28, 2007, Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park was gazetted by Sarawak government as “totally protected” to conserve the 186,930-hectare ecosystem, spanning the maritime boundary of Bintulu to Miri City.

It is the largest offshore national park created in Sarawak that offers 40 dive sites with a variety of corals and marine life among the reefs. It is also the breeding ground for 800 species of hard and soft corals apart from a variety of fish and a number of macro species.

Choa said cleaning up the coral reefs was part of efforts to boost the diving and tourism industry of Miri.

“We want educate both locals and tourists alike on the importance of protecting coral reefs and how coral reefs are playing a vital role in maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem.”