SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 16, September 2016 - Page 46

“Ok, lets load these and we will move them out to the reef there.” Dr. Steve Oakley of the Malaysian Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) directs his students and volunteers into the shallows loading concrete reef blocks onto the sand of the shallows. This beach on Pom Pom Island has the romantic appeal of trackless talcum sand, edged by waving palms. The water is crystal clear and warm as a bath. At a small resort adjacent to the field station guests loll on chaise lounges sipping cool fruity drinks. The field station is slightly different, with a large concrete shark in front of an open class room lined with biology and dive texts. Behind the dive shed is a work area that resembles a construction site with concrete mixer, reef boxes and empty bottles with reef blocks in various stages of construction.

We are diving at Pom Pom Island near the center of what is known as the Coral Triangle. To quote my colleague Dr. Terry Gosliner of the California Academy of Sciences, this area is the center of the center of marine biodiversity. He should know, having discovered and described hundreds of marine invertebrates , literally writing the book on nudibranches in the region. Besides invertebrates, the Coral Triangle hosts over 2000 species of fish and 500 species of corals, many endemic, living only in the region.

Yet diving into the waters of Pom Pom tells a different story of paradise.

One glance down at the reef and one wonders where all the diversity went. The reef has been seriously impacted from blast fishing, also called fish bombing. A few species of hard coral cling to the reef crest, but much of the seascape is rubble. The loose fragments swirl in the surge and slide down the escarpment into the deep blue below. The colors of a healthy reef have been wiped away. It is a sad semblance of something once unimaginably otherworld.

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Beyond the turqoise shallows is an unsual reef crest. Beneath my mask appears an odd shaped artificial reef constructed of bottles and concrete sprouting various forms of living coral. Juvenile grouper, snapper and pufferfish live and grow among the interstices provided by the bottles and concrete.

Using a lift bag constructed of a truck innertube filled with air from our SCUBA tanks, the students pilot blocks of recently constructed material over the bottom, and lower the piece into place on the artificial reef. Coral fragments rescued, ironically, from recent blasted sites are secured to the structures which in turn are secured into the coral rubble. Placed neck down into the rubble and secured to one another, the reef blocks stabilize the reef crest and provide refuge for invertebrates and small fish.

As the silt settles a Harlequin sweet lips juvenile rushes in and lays claim to her new apartment.

The small fish provide food for larger predatory fish like barracuda and triggerfish. The upright structure provides surface area for coral and sponge larvae to settle and serve as foundation for more corals to grow.

This reef reconstruction is the brain child of Dr. Steve Oakley, a marine biologist and ardent marine conservationist and director of the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC). These bottle reefs are a reef restoration project constructed by TRACC, a conservation non profit with a field station on Pom Pom. Undergraduates from abroad visit Borneo to learn SCUBA, participate in the reef restoration effort, and gain college credit through the University of Cornwall. Also teaching SCUBA and marine biology courses, TRACC is attempting to restore the reef, with the mission of saving the ocean one coal one turtle and one shark at a time. Im here for the latter, but we are down for the whole mission.

We have also joined Dr. Oakley to film a segment of the online series Borneo From Below, an educational “Funservation” series featuring the underwater word and the challenges facing Borneo. I am also curious to determine what sharks remain in the region, and with Dr. Oakley’s help we are documenting sharks in the market and in the wild as part of a shark survey to collect data for Malaysian shark conservation. There is grave concern about overfishing sharks and the illicit shark fin trade in Malaysia, and despite government denial, Shark Stewards is documenting and exposing the problem.

Thanks to a donation from GoPro, we are setting up camera traps at night, hoping to document the remaining small coral catsharks and bamboo sharks in the region. Catsharks are nocturnal, elusive and shy and difficult to find in the wild, yet we have been recording these small sharks and their fins for sale in the fish markets. Like most sharks in the region, these beautiful and enigmatic sharks are becoming more rare. After setting up an array of cameras with lights and a rotten squid buried beneath the rubble, we will catalogue an observations into a national shark count database using citizen scientists to better assess the population.

With no shark fishing laws not even a ban on the criminal practice of shark finning, little enforcement even against wide-scale reef destruction and the gross trade in shark fins and live fish, it is encumbant upon locals and grass roots organizations to protect their ocean heritage.

The TRACC team have been adding to this reef for almost three years and already corals are overgrowing their substrate. More fish swim in this area than others we have visited with reef damage. Fusfform shapes of rainbow runners stretch out into the swimming pool blue of the shallow reef. Trigger fish prowl along the edge, predators seeking a prey and a sign of hope that the food web is recovering. We also see two large sea turtles nestled down beneath a ledge of dead coral. Soon perhaps a reef shark might take residence as the apex predator and help restore some semblance of balance to this re-emerging reef ecosystem.

Restoration efforts like this one are critically important for providing habitat for marine life, but perhaps more important is stopping the destruction of remaining healthy habitat, such as those still occurring on nearby islands by creating community managaed marine protected areas. In the long run, it is far cheaper and simpler to protect healthy reefs than it is to restore and rebuild reefs that have been lost.

Nature is resilient, and recovery of coral reefs is possible with efforts like this, but they are time consuming to restore and take time and nurturing to take root. With over half the world’s coral reefs threatened or destroyed there is much work to be done.

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By David McGuire