Spearhunting The Real Coral Killers

Last Tuesday, 22 July 2010, Marine Park Department director-general Abd Jamal Mydin announced that several top diving spots at Pulau Tioman and Pulau Redang will be closed due to coral bleaching. The closure will mean no snorkelling or diving activities at the affected spots.

Pamela Lim considers the purpose and efficacy of this measure of closing of dive sites as a remedy to a phenomenon that is caused is caused by weather conditions and not human impact.

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching is NOT caused by human impact and pollution. It is caused by weather phenomenons. So why has the authorities announced dive site closures to revive the bleached corals?

Coral bleaching is the whitening of corals due to the expulsion of algae – the food manufacturing processors that reside in corals by way of photosynthesis. This can be caused by a number of weather phenomenon triggers, most commonly a rise in water temperatures. Bleached corals are not yet dead.

The rise of surface temperatures in the water is caused why the El Nino weather patterns. El Nino is only one part of the Southern Oscillation. The counterpart to this coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon is La Nina, usually expected from November to January, often has reverse effects to El Nino. La Nina conditions would see a drop in ocean temperatures by several degrees, causing algae to return to corals.

I’ve witnessed a similar occurrence in 1997 and was diving in pleasantly warm waters until 1999 when La Nina brought the cold fronts of about 21 – 23 degrees Celsius back to our waters and giving the algae the much desired environment to thrive in. We had 95% recovery and I believe, we will have a recovery as soon as the water temperatures in the region begin to drop.

El Nino has been around for centuries and has nothing to do with global warming – it can enhance the effects of El Nino but it is not the cause. This is something that divers have known since encountering it during its last occurrence. Global warming is an atmospheric condition whereas El Nino occurs when the gush of warm waters spreads from the west Pacific and the Indian Ocean to the east Pacific.

What has it got to do with divers diving near coral reefs? If we were grazing corals or mowing them, then perhaps the closure is apt but divers hover way above the corals to avoid collision and injury to animal and man. Whether there are divers present or not, the coral will remain bleached until the cold waters (fronts/currents) are brought in by La Nina, which might or might not revive the bleached reef in time. These factors are not related to the impact of divers.

bleached coral

bleached corals


healthy corals

What will the dive sites closure achieve?

So what will the dive sites closure achieve? You would think that the authorities would do some research on coral bleaching before making such a drastic move that causes livelihoods to suffer. The Maldives, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia are experiencing the same but they are not jeopardising the tourism trade because of a weather phenomenon.

The efforts of the authorities to close dive sites will bring about dire consequences to the trade depending on dive tourism. Travel agents will stop selling/pushing the sales of dive resorts and packages for fear of getting flak from irked divers. This being said, agents who are not divers, will think it’s probably a blanket closure, not knowing where in the map is Chebeh, Labas, Tulai, Washing Machine, Fish Bowl and whatnots are at (dive sites’ names). They will err on the safe side by NOT selling dive packages.

This effect caused by the announcement has also reverberated to overseas travel agents (who also have no idea where Chebeh, Labas, Tulai, Washing Machine, Fish Bowl are) and they will be less inclined to sell diving and worse of all – they are removing a source of civilian detection of “crime” at seas.

Let me give you an example of what goes on in the islands. Illegal spearhunters will plunder our dive sites and take those resident fishes that have grown accustomed to divers’ presence in the water leaving dive instructors like us with no attractions to show our students when visiting our reefs. When something like this happens, divers from different dive operators who witness the incident, would take photos and warn them to get off the site.

One such incident occurred and divers collaborated to chase the spearhunters’ boat off their territory. Several years ago, it was well-known that Kevin Hiew, the former Head of Marine Parks, detained a spearhunter in Redang waters who was also the owner of one of the resorts in Redang itself. He was prosecuted and fined for spearhunting in marine parks.

If you hold a speargun without a gun license, you are liable to be prosecuted under the Firearms Act 1971. The police have stopped the issuance of these licenses in 1985, with the minimum age set at 21 years to qualify to apply for one then. What age would you have to be now, if you are to be even seen as a legal owner? Make no mistake about this as we are not against spearhunting but against “spearhunting using SCUBA” in the vicinity of marine parks. We shall not go into the specifics of this now as spearhunting is a subject that’s been debated for years.

The presence of dive boats will also deter the encroachment of illegal and legal fishing boats from fishing too close to the marine parks demarcated sites. Regardless of whether they hold the “A” or “C” class fishing license, these fishing boats will anchor in the vicinity, causing untold damage to corals beneath. The Marine Parks and the Fisheries Department do not have sufficient manpower, boats to survey and enforce laws thus, are very much dependent upon dive operators to report and confirm sightings of spearhunters/illegal fishing boat in the area.

clown fish bleached corals

Lighthouse at Tokong Tenggol

Lighthouse at Tokong Timur, Tenggol

Now you don’t see it, now you do!

A 100 metre well was dug in Tenggol bay, followed by a lighthouse built on Tokong Timur. What kind of crowd are they expecting to accommodate from this source of fresh water? Word has it that a jetty is being planned – which means a flurry of boats would be making their way inwards to the bay where there’s a thriving house reef and divers learn to dive. They have constructed a jetty on Pulau Bidung already, much to the ire of divers and conservationist of Pulau Bidung. The island is not opened to the public, so what is the jetty built for?

Jetties alter the current flow that brings vital nutrients and sunlight to the reefs. Seabeds are dug deep and corals are killed in the process.

Is the construction of any structure legal in marine parks? Or does it fall within the jurisdiction of district councils and land offices?

Wouldn’t you want to know if this is just a way of removing the crowd so that no one can protest after such structures are built?

Mataking1-6 healthy corals

bleached corals

bleached corals 2

LB: Pamela Lim is driven by her fervent spirit for adventure, her inquisitive nature for wildlife and her intrinsic values for doing the right thing. As a result, she has been “dipped” in hot soup and cool oceans alike. She makes a living by teaching others to live their dreams through diving while documenting memories through photography from the travel trade; at times, sending her out to recce currents and paths less trodden. With God all things are possible. Follow her tweets @pummkin.

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I'm driven by my fervent spirit for adventure, my inquisitive nature for wildlife & my intrinsic values for doing the right thing. The compulsion to go in and around water had been apparent from the age of 4 and the ocean has yet to be taken out of me. I make a living out of making people live their dream of learning how to dive while making memories through journalistic assignments that I get from travel businesses sending me out to recce the path less trodden. With God, all things are possible.

Posted on 27 July 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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