When I first started out as a marine biologist for WWF-Malaysia in 2006, one question haunted me:
How would one begin to ask a fishing-dependant community living below the national poverty line to put aside an area to protect their livelihood?
My main responsibility was to set up a community-managed marine reserve in the Kudat-Banggi Priority Conservation Area (PCA), one of the three globally significant conservation areas within the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion in Malaysia. Pulau Maliangin was selected as the model site, within the proposed Tun Mustapha Park (TMP). And this was where I met Pakcik (Uncle) Musannah.
“A coral reef is the home of fishes. No corals, no fish,” he said when I first met him. He has been known for chasing away fishers using poison and explosives and has long banned destructive fishing practices in the sea in front of his property.
Fishing is an inherently dangerous and precarious occupation. So why would anyone increase the risk many times over by using poison and home-made bombs? Tales of lost limbs, nerve damage and worse, death, abound when talking to fishers about destructive fishing practices. While few admit to using these methods themselves, everyone knows someone who does - a neighbor or even a brother, uncle or cousin. Often, it is desperation that makes them take unnecessary risks.
The Kudat-Banggi PCA has many immigrants from the southern Philippines, seeking a better life or fleeing conflict. During their long and uncertain wait to be naturalized as Malaysians, immigrants do not have many job opportunities and some resort to destructive fishing practices to eke out a living. The live reef fish food trade (LRFFT) is another driver of destructive fishing practices. Poison fishers are able to stun and keep alive carnivorous and top-level coral reef predators such as groupers and snappers for the ever-increasing demands in Singapore, China and Hong Kong. Blast fishers catch many fish indiscriminately to be used as feed for the groupers and snappers until they reach the target weight and size for the LFFFT market.
As part of an educational video, we asked a local fisher, Faz (not his real name), to reenact destructive fishing scenes. In the place of cyanide, coconut milk was used and a pretend bomb was constructed. When shown the video, some villagers would excitedly point out that they recognized Faz and his “evil deeds”. Our boatman would frequently act as an important liaison with the communities. Pakcik Damsek, would sagely explain to them that these “lazy” ways of fishing were a lose-lose situation to everyone concerned and point out the actual conservation message behind the video.
Pakcik Musannah served as an important intermediary between WWF-Malaysia and the Maliangin community. He hosted the first few community consultations to establish a no-take zone and continues to set a good example to his people in monitoring and enforcement.
I left WWF-Malaysia in 2008 but continue to hear of progress and positive news from the Maliangin Sanctuary, which has now been fully embraced by the local community. The no-take zones have been designated; Honorary Wildlife Wardens were trained; and an alternative livelihood programme was set up. WWF-Malaysia has since identified other proactive communities throughout the proposed Park, such as the Berungus village. They too prevent destructive fishing practices on their coral reef and show tremendous initiative in protecting turtle nesting sites. These heartening stories are shining examples of how the proposed Tun Mustapha Park will have a bright future as a collaboratively managed marine protected area (MPA), serving not only biodiversity, but socioeconomic goals as well.
*Pakcik (Malay word for uncle; used to politely address elderly men)
~Pulau (Malay word for island)