CGCA

» Issue 30: Autumn 2001

Preserving coral ecosystems

Matthew Collins (Mech 2000) describes a conservation expedition to the Malaysian island of Pulau Balak, Northern Borneo, supported by a CGCA Holbein Travel Award scholarship.

I had always been determined to take part in a conservation project. The chance to volunteer some of my time to helping the environment, and improve the understanding of problems affecting the worlds threatened habitats. Just as graduation was looming in January 2000, I was offered the opportunity to join a marine conservation expedition to a remote island in Northern Borneo. Naturally I jumped at the chance. I organised a six-month break after finishing college, and spent ten weeks of that on Pulau Balak, Malaysia, surveying coral reef habitats.

The expedition was organised by Greenforce, a non-profit organisation specialising in Biodiversity Conservation. Biodiversity Conservation deals specifically with the variety of different living organisms on the earth, or a particular area. The diversity of an ecosystem is dependent on a vast range of influencing factors, but increasingly human interference in fragile ecosystems is altering the balance of nature.

The expedition team on the dive boat. prior to a survey. Matthew Collins is second from the left

Worldwide breakthrough

In 1992 a major breakthrough occurred in that the importance of biodiversity was given worldwide recognition. At the Rio Earth Summit, l20 world leaders signed a convention aimed at protecting rare habitats and species existing on earth. As part of this, all countries are committed to carrying out biodiversity surveys to provide an inventory of the flora and fauna within their borders.

Unfortunately, the majority of the earth's biodiversity hotspots exist within developing countries. These countries have neither the funds nor the personnel to fulfil their commitment to survey biodiversity. Greenforce brings its teams of scientists and volunteers to carry out the much-needed work.

As well as contributing to databanks across the world, the research is used by host countries to assist with their planning. This allows them to arrange sustainable programmes to ensure the future of the protected area and offer ways for local people to benefit from conserving rather than harvesting the wildlife resources.

In conjunction with the University of Malaysia and Sabah Fisheries Department, Greenforce set up an expedition to survey the reefs and coastal habitats of the Pulau Banggi Island group off the northern coast of Malaysian Borneo. These studies include the identification, measurement, assessment and monitoring of coral, fish, mammals, invertebrates and algae. The effects of damaging fishing methods such as blast fishing (illegal, but widely practised throughout Southeast Asia) are also being assessed.

The coral reef is one of th'e most spectacular and diverse of all ecosystems. The diversity of fish alone on coral reefs is some two orders of magnitude higher than the ocean average, with at least 4,000 species identified to date. At the level of Orders and Phyla, coral reefs are probably the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. It is not surprising they have been called the rainforests of the sea.

Coral reefs have many vital functions, from providing a home and breeding ground for a wealth of marine organisms, to the natural coastal defence in areas of frequent tropical storms or the provision of food and livelihood for millions of coastal dwelling people.

They have existed and flourished over millions of years despite great variations in climate and sea level. In recent years, however, reef systems have been under increasing threat worldwide from both natural and human activities. Examples of human interference include; the use of explosives, cyanide and other destructive fishing methods; depositing of sewage and other pollutants into the sea, causing reef degradation and coral disease; dropping anchors and trampling on reefs; and development and alteration of land, causing sediment run-off which smothers reefs.

Destruction of coral reefs

An increase in the variety and scale of impacts on coral reefs has raised concerns about their widespread destruction. Already 10% of the world's reefs have been irreversibly damaged and as many as 30% are heading in that direction, particularly those near human populations. For this reason, issues of monitoring and management of coral reefs have become vitally important.

Another important and rewarding aspect of the Greenforce expedition is working with the local communities to provide environmental education, and research into viable sources of income as alternatives to destructive fishing techniques.

Pulau Banggi is the main island in the group, as a sparsely populated island in the Balabac Straits, South China Sea. Located just seven degrees north of the equator, the island is covered with dense tropical rainforest and surrounded by numerous reefs, mostly unsurveyed. The climate is hot and humid year-round, with the average temperature around 26C. When it rains, it pours down, with an annual rainfall of 250cm! Since our expedition lasted from October to December, we straddled the rainy season. Nonetheless, between the rain the sun was still as strong.

Chicken on Sunday

The base camp was a traditional Malay wooden stilt house, located over the sea in a sheltered, sandy bay on Pulau Balak, a small uninhabited island to the Southwest of the Pulau Banggi group. The base had a small well for washing, while rainfall provided plentiful fresh drinking water (and a rare fresh water shower if you were quick enough).

Supplies were collected twice a week from a nearby village. Apart from fresh chicken on Sundays, the food was vegetarian. Without the convenience of a fridge, vegetables were difficult enough to keep fresh, meat was virtually impossible. We did have two chickens though, and tempting as it was some mid-weeks, they were only ever used for eggs.

In total, there were thirteen volunteers, three qualified scientific staff and three diving instructors. The expedition began with a day of lectures on coral identification at the University of Malaysia, just outside the Sabah capital Kota Kinabalu, where they have a huge collection of coral skeletons collected from allover the country.

Once on the island, training began almost immediately and the first four weeks was spent learning. Firstly, we concentrated on coral identification. We had 27 genus of coral that we had to identify with 100% accuracy. All remaining corals were grouped as non-target. It is nearly impossible to identify coral to species without taking a sample back to a laboratory. Secondly, we needed to identify 90% of all fish to group level, such as buttert1yfishes, angelfishes, snappers, groupers etc. Furthermore, we had a target group of 60 fish species, which we needed to identify to 100% accuracy. These included commercially important fish, as well as extremely common ones which can indicate the health of a reef.

The surveys also included algae and invertebrates such as giant clams, urchins and sea cucumbers. Again, 90% accuracy was needed for these families. The high level of precision on survey data was primarily so that the data can be used by other organisations around the world in combining research, especially in the ReefCheck program which our expedition contributed to. Running concurrently with the science teaching was the scubadive training. Most of the thirteen volunteers had never dived before, so everything was done from scratch. After four intense weeks of training we had all become fully qualified scuba divers capable of identifying most things that lived in, around and on the reef.

Surveying in earnest

The surveying began, with two surveys per day, six days per week. The surveys were nearly always based along a transect line. Each site is surveyed at three depths; shallow, medium and deep. For each depth, three 20m transect lines were laid. Finally, each line was surveyed at least three times, which helps maintain high degree of accuracy, particularly necessary if one person is more prone to noticing turtles rather than humphead wrasse!

Each individual survey concentrated on only one group of life forms at a time. For example, a survey may only be look at the small size fish in a 5m x 5m box along the line, or perhaps the coral beneath the line. Sometimes, every centimetre of the 20m line must be accounted for.

Most surveys took approximately 40 minutes to complete, but some could take up to an hour. At first, few people could last more than half an hour without running short of air, but by the end everybody could manage one hour at depth with ease. As a general rule, at least 25% of the air supply should be available when you reach the surface.

The survey data was collected on underwater slates, and transferred onto a computer back at base. The data interpretation was left to the scientific staff. Whilst the quantity of life on the coral was important, the biodiversity was the main subject of the surveys.

The surveys were the ultimate aim of the expedition, and after five more weeks we were finished. It was hard and tiring, but very interesting and enjoyable. Unfortunately, we were unable to see our data results before we left, but they are being processed and added to the global database that is being slowly built up.

Volleyball expertise

Through the ten weeks on the island I made friends that I will keep for a long time. You certainly get to know people when you live on an uninhabited island together. I shall also remember the local people, who were very friendly and helpful, and especially good at volleyball. We managed to demonstrate .our work and explain its importance and relevance to them.

All in all, it was an experience I shall never forget. Living on a remote island, away from the complexities of modern life and society was blissful. Even so, the return home was welcome; despite being a supposed paradise, the tropics are a somewhat harsh environment to live in, especially with the basic facilities we had.

I have now returned to England, working as a Graduate Engineer at Turbo Genset, and Pulau Balak seems a million miles away. Nonetheless, the resplendent sunsets that hang over the idyllic palm trees still appear every evening, and the ghost crabs still crawl innocuously over the white sand beach at night, and the corals reefs are still threatened. But at least I have made my small contribution to this global problem, and survived.

I would like to thank the Old Centralians Trust and the CGCA for awarding me the Holbein Travel Scholarship and making this trip possible.

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