Bajau Laut learning new tricks

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Kota Kinabalu will be the venue of a three-day symposium starting on Tuesday to discuss the status and management of coral reefs in Sabah.

On the agenda will be the Semporna Islands Darwin Project, an initiative involving local communities in coral reef conservation at the Tun Sakaran Marine Park in eastern Sabah.

With 2008 being International Year of the Reef, JASWINDER KAUR explores the the delicate balance between protection of the environment and sustainable use of natural resources by local communities to protect the environment.

Semporna has gained worldwide popularity for its calm turquoise waters filled with natural wonders.

It is here that conservationists are working with local communities to tell them about alternative livelihoods, now that they live within a marine park.

This is by no means an easy task. For centuries the fishermen, in what is now known as the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, have cast their nets to catch sought-after groupers for the live fish trade. They sell them for a few ringgit to traders in Semporna town.

Others have been actively involved in “fish blasting”, destroying reefs in the process.

Bronzed-skinned fishermen have also for generations dived into the waters to collect clams or harvest colourful corals which become decorative pieces on shelves.

But things are now changing. Under the three-year Semporna Islands Darwin Project (SIDP), the 2,000 villagers in the area are being exposed to concepts once alien to them such as “no-take zones”. They are also introducing them to seaweed farming and clam ranching as new sources of income.

The project is managed by the British-based Marine Conservation Society, in collaboration with Sabah Parks. Their work is aided by a grant from the Darwin Initiative through funding from several international bodies, including the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Project leader Dr Elizabeth Wood, a scientist attached to the Marine Conservation Society, says more than half of villagers met were unaware they were living inside the boundaries of a marine park gazetted four years ago.

“We informed them about certain responsibilities now that they are living within a park.

“We gave them video presentations and hung up posters to tell them about the park and laws that they have to follow.

“To make it interesting, we ran competitions at each village and they used this as a forum to ask questions about the park,” Wood says of the project named “Community Action for Sustainable Use and Conservation of Coral Reefs”.

“We asked children to guess the number of species that live in the park and did jigsaw puzzles with them.”

Concerns raised by villagers, such as loss of traditional fishing grounds and restrictions on fishing methods, were also addressed through meetings.

With only a year left to complete the project, Wood says time is fast running out but the staff had managed to conduct many community-level discussions and collected socio-economic data to gain information on the families.

A crucial part of education efforts has been to drive home the message that fish stocks are fast depleting.

“The management challenge is to make sure that they accept the fact that there are some areas they cannot go fishing in and some species that they cannot take,” Wood says.

“One important regulation under the gazetted park is that there are areas designated as no-take zones — places that have been badly over-fished and where stocks are really low.

“Our aim is to build up the fish stocks. There are plenty of juvenile fish in these areas and it is only a matter of letting them breed.

“We are still waiting for the legislation on this to be ratified by the Sabah Parks’ board of trustees. Once it is done, no one will be allowed to fish in these places.