Taking out the crown-of-thorns starfish

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The scorching heat of the afternoon sun did not seem to bother the keen group of tourists, who had arrived at the jetty of Redang Island Marine Park. With their faces lit up by their smiles, there was no hiding of their excitement; they could not wait to get to their destinations on the island and enjoy snorkelling and scuba diving amid the panoramic beauty of the underwater around the island. The white sandy beaches and the clear blue waters, providing a glimpse of the teeming marine life, meanwhile, were a prelude to what would be a heaven for these visitors cum nature lovers.

The boat ride from the jetty in Merang, Terengganu, to the Redang Island takes about 45 minutes. It’s a regular scene here with boats ferrying passengers, usually tourists, from the mainland to the island jetty and back. Once in a while, a boat would bring in divers, who have been at the sea to catch “something,” which they quickly start transferring to a waiting wheelbarrow as soon as they arrive at the jetty in Redang, raising much attention from tourists at the jetty.

On this particular instance, the divers were seen unloading the “catch” into a wheelbarrow, which was soon wheeled close to a hole dug up at the side of the beach. This writer was curious just like any other tourist on what the “catch” was all about.

NO WASTE

It did not seem like some waste material from the ocean. One of the divers in fact was cautioning the people to not get too close to them as the “thing” was dangerous and venomous and that any contact with them will bring about pain for the affected person. This further increased the curiosity of the onlookers, who were by now asking around what was inside the net. The divers who had gathered all their nets of “catch” were throwing everything into the hole they had dug. Then, a diver told everyone what the venomous “catch” was, “They are Crown-Of-Thorns starfish or COTs. They are extremely dangerous and must be destroyed.” They cannot be killed with sharp objects as they are capable of regenerating themselves and surviving, and the way to kill them is to bury them, said Ahmad Ridzuan Hussin, one of the divers involved in a conservation effort called the ‘Pulau Redang Reef Clean Up’ programme.

THE KILLER COTs

The COTs are round and have poisonous thorn-like spines. They come in various colours, namely violet, blue, light brown, green and black. They are predatory sea creatures that prey on coral reefs. The COTs are naturally found in the coral reef areas, with some 1-20 of them usually occupying one hectare of the area; they are quite harmless in such numbers. However, when these predatory creatures grow into larger sized adults, with diameters of 30-40 cm or even bigger with up to 70 cm, their population can increase suddenly and significantly within a short period of time. These “outbreaks,” where the growth will result in an increase of 30 to 1,000 of COTs per hectare, are among the factors, besides human activities, that have been cited as contributing to the destruction of coral reefs. The COTs feed on soft corals as well as polyps of corals, by first covering the surface of a coral using their flexible bodies and then slowing destroying the soft tissues of the corals and eventually the corals. A single COT starfish is capable of destroying a coral reef area of up to 10 square metres in a year.

“The Reef Clean Up programme is an effort to conserve and sustain the marine ecosystems here, including the coral reefs. For this purpose, we will dive into a particular location and clear up all the garbage found there, including COTs. “It will be good to do this before September as around that time, the COTs will start to multiply. They can multiply fast and the female species can produce up to 60 million eggs during the spawning season,” said Ahmad Ridzuan.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CORAL REEFS

The importance of conserving our coral reefs has been questioned many times, and some have a narrow view that its importance could only be related to the value in ecotourism. For some communities, the conservation of live coral reefs is a way of attracting tourists from all over the world. Some tourists, meanwhile, spend thousands of ringgits just to explore the beauty of this highly prized natural treasure. The beauty of the coral reefs, with their uniqueness and colours, cannot be denied, and most of them are still protected on the ocean floors of the country, evidenced by the fact that Malaysia is endorsed as among the 12 countries with mega biodiversities in the world. However, conservation efforts must still continue and these efforts should not be based on the coral reefs’ economy generating factors alone. Indeed, the importance of their conservation goes beyond that. Coral reefs are very important in the ecosystem of the food supply chain, said Deputy Director of the Department of Marine Park Malaysia, Kamarruddin Ibrahim. In Malaysia, almost 30 percent of the fish that are caught are dependent on coral reefs for their “lives”. The coral reefs, meanwhile, are also touted to be sources of new medicines and chemicals, which would be of potential benefit to humans.

“The coral reefs are where commercial fish and other marine creatures take refuge. It is where they breed, grow and source their food. It is also the supply source of fish, which ensures the supply of fish and hence, food security for the country,” he said. He added that the contribution of COTs to the damage in the ecosystem of coral reefs amounts to 42 percent and this can also bring down the population of fish that depend on these oceanic structures for their lives.

PRIVATE SECTOR COOPERATION IS ESSENTIAL

Therefore, the efforts to conserve and sustain the lives of the country’s coral reefs need the support of all parties and cannot rest on the government’s support alone, said Kamarruddin. This is because coral reefs need a long period of time, about 10 to 20 years, to recover once they are destroyed by COTs. It is because of this that the Department of Marine Park always holds marine conservation programmes such as the “Pulau Redang Reef Clean Up”. Such programmes always get the support of private sectors, individuals as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), he said.

“All the marine park areas that are synonymous with coral reef ecosystems are administered and managed by the department, which comes under the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. Nevertheless, cooperation from all factions is very important.

“This is where I feel proud as there are still many people in the public who are giving their dues to the conservation efforts undertaken to protect the corals. One proof is that more than 50 scuba divers from the government agency, private sector and NGOs are involved in the Pulau Redang Reef Clean Up programme,” Kamarruddin said.

In short, these mutually benefitting collaborative efforts will benefit everyone, including future generations, who will inherit the legacy of the coral reef treasure and gain the opportunity to enjoy a beauty that words cannot express.

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