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Coral Reef Restoration, Monitoring and Fish Bombing Borneo

March 5 2017

Shark Stewards is helping to assess and protect coral reefs and fish populations including sharks in the Semporna islands. With our research partners the Tropical Reef and Conservation Centre we are monitoring and restoring reefs that have been fish bombed, and protecting sea turtle nesting sites. With a building international coalition, we are working to stop fish bombing and developing public and government support for marine protection in the region.

March 5 2017


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Preparation Stage

For the 5th year we are heading back to Pom Pom island in off the coast of the island of Borneo. Pom Pom Island is a small coral islet in the Semporna Islands of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. From the surface it is paradise: palm trees wave above the blindingly white coral sands edging turquoise waters. Benetah the surface is a different story. Although Borneo hosts to some of the most rich and biodiverse ecosystems in the world, IUU fishing, especially fish bombing is taking its toll.

Beneath us is a shallow seascape of complex and colorful corals. Branching Acroporid corals provide refuge for neon blue damsel fish. Large plate-like forms two meters in diameter resemble swirling brown mushrooms, while other corals look like large orange boulders. Soft corals and anemones wave in the gentle current. The bottom is covered with over 100 species of corals painted in purples and neon greens and blues. Numerous species of small fish flit within the branches. As part of an online series called Borneo From Below, we are diving and filming the local reefs and sharks in a small island group off Malaysian Borneo, including this episode called Coral Reef in Crisis. The reef is a colorful complex and other-worldly, until we kick to the edge of an open area of broken and bleached coral. Collecting some of the fresh fragments, we surface.

Our research partner, Dr. Steve Oakley of the Malaysian based Tropical Reef Conservation Center (TRACC), hands me a broken piece of coral rock the size of my hand. “Fresh fragments. See this sheared rock?” He points where the tiny cups left behind by the coral polyps line the rounded surface where the last living coral organisms had been. Beneath that layer are hundreds of years of calcium carbonate deposited by overgrown generations of living coral cups. A kind of living fossil, the side of the shorn coral indicates centuries of growth, one layer above the next. “This kind of damage only comes from fish bombing.”

At the edge of healthy coral reef we find the source of the scattered fragments. A moonscape of broken rubble centers a circle with a diameter of 5 or 6 meters. We kick over a patch of healthy coral to an area where soft corals edge the margins indicating an older bomb site. Not a single living coral has recolonized the blast zone. No sharks or large fish are visible, and even the small reef fish are being extracted using this destructive practice.

This is the devastation left by blast fishing also called fish bombing, an illegal but rampant form of fishing here in the Coral Triangle. In the practice, a fisherman tosses dynamite, or homemade bombs made from a bottle filled with fertilizer and kerosene lit by a short fuse into the water. The blast kills or stuns all fish within the vicinity, which are easily collected for market. Dangerous to the reef, this method also maims and kills fishermen, and it is not uncommon to see men with fingers or hands missing. What is left behind is a wasteland of flattened coral rubble that can take centuries or more to recover.

Across the shallow lagoon lives a community of approximately 300 people. Many are of the Sama-Bajou, a tribe of sea gypsies who live on the island’s edge or on houses above the lagoon. Near the village is a resort where visitors stroll along the perfect white sand and palm lined beaches. While the affluent enjoy the resorts, the villagers live a hand to mouth existence and fishing pressure on the reef is heavy, added by supplying fresh fish to the resort guests. Most of the local people rely on the sea to survive and many ply their lines and nets from small open boats. Some local fishermen resort to fish bombing, a short term practice with long term consequences. This dangerous and destructive practice is rampant and virtually unenforced here and in other countries nearby like the Philippines and Indonesia. As we dive we feel the double percussive shock of a destructive fish bomb. The source of the explosion is difficult to determine, but a group called Project Stop Fish Bombing is applying detection technology to triangulate the location of the underwater blast. This tool when deployed can immediately identify the source and help increase enforcement of this illegal practice. The Hong Kong non profit Tenghoi (Cantonese for ‘Listen to the Sea’) and Malaysian media producer ScubaZoo are partnering on this project in Malaysia to implement the program and increase awareness on the issue in Malaysia.

Besides thousands of species of invertebrates, the Coral Triangle hosts over 2000 species of fish and 500 species of corals, with many species endemic to the region. The coral reefs of south-east Asia currently provide food for over half a billion people, provides coastal protection, and attracts millions of tourists each year. Recent estimates place the value of goods and services provided by coral reefs worldwide between US$172–375 billion annually. Malaysia has few marine protected areas, and most of these do not have resources to enforce them. Besides combatting fish bombing, promoting community engagement and management through traditionally managed marine protected areas (MPAS) can be more effective solutions for local reef protection than government sanctified MPAs that receive no enforcement.

On Kalapuan, TRACC is helping support a locally managed marine protected area called a Tagal. This will legally allow villagers to keep fisherman – especially blast fishers- out of the area, and allow locals to charge tourists a small fee to dive one of the few healthy reefs remaining in the immediate region. Economic support for local enforcement and technology through the Stop Fish Bombing Project combined with dive tourism are solutions that will, with hope, protect the reef we are diving. Local’s harvesting in a sustainable manner and self-enforcing their own interests may be the only long term solution for protecting coral reefs in developing and remote regions of the world like Malaysia.

This year we will be using the Trident ROV to monitor reefs and help map areas under recovery, in addition to defining areas that have been fish bombed.

Learn more about the efforts supported by Shark Stewards and partner organizations in Malaysia at

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Expedition Background

According to a report by the United Nation Food and Agricultural Association, Malaysia is the 9th largest shark fishing nation and has risen to become ranked 3rd globally for shark fin imports. This small nation is having a serious impact on global shark populations in the Coral Triangle, as well as overfishing as much as 90% of its own shark population. However, a strong local movement centered in Sabah Borneo Malaysia is speaking up for sharks and increasing protection.

Shark Stewards is supporting this work on the ground in Malaysia helping assess shark fishing, the shark fin trade and conduct a shark survey to determine impacts on sharks and rays. With the Sabah Shark Protection Association, we are striving for increased shark protection, stopping the flow of shark fins and creating marine protected areas for sharks and other species in Malaysian Borneo.

Our Shark Shepherd collaboration with marine artist Ben Von Wong working for a no shark and ray fishing policy in Malaysia and supporting dive ecotourism with support from the Ministry of Tourism. Sign the petition.

Shark fin soup is widely consumed in the major cities of Malaysia, and Sabah is the major destination for cheap and endangered seafood for Chinese tourists. Shark fins are sold on the streets and in the alleys and finned sharks are evident in all the large fish landings. The fins are sold first, although the meat is generally unpalatable and rendered into lower grade products like fish meal and fish balls.

Read an excerpt from our National Geographic Ocean Views blog.

Now in the fourth year, the project also is filming a series called Borneo From Below, an online “Funservation” program on marine life produced by the local media production company ScubaZoo. With host Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski the series is adventurous, humorous, and at times like this, dead serious. As part of the series, we are continuing a fish market survey we assisted with the Malaysian non profit Tropical Reef and Conservation Centre (TRACC) to determine how common sharks and rays are being caught here. We are also diving and filming sharks and following the shark from the reef to the plate. This episode is about coral catsharks, but we are finding it more challenging to find them alive than dead.

There is increasing concern that Malaysia is adding shark fins to the top of the list of the country's record of wildlife trafficking and trade of illegal wildlife parts like rhino horn, elephant tusk and bear and tiger products. However, media attention is supporting champions in the country and helping bolster Sabah's interest in protecting the environment and supporting dive tourism to save sharks.

Restoring and Protecting Reef Habitat

Protecting marine habitat is also critical to help save sharks and marine ecosystems here in the Coral Triangle. Dynamite fishing is one of the prevalent factors causing reef destruction. Our work with our partners at TRACC on Pom Pom island is restoring coral reefs, assessing fish populations and reintroducing ground shark species as a pilot conservation project. Students from the University of San Francisco and volunteer divers are helping rebuild reefs with artificial reef structures, and conducting fish surveys to determine efficacy.

Preliminary Results

During 2015 & early 2016, the local village community divers and the TRACC international volunteers have built a wide range of different reefs at a variety of different sites on Kalapuan island in the Semporna district. In 2016 367 bottle reefs were constructed and installed with approximately 3500 hard and soft corals. The bottle reef system is composed of reef friendly cement, sand reinforced with mild steel, and recycled bottles to provide a solid substrate for coral settlement, reef stabilization and coral planting. As part of the trial we also constructed 12 large turtle reefs; 2 igloos; 12 deep reefs planted with gorgonians and sea fans and over 1500 corals in the nursery. We also built several large bommie / tetris reef structures as a trial of techniques. Many of the bottle and turtle bommie reefs were built and positioned on the Kalapuan community reef site during the Kalapuan environmental and coral planting days.

Please support our work so we can help our partners fight for their vanishing sharks and coral reefs. Shark Stewards is a non profit project of the Earth Island Institute.

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