Borneo Coral Reefs and Fish Bombing

Latest update March 5, 2017 Started on March 5, 2017

Shark Stewards is working to assess and protect coral reefs and fish populations including sharks in the Semporna islands of Malaysian Borneo. With our research partners the Tropical Reef and Conservation Centre we are monitoring and restoring reefs that have been fish bombed (aka blast fishing), monitoring fish populations and protecting sea turtle nesting sites. With a building international coalition, we are working to stop destructive fishing and developing public and government support for shark and marine protection in the region.
For the first time we have introduced the new Trident ROV into the Crocodile and shark-inhabited waters of Borneo.

March 5, 2017
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In The Field

A Tale of Two MPAS. Good-bye Borneo, hello California! We are leaving Pom Pom Island home to the Tropical Research Conservation Centre (TRACC) and the coral recovery and shark reintroduction programmes.
Located in a region of high human impact including blast fishing that has destroyed the reef, the TRACC team has planted thousands of coral fragments and installed hundreds of reef blocks to stabilize the reef crest and recolonize this once healthy ecosystem.

This example of citizen-driven and volunteer conservation is a signal of hope for other marine areas in need of restoration or protection.

Our final day we flew the Trident over the reef crest from a kayak, searching for the sharks reintroduced to the reef in 2016. Stretching the limits of a curfew imposed by the marine militia to protect citizens and visitors from kidnappers, we cannot search for the nocturnal sharks at night. However, the LED lights on the ROV, combined with our baited underwater go pros have the potential to determine if the sharks are still swimming along the area where fishing is prohibited. The adopt a shark program is helping support this conservation and research, and we hope to see one of the tagged and released bamboo or coral cat sharks we released.

On this last flight, I didn't see a shark but I did see a shy Green sea turtle flying along in the blue. A protected species here, the green sea turtles are recovering and nesting along the beach on the island. Let's hope the sharks will also thrive in this safe harbor and the reef will one day return to the vibrancy and biodiversity of before.

For now, I'm reeling in the cable and flying home to California to continue using the ROV looking for sharks and surveying benthic species and habitat in our state MPAs.

Follow us on our Unsettled Waters Expedition and

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Invasion of the Death Stars: Surveying COTS & Coral with the Trident ROV

The water is 30 degrees C. The sea is clear and calm and beneath the vessel is a garden of colorful coral. Why not go diving? We are on a reef at Kalapuan Island in the Semporna group of Malaysian Borneo, not our usual dive destination. This island is the home of our staff, the local dive masters and captains at the Tropical Reef and Conservation Centre (TRACC) lab on Pom Pom Island where we have been working for five summers, helping to restore fish bombed corals, reintroducing fish including sharks, and generate a new protected reef for divers to enjoy in a region that has been highly disturbed by human impact.

Kalapuan is a largely undeveloped low island, with an old coconut farm, a new high-end resort directed at Chinese tourists, and nearly 800 local people known as the Bajau. These people are the last of the Sea Gypsies. Some live in water houses, others still on the boats they were born on. The village is growing, and the people rely on fish, and most work at fishing to survive. Like much of this region of the world, the population is stretching beyond the limits of sustainable use of the ocean.

Overfishing the reef, and nutrient loads from the village are impacting the adjacent reef system, yet sections of corals still remain in a healthy state. Recently, an outbreak of the predatory starfish the Crown of Thorns (Ancantaster placii) have proliferated at the island Pulau Gaya in the Tun Sakaran Marine Protected Park just 6 Km east of the TRACC home on Pom Pom, and about the same distance north of Kalapuan. Last year a COTS increase was observed on the reef at the Park, an area of high human habitation and impact. Some of the most effective predators on the starfish include titan triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens), and the Maori wrasse (Cheilinus undulates) and Triton snails (Charonia tritonis). These species have been largely overfished, removing predatory regulation.

COTS outbreaks have been a problem on coral reefs elsewhere in the world including the Indo-Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef. Earlier this year an outbreak at Swains Reef on the GBR is a repeat of a destructive event in the 1980s. That large-scale epidemic occurred on the Great Barrier reef destroyed thousands of hectares of reefs. These voracious predators can consume live coral at a rate of 5-13 m2 per year day. The starfish prefer branching and table Acprorid corals, the same corals vulnerable to coral bleaching events. In their dives last January the TRACC team observed an increase in COTs on the Kalapuan Reef and began a systematic removal. Last month over 700 COTS were collected off this reef over several dives.

We flew the Trident alongside the diver as a test to evaluate the efficacy as a survey tool for COTS. We surveyed 6 transect lines with 5- 1 meter quadrats looking at coral coverage and health and Cots density. In comparison, we flew the Trident alongside six divers screening the reef and removing COTS before the population can proliferate beyond control. In the surveys, we detected one crown of thorn starfish on the live monitor, and after reviewing the footage, we detected one more.

The divers collected 27 COTs in their reef survey and cull. While the Trident could enter shallow areas and travel more ground than a diver and spend more time in the water, we could not detect the starfish taking refuge under coral heads. However, the Trident was effective in shallow waters and useful in evaluating coral coverage and disease, bleaching or consumption.

Next- Sea turtles and nocturnal sharks.

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"Selamat Datang ke Sabah! What is this thing?" The customs inspector at the Kota Kinabalu airport asks me, curiously examining the Trident and controller in my carry-on bag. After explaining what the ROV is (and helped by the MPA, Shark Stewards and National Geographic stickers) we got a pass and headed for the jungle. We are here using our Trident ROV for the first time in Borneo with a trial run on the Kinatangan river before heading for the reef. But first, we have to get some last minute first aid, and received incredible service from Open ROV to get the Trident to respond. Thanks Zack!

Not yet at the coral reef to continue the shark and coral project, I am first with a University class on Tungog Lake near the Kinabatangan River in Eastern Malaysian Borneo. The ultimate expedition plan is to survey coral and Crown of Thorn Starfish (COTS- Acanthaster planci), and look for nocturnal sharks we tagged and released last year at Pom Pom island at the TRACC lab on Pom Pom Island in Borneo. However, before visiting the island, I am helping teach the aquatic team, collecting chemical and physical measurements along this jungle river system, and helping develop a restoration plan.

As part of a class with the University of San Francisco, I help teach the aquatic field surveys in the rainforest, and we are assisting our partners here on the Kinabatangan. Tungog lake is an oxbow lake. These lakes are formed by loops closed off from the meandering river and have unique species assemblages. Healthy lakes have fresh water otters, many species of fish and the occasional Siamese crocodile dozing along the shoreline.

Students in the Masters of Environmental Sciences Management program is evaluating and helping restore the tropical rainforest with local Malaysians from a collective called KOPEL. Now in its third year, we are monitoring physical and chemical conditions within the lake, in addition to conducting planting in the rainforest. The Aquatic team also attempting to understand and control an invasive fern, Salvinia molesta. This species is an aggressive aquatic fern invading almost all of the oxbow lakes along the Kinabatagan River floodplain. Blooms cover the entire lake and degenerating plants have caused mass fish die-offs believed to be associated with reduced dissolved oxygen, but may also be related to lower pH conditions caused by the ferns.

While the students are sampling from the safety of a platform, I flew the drone in the lake and beneath the canopy of Salvinia, searching for fish but hoping for crocodiles. On the far bank along the section of lake cleared of Salvinia we see crocodiles sunning. These are not the larger more dangerous species that live lower down the river and which are more responsible for human deaths than great white sharks off California. Between 2007 to 2013, it was estimated that out of 42 reports of crocodile attacks in Malaysia, 40 of them are from Sarawak, in a state well to the east of our location. The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), also known as the estuarine crocodile can reach lengths of over 6 meters and 800 kilograms.

Here is a video- note the division between the clear water free of Salvia and the thick mat behind the boom. []

Some Iban native peoples in Sarawak believed that a giant crocodile called the Bujang Senang that haunted the river was actually a warrior cursed to become a crocodile. An uptick of deaths removed protections and the state allows culling of the predators in a response that recalls the West Australian great white shark cull. Perhaps better studies of the animal's movements and habitat protection would avoid deaths and remove these crocodile hunts.

What better way to search for the wily and in this case, shy crocodile, than using the Trident? This smaller species (4.5 m, 350Kg) has been extirpated from much of its range in Southeast Asia and Northern Australia and is critically endangered. We hope that restoring the balance to this lake will benefit the predators and the prey.

The ongoing monitoring program will monitor for water temperature, dissolved oxygen, ph, water clarity, chemical oxygen demand (COD), ammonium, nitrate and nitrite. Plankton and fish are also sampled. Last year we fabricated a plankton net from chicken mesh, ribbon, and mesh skirt filtering into a plastic colander. This year we brought a proper plankton net, collecting samples by pulling the platform along a roped transect strung across the lake and collected fish with a throw net that brought in several species of freshwater fish.

The ROV picked up images of fish, and skimmed the shadows beneath the thick mat of Salvinia, but visibility is low in the silty red soup. We did not see any curious crocodiles, but we did see and sample several species of fish in the lake including a freshwater eel, (Monopterus albus) that are normally found in the benthic layer of lakes but creates bubble nests on the surface vegetation to breed. A common species were the beautiful blue striped Rasbora. Also identified were the native Trichopodus trichopterus and an introduced Trichopodus pectoralis. introduced for food in Borneo that may be outcompeting and displacing T. trichopterus. Two benthopelagic species of Leptobarbus were also caught; Leptobarbus sabanus and Leptobarbus melanotaenia.

We are challenged by a lack of internet and editing software, so, for now, this short video and images will have to suffice. Next stop is Pom Pom Island- back to the coral, COTS and sharks. Stay tuned!

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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.

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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