Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Sipadan Island - On the road to recovery, thank you

THE headlines were alarming.

"Sipadan reefs probably lost forever", "Sipadan reef scrapped clean", and "Massive steel barge crashes into Sipadan reef" they screamed.

These were the headlines in most dive blog and Internet sites three months after a barge knocked about 0.1 per cent of the 208ha total reef zone at Sipadan.

While the vessel damaged corals close to the famous "Drop-Off" point near the jetty, natural and human factors have left their own scars.

Scientist Dr Elizabeth Wood, who first visited Sipadan 29 years ago in the pre-diving era, said Storm Greg on Boxing Day a decade ago badly damaged some shallow water reefs while increase in water temperature has contributed to coral bleaching.

"Storms and bleaching have caused loss and death of corals, but there has been some recovery," she said.

"Divers and snorkellers have also caused some damage to corals, especially at the zone near the jetty.

"Damage from human factors is difficult to quantify but reefs close to the jetty have suffered from sheer numbers of people and boats."

Wood, who is a coral reef conservation officer with the British-based Marine Conservation Society, said it was also possible that water quality had gone down, no thanks to run-off from the mainland.

"For long-term conservation of reefs, dive operators could provide more briefings to tell divers that they should not touch and disturb marine life," she said in an e-mail reply.

"Most dive responsibly, but there are some who are less careful.

"Measures must also be put in place to control diver numbers at popular dive sites within Sipadan."

On the same note, Marine Research Foundation director Dr Nicolas Pilcher said reports on what had happened at Sipadan were "exaggerated".

"Schools of bumpheaded parrotfish that roam over reefs at regular intervals do similar amounts of damage and this is natural," Pilcher said in an e-mail reply.

"Some of these fish are known to crush several tonnes of coral each year into sand as they graze over the reef top.

"Turtles break off coral branches every day as they forage and find resting places. The damaged patches will be absorbed into the natural ecosystem process."

Sabah Parks had asked the Kota Kinabalu-based foundation to assist with investigations into the extent of damage at Sipadan and to help with restoration work.

Pilcher said "first aid" work started immediately after the vessel left the island.

With Sabah Parks officers, Pilcher investigated the damage and got down to work to rehabilitate corals at the time local and international media were reporting on the scope of damage and who was to blame.

Loose debris was removed, a process that took about a month, to allow for the recovery process.

"This first step was critical. Any rubble left will roll and move about with tides and waves, and never offer a suitable platform for new corals to settle and grow.

"After the clean-up, reefs have been improved. Coral skeletons which had lost the upper tips have started to re-grow and in the coming six months to a year, we project new coral colonies will settle in.

"Sipadan is well poised to allow this to happen because there are magnificent corals which surround the damaged patch."

Pilcher said restoration does not require much time, but monitoring its effectiveness does.

"It would be good to monitor the reefs in the next three to five years to make sure restoration reaches its intended conservation goal."

Courtesy of New Straits Times

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