An unexpected opportunity has recently taken me to the archipelagic waters near the Malaysian city of Tawau in the Celebes Sea. Near the port of Semporna, the islands of Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan are set amongst reefs of rich biodiversity, offering a range of breathtaking underwater landscapes.
The area, where the EEZs of Borneo, Malaysia and the Philippines converge, is a dream destination for scuba divers, keen to explore the warm waters, varied life and lively dynamics of the reefs.
The reefs and their inhabitants are vulnerable to human activities and their balance is delicate. A stark reminder of this fact are the names that had originally been given to some of the diving sites by the pioneers of the once nascent diving industry here, such as Stingray City, Lobster Wall or Eel Valley. Yet, these sites no longer harbour the creatures that named them.
Whilst there are many factors that can affect marine biodiversity, some of the causes that are operative in this region became apparent as soon as my first immersion took place. Hard and soft plastics, which litter beaches and the sea surface in much of the region, were also present with alarming regularity on the reefs, sometimes alongside discarded fishing gear.
My elation at seeing a hawksbill turtle foraging soon turned to concern when I discovered a plastic glove resting by soft coral less than half a metre away from the animal. Though I rushed to pick it up and secure it to my wetsuit, I wondered how long it would be before the turtle encountered another piece.
Devoid of infrastructures, people in Semporna and the Celebes islands frequently discard plastic bottles and bags into the sea, and large hills of plastic debris can be seen slowly creeping into the ocean.
A less obvious, if even more insidious consequence of leaving plastics in the sea is that they break down into very small microscopic pieces, ending up being consumed by plankton and other creatures, becoming embedded in the ocean’s trophic chains and in fish that can make its way to human plates.
Despite the conservation slant of some of the diving operators, efforts can hardly dent the problem in the face of systemic failures of infrastructure, education and willingness.
Additionally, but perhaps saddest of all, every one of my dives was regularly marred by the startling underwater boom of repeated dynamite fishing. The sight of two large dead green turtles, one with its shell cracked open, and countless dead and dying fish was a desperate reminder of the devastation that dynamite fishing inflicts on the marine environment. Under the surface of the sea, the ruined reef can no longer harbour any life, becoming barren.
Whilst locals to Mabul informally confided that artisanal fishers from the Philippines regularly dynamite reefs in the archipelago, it also transpired that the borders between the three countries are frequently breached by unauthorised fishermen of any of the three nations.
The extremely destructive and wasteful practice of dynamite fishing is forbidden by the United Nations’ 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement. All State parties to this treaty are obliged to treat dynamite fishing as a very serious offence, and to seek its eradication whether it is engaged in by national vessels anywhere in the world, or by foreign vessels in the State’s jurisdictional waters. Philippines, a party to the agreement since 2014, has an international responsibility to eradicate the practice from its own waters, as well as those of its neighbours where its own vessels are involved.
Philippines was officially warned by the European Commission in respect of uncontrolled illegal fishing practices but such warning was withdrawn in April 2015.
Yet, in this region at least, dynamite fishing continues to be rampant and, what is worse, expected.
The beauty and richness of the reefs and the marine life they harbour certainly shines through. With so many threats, however, I wonder for how long.
Mercedes Rosello, 2015.
1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement, available on: http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/convention_overview_fish_stocks.htm