Snip! went the coral fragments between the teeth of the pliers. We are already halfway through the project… How fast time flies! This morning, we found ourselves standing at a coral farm, a relatively new venture of a Japanese entrepreneur. Pieces of coral are first cut off a live specimen and trimmed to fit into holes in concrete disks. The disks are then be tied onto a net on a frame and lowered down onto the seafloor. It was intriguing to see this artificial way of growing these unique organisms for real. Even though the reasons for this farm might be commercial, but the method is definitely a viable way of regenerating our coral reefs.
Afterwards we hurried to prepare our snorkelling gear and stepped off into the crystal clear waters. A small jellyfish or two pulsed gently alongside as we swam towards the reef, which was slightly frightening, but when we arrived at the reef, that was forgotten. Parrotfish flitted past, stopping occasionally to munch on coral, and feather stars swayed gently on large brain corals as we free-dived down to the fish. Andre even found a cone shell looking deceptively innocent in the shallows, and Nicolette spotted an eagle ray. However, just as we were about to leave a large explosion rocked the reef – it was a fish bomb, and it would not be our last encounter with this destructive fishing method in the day.
On our return we were off again to dive, but yet again the dismaying sight of some corals entangled in long lines and plastic packaging met us. Andre spotted a school of razorfish hovering over a gorgonian, but fortunately we did not see any crown-of-thorns here. Meanwhile, the three new divers did some exercises and dived around the reef.
Immediately after everybody was out of the water, we left for the port of Semporna, which turned out to be an interesting journey. About an hour from Semporna we arrived in a sort of bay enclosed by several islands. The sun was out, the clouds were like cotton candy, and the water was absolutely calm, so everybody was on deck enjoying the welcome change in the landscape. A fishing boat manned by two fishermen floated a few metres from the boat, which became the centre of attention as we waited to see how they would go about fishing.
All of a sudden, as if in slow motion, one of the men raised his hand. Everybody held their breath – we already guessed what would happen – but we could only watch in horror as the fish bomb plopped into the water and exploded violently. They nonchalantly picked up the dead fish from the water then tried to start the engine to get away, but we set our course towards them so they became more desperate. All this time, the most beautiful and colourful reef fish floated on the water, never to swim amongst the corals again.
We were absolutely enraged, because dynamite fishing or fish bombing is one of the worst methods of fishing ever invented. A huge shockwave kills all animals within a 50 to 100 meter radius instantly, as well as huge amounts of the coral, leaving a field of debris devoid of life. Indeed, even though the water was completely clear we could not see any fish amongst the coral. Furthermore, the fishermen only bothered to collect the few fish which were on the surface close to them, leaving the fish below the surface to drift away, having died in vain.
Even though possessing explosives is banned in Malaysia, it seems to be an easy way of getting a little money without too much work. After all, if you just chuck a bomb into the water, it’s so much easier than using a net, isn’t it? But that is not an excuse because fish bombing is far from sustainable, with a large swathe of habitat decimated by the bomb’s impact. Hundreds of years of growth would simply be gone in a flash, as corals only grow a few centimetres every few years.
Andre and Jacek chased them away in the dinghy to intimidate them a little but probably the only way we have to deal with this is education. Education is everything. The fishermen are simply trying to make a living, and they might not want to change their ways, but we can show the younger generation, the children in schools, that sustainable fishing with normal fishing lines or even aquaculture is the way forward. So that is our next step for the project – educate.
Passing through a massive jellyfish swarm and fleeing garfish, we arrived in Semporna where we stopped over for dinner. We encountered yet another problem at the café where we ate – shark fin soup was on sale, for only 12 ringgit per bowl! Shark finning is yet another brutal fishing method, with the fins sliced off the shark sometimes while it is still alive. Again, with this issue, education comes into play – we have to make our fellow youth realise that shark finning, fish bombing, cyanide fishing, trawling etc. etc. need to be stopped. Now.