Eco-tourism Supports Marine Conservation Area in Malaysia
The islands and surrounding waters off the coast of Sandakan in northeast Sabah, Malaysia are home to 500 species of reef fish, 300 species of corals, 25 species of seagrass and algae, and 7 species of giant clams. Part of the Coral Triangle region, this area is known for its exceptional coral reef diversity and its marine resources have high economic value, particularly for fisheries. The reefs however have been subjected to unsustainable fishing and illegal and destructive fishing practices which have compromised coral reef habitats.
In 1997, the owners of Lankayan Island Dive Resort (LIDR) initiated the establishment of the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA), to counteract illegal and destructive fishing in the area and to protect turtle nesting habitats, fish populations and coral reef habitats. SIMCA is a privately managed no-take marine protected area located 80 km from the coastal town of Sandakan in northeastern Sabah, Malaysia. The reserve covers 463 km2 of the Sulu Sea and includes the islands of Billean, Tegapil and Lankayan.
SIMCA was established as an IUCN Category II Conservation Area under the provisions of the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997. Category II areas are managed to preserve natural conditions and provide opportunities for recreation, so fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited. The heads of Sabah Parks, the Department of Fisheries, Sabah Wildlife Department and LIDR met on Lankayan to discuss the idea of a privately managed marine reserve. Following this meeting, LIDR drafted a proposal and management plan; the reserve was subsequently gazetted in 2001. LIDR funded SIMCA’s establishment, which totaled around RM200,000 (US $63,600). In 2003, the government of Sabah, in the guise of the Sabah Wildlife Department, a unit within the Ministry of Tourism, Development, Environment, Science and Technology, leased the conservation area to Reef Guardian. The lease agreement runs for 30 years at the cost of RM60,000 (US $19,000) per year. The lease has an optional ten-year extension.
How successful has it been?
SIMCA is managed by Reef Guardian, which is a private not-for-profit organization wholly owned by Pulau Sipadan Resort, the parent company of Lankayan Island Dive Resort (LIDR). LIDR, the only accommodation within the reserve, helps fund Reef Guardian operations by levying a conservation fee on all visitors to the resort. Reef Guardian uses funds derived from the visitor fees to establish surveillance systems, monitor the reserve, enforce regulations, train personnel, and undertake conservation and outreach programs. Since establishment of the conservation area, incidences of illegal fishing and turtle poaching have declined and fish abundance and turtle egg laying have increased.
Reef Guardian monitors and enforces reserve regulations and runs marine conservation and outreach programs. Reef Guardian is staffed by 15 personnel who are stationed on Lankayan Island. The team is led by a marine biologist, who develops scientific research programs and outreach initiatives. Other staff members are responsible for ecological monitoring, turtle hatchings, radar surveillance and reserve enforcement. Staff operations are aided by Reef Guardian’s three high-speed patrol boats and radar equipment. Enforcement officers patrol the reserve’s boundaries and have powers of inspection and seizure. The officers are trained and certified as Honorary Wildlife Wardens. They are permitted to arrest offenders with assistance from the local enforcement agency. The combination of regular patrols and radar surveillance has all but halted illegal and destructive fishing in the reserve.
Compliance with regulations is high, in part because no fishing families live within the reserve. Prior to the construction of LIDR, there was one family residing on Lankayan. After being consulted, however, the family approved development plans for the island. Despite the success of SIMCA, it remains the only privately managed marine protected area in Malaysia. The owners of LIDR have encountered institutional resistance whenever they have suggested similar initiatives to the Government of Sabah.
Lessons learned and recommendations
Visitor fees have provided sustainable financing for management of the reserve and
investment in personnel training and surveillance technology to enforce the rules and regulations of the conservation area. In collaboration with government enforcement agencies, Reef Guardian has reduced threats such as illegal fishing and turtle egg poaching. As a result, there is a comparatively high abundance of commercially important fish, and turtle nesting at Lankayan Island has increased. Private management can be effective in conserving biodiversity in MPAs, and may well exceed regionally unsuitable locations.
Reef Guardian operations are partially funded by a conservation fee of RM25 (US $8) per visitor per night levied on the guests of Lankayan Island Dive Resort. The conservation fee generates approximately RM250,000 (US $79,400) of revenue each year, which comprises 50% of the total operational costs of the reserve. The remaining costs are met entirely by grants, a resort lease fee (RM50,000 per resort) and the director’s fund. SIMCA’s RM500,000 (US $158,800) total annual operating costs translates to a per-hectare cost of US $3.43/year, which compares favorably with a median of US $7.80 per ha/year in a worldwide survey of the operational costs of 83 marine protected areas. The reserve also received a US $20,000 grant from Conservation International in 2006, US $44,000 from National Fish & Wildlife Foundation in 2008, US $61,000 from Conservation International Philippines in 2009, RM100,000 research fund from WWF-Malaysia, and RM60,000 project fund from the Ministry of Science Technology Innovation Malaysia in 2014. Furthermore, there are no tax breaks or other financial incentives available to LIDR’s owners in return for their donations to Reef Guardian.