The Sulu-Sulawesi seascape, shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, harbours some of the most diverse and productive marine biodiversity in the world. However, due to rapid population increase, unsustainable development and growing risks from climate change, coastal ecosystems and the livelihoods they support are under tremendous pressure. Against this backdrop, the EU Ocean Governance project is implementing ecosystem restoration initiatives in the region: these include coral restoration in Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), Sabah, Malaysia, and Derawan Islands marine protected area (MPA), Indonesia, and mangrove restoration in Balabac Island, the Phillippines. These sites are important for marine biodiversity and the coastal communities that depend on this, hence the restoration methods are tailored to each particular environment.

In order to continue improving the management of the MPAs involved, the project has established a number of dialogue platforms and networking opportunities. One of these networking opportunities was an MPA exchange visit between Derawan Islands MPA, Indonesia, and Tun Mustapha Park, Sabah, Malaysia, that took place from 14 to 18 August 2023. The visit consisted of a learning exchange, coral monitoring workshop and field visit, to exchange ideas and knowledge about coral rehabilitation using rock piles in Derawan Islands MPA. Each session involved the relevant stakeholders, including MPA managers, NGOs, public and private sector representatives, and community members from Derawan Islands MPA and Tun Mustapha Park.

Learning Exchange and Coral Restoration Workshop

The learning exchange is designed to foster dialogue about coral restoration and rehabilitation methods, MPA management, community involvement, sustainable fisheries and tourism practices, surveillance, and effective marine protection policies. A dialogue platform created by the learning exchange aims to build and strengthen continued networking between the MPAs. On the second day of the exchange visit, a coral restoration monitoring workshop was held to update on the progress of coral restoration in Tun Mustapha Park and in Derawan Islands MPA. The workshop was attended by the Coastal and Resource Management Authority of Pontianak, the Marine and Fisheries Authority of East Kalimantan Province, the Fisheries Authority of Berau, the Cultural and Tourism Authority of Berau, the Derawan Village government, the Surveillance and Control Marine and Fisheries Agency, the women’s groups of Derawan Village and the representative community group involved in the coral rehabilitation project in the Derawan Islands MPA.

Progress of coral reef restoration in Derawan Islands MPA

Joni Ramadani, representative of the community group of Derawan Islands MPA, stated, “Based on the reef health monitoring in the Derawan Islands MPA in 2021, generally, the percentage of hard corals’ live cover was 32.80 per cent. This number shows the relatively moderate coral reef health condition category, which is 35 to 40.9 per cent”. “However, damage to the coral reefs, presumably due to bombings, and to the anchors of the tourist and fishing boats, has been found in some places. Thus, in order to improve the coral reef ecosystem, a suitable rehabilitation method is needed for Derawan Island,” he added.

In Derawan Islands MPA, WWF-Indonesia, working with the authorities and the community, used the rock-pile method for coral reef rehabilitation in selected areas such as the North Gusung Senggalau, the East Gusung Senggalau and the Karang Tebba Binga. Monitoring showed that the rock pile structure has provided a natural substrate to attach coral planula in three rehabilitation sites. The average density of hard coral recruitment corals in rock pile structures was 2.4 colonies per square metre in May 2023, or 10 months after the rock pile installation. Furthermore, it also showed an increasing rate of coral recruitment and new coral colony establishment, as well as fish abundance and biomass.

Progress of coral restoration in Tun Mustapha Park

In Malaysia, the coral restoration project is continuously expanding. Similar to the restoration method used in Derawan Island, the MARRS Reef Star (RS) method is implemented in Tun Mustapha Park as well. Currently, 980 units of reef star frames with 14 700 coral fragments have been installed at three different sites with varying site characteristics and water conditions, covering about 800 square metres of the park. 

Four hundred units of RS frames were deployed at Maliangin Kechil (Site A) and, later, 300 units of RS in Pitas Floating Coral Bar (Site B), the result of cooperation with a local tour operator known as Archangel Borneo Holidays Sdn Bhd. The most recent deployment of 280 units of RS was effected from 27 to 29 June 2023 at Site C, also at Maliangin Kechil. Twenty RS units were handed to the team in Semporna to test MARRS Reef Star, and today the restoration with RS is culminating as a result of the deployment activities carried out. In many cases, the engaging process of preparing and deploying the RS empowers local communities who then serve as catalysts for the empowerment of neighbouring communities, creating a ripple effect.

Many local actors were involved in the process of MARRS coral restoration, from fabrication to coating to deployment of the RS. They included participants from Sabah Parks, WWF-Malaysia, nearby local communities of Tun Mustapha Park, who participated voluntarily, and several academic representatives as well as students from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS).

All restoration sites are being monitored regularly by community divers from Banggi Coral Conservation Society (BCCS) and Kudat Turtle Conservation Society (KTCS), research teams from Sabah Parks, as well as officers from WWF-Malaysia. Representatives from UMS are also often involved in consultations and provide input to the restoration efforts. The restoration work at Tun Mustapha Park will also potentially grow in number and area as Sabah Parks is soon to launch a Coral Adoption Program with a web platform designed for coral conservationists and enthusiasts alike.

Fostering Collaboration and Inspiring Change

Topics such as MPA management, fisheries, tourism and MPA community empowerment were discussed extensively by representatives from each respective discipline attending the MPA exchange visit. Through these exchanges, the Derawan and Tun Mustapha teams were able to build lasting networking relationships.

The Malaysian participants were genuinely impressed by the impeccable cleanliness and efficient management observed at Derawan Islands MPA. Equally noteworthy was the warm hospitality extended by the island’s community. Notably, the participants had an invaluable opportunity to engage in discussions with the village chief of Derawan Island, gaining unique insights. This encounter served as a powerful source of motivation for all attendees throughout the rest of the event. The Malaysian participants, in particular, expressed a strong enthusiasm to incorporate some of the practices they learned about at Derawan Islands MPA into their efforts at Tun Mustapha Park.

In sum, the six-day event proved to be exceptionally engaging and fruitful for all involved.