A major research undertaking by Curtin University (Miri and Perth campuses) on establishing baseline parameters in the Baram catchment ecosystem on- and offshore. These baselines will be the reference points against which any future developments in the Baram catchment can be assessed.
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The tropical marine fauna diversity in South East Asia, particularly that off Sarawak East Malaysia has been described as ‘greater than any other on earth’ (Carpenter and Niem, 1998) and is considered one of the world’s biodiversity “hot-spots” (Shabdin, 2014). The coastline of the largest state Sarawak, which extends approximately 1035 km, lies within the Indo-Malay-Philippine archipelago, and is located on the northern side of the Island of Borneo. This area of coastal reefs sustains a rich assemblage of marine life including fish, corals, molluscs, crustaceans and marine mammals (Shabdin, 2014).
In recognition that the vulnerable coral reef systems needed preserving, the Miri-Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park (MSCRNP) with a total size 186,930 ha was gazetted in February 2007. While the primary objective was that of protection, other goals included the development of local eco-tourism ventures. As a consequence the MSCRNP is fast becoming a well-known dive location, offering a range of experiences including access to coral reefs, wreck dives and a decommissioned oilrig, which is Malaysia’s first artificial reef. However the true economic potential of the MSCRNP is yet to be quantified, in part because the type, range and extent of various marine habitats within the marine park have not been accurately mapped and assessed.
The MSCRNP is both Sarawak’s first marine park and its largest. It is currently classified as ‘totally protected’ meaning all forms of commercial activities that can impact the ecological state of the marine environment are banned. The only permitted activities are boating, recreational diving and snorkelling. The efficacy of enforcement within MSCRNP is currently unknown as enforcement was only recently introduced in 2013 (Yeo, 2013). It is fair to assume, therefore, there may be some prohibited activities occurring, given the large size of the marine park and the history of enforcement in no take marine zones in the past (Sethi and Hilborn, 2008; Tupper et al., 2015). Additionally, Southeast Asia has experienced fast urbanisation during the past 30 years that was accompanied by accelerated deforestation, which had reached very high levels in the region in previous decades (Langner et al., 2007; Langner and Siegert, 2009; Miettinen et al., 2011; Hansen et al., 2013). The legacy problems associated with deforestation on the marine environment will be both quantitatively and qualitatively investigated.
Our current knowledge of marine habitats within the marine park comes from a small number (6) of Reef Check sites that have been monitored since 2009. The site data reveals that while coral cover has remained relatively stable in the past five years, there has been a decline in exploited reef fish species over the same period. To fill a significant knowledge gap we propose a detailed and extensive hydrographic survey of the offshore waters of MSCRNP to create up-to-date and comprehensive maps of the various benthic communities. Detailed habitat maps will be used to identify key sites where a baseline survey will be undertaken of the coral, fish and invertebrate assemblages. Some of these sites will be marked permanently and revisited on an annual basis as part of a long-term monitoring program. Quantifying coral cover, composition and diversity will give some insight into the resilience of reef communities to seasonal sedimentation from the adjoining river system. A reconstruction of the environmental history of the MSCRNP will be done using coral coring and advanced geochemistry techniques.
Collaborative research between Curtin University’s Department of Environment and Agriculture in Perth, Australia and the Curtin Sarawak Research Institute at the University’s Sarawak campus involves the following four inter-disciplinary projects:
1. Spatial mapping of marine habitats within the MSCRNP