Langkawi's jewel in the crown may disappear

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Pulau Payar Marine Park has come a long way since it was first declared as a Fisheries Prohibited Area in 1985 and later gazetted as a marine park in 1994. Since then the tiny island of Pulau Payar, which measures a mere 1.75 km in length and 0.5 km at its widest point, has seen a lot of development, changing its face on the eastern seafront and making it a popular destination for reef-related recreational activities such as snorkelling and scuba-diving.

A small island located 19 nautical miles south of Pulau Langkawi, Pulau Payar, once a hidden treasure trove of marine fauna and flora known mainly to the local community of scuba divers, is now on the list of places to visit for many visitors to this region, both locals and foreigners.

This is to be expected considering the Pulau Payar Marine Park is rather well-known for its rich marine life in terms of diversity of coral reefs and fishes over small areas throughout the group of four islands - Pulau Payar, Pulau Kaca, Pulau Lembu and Pulau Segantang - that make up the entire marine park.

In the 1980s, a small Marine Park Museum, a small jetty and limited accommodation was built to house one Fisheries Department Ranger on Pulau Payar. In the 1990s, along with its marine park status, the floating platform with underwater observatory and shower facilities came into existence and was moored off the beach at Pulau Payar. A few years later, several chalets were built by the Kedah state government but the project was discontinued due to constraints of water and electricity supply.

Instead, expansion works were then carried out on the small museum converting it into the existing Marine Park Centre; public washrooms were rebuilt to cater to the influx of large numbers of visitors, the jetty was extended and more boardwalks were put in place in the name of tourism.

Until today, Pulau Payar Marine Park remains the only pristine coral reef environment along the West Coast of Malaysia. A study conducted in 2006 by Yusri Yusuf of Universiti Sains Malaysia found that a comparison of total species of coral reef with other islands of Malaysia has shown that Pulau Payar has the highest species count.

Coral reefs have been facing environmental stress with increasing water temperatures since the El Nino phenomenon in 1997-1998 and will now be stressed further with rising temperatures due to climate change. Increasing water temperatures interrupt the metabolic activities of the zooxanthellae that live among the corals leaving the corals bleached white.

Coral bleaching can also be caused by exposure to chemicals, sedimentations and excess nutrients such as ammonia and nitrate from plant fertilisers and household products entering the reef ecosystem. All these possible causes will arise from operating a resort on Pulau Payar.

As of today, the chalet project has been revived and construction works commenced two months ago. As such, in addition to environmental stress, there will be increasing stress from human impacts.

For how long can the Pulau Payar Marine Park hold its status with all the threats man continuously throws at its coral reefs and its fragile marine ecosystem?

The issue of concern is that to maintain the pristine beauty of the marine heritage of Pulau Payar, development should be at a minimum and accommodation should not be allowed for obvious reasons.

With this happening, primary threats to the coral reefs have been put in place with increasing nutrient run-off from human activities, sediment run-off from land/forest clearing for development and increasing sanitary and waste disposal problems, which would all be contradicting to the conservation of a marine park, no matter how ‘eco’ this resort claims to be.

The Pulau Payar Marine Park is one of the most frequently visited marine parks in Malaysia. With mass tourism and the daily operations of a resort on the island, fresh water intrusion will affect salinity levels at the sea and increase sedimentation load on the corals. Shampoo, detergent and lotions also contain chemicals that are harmful to marine life.

How would sedimentation, low salinity level and nutrient run-off affect the corals?

Freshwater adds salinity stress, causing a low salinity level and increasing sedimentation load. Similarly, when existing ground cover is disturbed, large quantities of fine soil particles are carried by rainwater into the ocean. These particles decrease visibility in the waters and the sediment blocks out light, thus reducing the growth of coral. At high rates of sedimentation, all corals will eventually be buried by sediments and killed.

Nutrient run-off from human activities into the reef system also encourages the growth of algae, which competes with corals for living space and light. Added nutrients could favour algal blooms, thereby retarding the growth and recovery of corals, even stopping their recovery, and finally causing death.

Once the corals die, fish and other marine species will eventually die, too.

Is there any mandate for a reef check survey to be carried out now before construction work continues further and the resort starts operation? And will this ‘eco-resort’ be environmentally responsible enough to engage an independent party to conduct regular quarterly reef check surveys to ensure the ecosystem has not deteriorated further? Will its operations be discontinued should there be signs of irreparable damage to the corals? Would it be too late by then to reverse these damages?

In many countries throughout the world, when an area is designated as a nature reserve or a marine park, great efforts are endeavoured to maintain it in its natural state as much as possible so that the public or visitors may enjoy the true value and heritage of the park in its original, undisturbed environment.

In Malaysia, however, it seems that an area that is designated as such would often become the target of more development, making it more urbanised rather than to conserve nature in its natural heritage. The Pulau Payar Marine Park is one such example. The irony is that marine parks were created as a means to protect an area of sea (or lake) to sustain its reef resources and to preserve its marine ecosystem, which is often a very sensitive environment.

It would be recommended to issue a stop-work order immediately and move the resort out from Pulau Payar. At the same time, the authorities should look into restricting visitor numbers in a move to conserve and protect this marine ecosystem.

Looking at the bigger picture, the state government and local development authorities should also check themselves on the amount of development allowed on both Pulau Payar and Pulau Langkawi. It may seem lucrative to keep building more resorts, malls and theme parks to bring in the tourist ringgit. But how sustainable can this be for the islands?

Let us not forget that even with its duty-free status, Langkawi cannot compete with other cities like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong for ‘shopping tourism’. In the first place, tourists do not come from far to visit Langkawi for shopping. Instead, they are here for the nature that can be found here.

In this respect, the Kedah state government and local development authorities should look into spending on conserving nature and protecting our forests to boost eco-tourism rather than focusing on clearing more land and forests for many more buildings and development projects.

We are concerned islanders and we do not want to be in a mourning over the loss of the jewel of Langkawi in the near future. We are here protecting the rice bowl of the islanders.

For further references, please read this .

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