Combating Threats To Coastal Cetaceans

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak's (Unimas) ‘Sarawak Dolphin Project' (SDP) took a step forward in combating threats to coastal cetaceans in the region through a regional workshop in Permai Rainforest Resort.

The workshop attended by some 30 researchers from the Asian region aims to discuss methods for determining and quantifying threats to coastal cetacean populations.

Topics touched on during the three-day workshop from Feb 22-24 include analysis of strandings, techniques for quantifying fisheries by-catch, analysis of the impact of coastal construction/development, and working with coastal communities to gather information and promote conservation initiatives.

In addition to presentations from world renowned experts in the field, a number of participants from the region will be presenting their work as examples of good practice for fellow participants to learn from.

At the opening ceremony of the regional collaborative workshop, Unimas deputy vice-chancellor (Student Affairs) Associate Professor Mohd Fadzil Abdul Rahman said: “In the face of global warming, extinction of species and habitat loss around the globe, we now have a responsibility to use our academic skills to work closely with and advise government bodies and developers on how to minimise impact and prevent biodiversity loss.”

“The university's Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation (IBEC) was founded with the aim of working to understand and preserve the state's wildlife and important habitats — both terrestrial and marine.

“Realistically, we understand that the country must move forward and take its place among developed nations and that continued agriculture and industrial development cannot be halted. However, we can strive toward sustainable development and I think this is what this workshop is all about.”

Citing an example, last year's Unimas researchers completed multi-disciplinary assessment of Kuching's Wetland National Park where data obtained from the studies was used to produce a management plan which has been accepted by the government.

Fadzil said SDP (housed under IBEC) would be taking a similar approach.

After two years of studies to identify the core habitats and habitat features of coastal dolphins and porpoises here, the researchers are now turning their attention towards the means to diagnose and quantify threats faced by these animals and their habitat.

“One of the project's Master Science students will be looking closely at fisheries interactions, while the other will be looking at water quality parameters and how these affect dolphin distribution,” he highlighted.

Unimas' SDP was founded in 2008 through a memorandum of understanding between the university, Sarawak Shell Bhd and Sarawak Forestry Corporation.

“We believe that this represents the necessary balance of future conservation and sustainable development efforts, which require partnership between industry, government and research institution to achieve the most effective results,” he continued.

Meanwhile, the workshop aims to promote the exchange of experience and materials among the researchers such as collection of data on fisheries by-catch including interviews and surveys, fish landing site assessments, beach surveys and onboard fisheries observer programmes.

These included identifying and quantifying various aspects of ‘habitat degradation' such as water parameter changes, noise pollution, contaminants, changing coastal topography or substrate; forming multi-disciplinary partnership to analyse habitat changes; coastal community and stakeholder education and awareness raising and the effective formation of regional, national or statewide stranding networks.

The workshop was funded by Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF) Hong Kong.

Participants included those from Malaysia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Also present at the ceremony were Pantai Damai assemblyman Dr Abdul Rahman Junaidi; Texas A&M University professor and co-editor of ‘The Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals', Professor Bernd Wursig; and Brian Smith, director of Asian Freshwater and Coastal Cetacean Programme for Wildlife Conservation Society.

Article originally appeared in The Borneo Post