A sea change in conserving Malaysia's marine parks

Panorama of lagoon
Careless snorkelers and boat anchors had damaged fragile coral reefs, and illegal fishing had taken its toll on fish stocks. UNDP Photo

Malaysia’s islands are renowned for their beauty and outstanding biodiversity. Turtles, sharks, rays and reef fish swim in their azure waters, and their sea grass beds harbour the gentle Dugong.


The coral diversity here is globally significant, and divers come to marvel at the islands’ 221 species of soft and hard corals– from huge fuchsia sea fans to spiny staghorn corals. For decades, the marine life and swathes of palm-fringed beaches attracted thousands of tourists per year to Tioman Island alone, named among the world’s most beautiful islands by TIME Magazine.


  • In 2007, the Malaysian government sought UNDP’s support to conserve marine parks against the threats of overfishing and destructive tourism
  • With growing awareness and enforcement, the numbers of violations have tapered down since 2011
  • Malaysia’s 2nd National Plan now features a section on conserving marine parks and a Marine Parks Act is underway


In 2007, the Government of Malaysia established a system of marine parks to protect and manage this outstanding marine biodiversity in the waters surrounding 42 of these islands. But there was trouble in paradise.


Careless snorkelers and boat anchors had damaged fragile coral reefs, and illegal fishing had taken its toll on fish stocks.


The Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM) had a tough job on its hands to enforce park rules and regulations across 42 islands.

“Fishermen would fish close to the coasts, and trawlers from other ports would also encroach into the marine parks, depleting fish populations,” explained Mohamad Bin Ishak, Marine Parks Assistant at Redang Island. 


  “The project has been good for the staff,” says Mohamad Bin Ishak, Marine Parks Assistant at Redang Island.

The onslaught of rapidly growing tourism, increasing pollution and warming seas was steadily decimating marine biodiversity. Whilst local fishing communities saw their catch dwindle, tourism would falter if the island’s natural beauty was lost.   

In 2007, the Malaysian government sought UNDP’s support to address these threats and an initiative called Conserving marine biodiversity through enhanced marine park management and inclusive island development was started. 

The project worked with the department of marine parks to sustainably conserve three islands – Redang, Sibu-Tinggi and Tioman.

Management plans were developed for all three of the islands, through a consultative process involving committees of representatives at the community, state and national level.

In practical terms, the new plans prohibited fishing within two nautical miles of the coast and large boats were no longer permitted within five nautical miles of the coast. This would protect shallow water coral reefs that act as fish nurseries that sustain healthy populations.

To compensate poor local fisherfolk reeling from the effects of depleted fish stocks, the project provided training in alternative livelihoods relating to tourism. (Read Story) From tour guides to tourist boat captains to noodle stalls, the local communities now had services and goods to offer the steady stream of holidaymakers to the islands. And piggy-backed on to this process were advocacy sessions for the locals on how to protect the richness of marine-diversity on the islands.    

But the rules were clear.

Any vessels caught persistently fishing within prohibited zones would now have their boat licence suspended for six months.

Tourist Centre Abdul Hadi, known as Eddy, a general worker on Tioman. Eddy has helped coordinate the DMPM’s community training programmes under the project.

Through the project’s support, 156 field officers of the park authorities were trained to man patrol boats and given the authority to arrest people who violated marine park regulations.

“The project has been good for the staff – it has built their competence and enhanced their skills. The strength in the credentials has given them a sense of pride. All the staff received certificates for each course they took,” said Mohamad Bin Ishak.

Local communities were also involved in surveillance within the park.

Community groups formed to raise awareness were educated about the marine park rules. These community groups became the “eyes and ears of the marine parks by looking out for boats fishing in prohibited waters and calling to inform us of violations,” said to Abdul Hadi, known as Eddy, a staff at the marine park.

Collectively, these initiatives yielded tangible results before the year was out. 

Arrests increased in 2008 and the numbers continued to mount till 2010 as the DMPM’s capacity for enforcement increased. Boats impounded for violations were sunk outside the 2 nautical mile zone to attract marine life as artificial reefs.

Since 2011, the numbers of violations tapered down. The project started seeing the fruits of its efforts in awareness and deterrence.

The project has worked with the Malaysian government on major policy shifts as well. The authorities now have access to more resources after various layers of park fees were introduced for tourists, camera crews and research vessels.

At the national level, the project advocated for marine parks to be integrated into national planning and policy. As a result, a chapter on marine parks was included in Malaysia’s 2nd National Plan and a Marine Parks Act has been drafted and is waiting for further review by the government. If passed, this Act would give the DMPM a legal mandate to further strengthen financing, staffing and enforcement of marine parks.

Perhaps one of the most important impacts has been the more collaborative and inclusive approach to marine park management. “The Marine parks have a bright future because of a new awareness within the government and the local people that we need to work together if we want to protect our islands,” said Mohamad Bin Ishak.

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