Fish bomb blasts, dead turtles greet divers as water activities resume in Sabah

Mantanani Divers founder Robert Thien removes the carcass of a hawksbill turtle from a ghost net in the sea off Mantanani Island in Sabah. (Reef Check Malaysia pic)

KOTA KINABALU: Fish bomb blasts and sightings of dead turtles are not exactly the welcome divers had expected when the tourism industry reopened in Sabah.

But that is what happened, according to divers during excursions to Mantanani Island, a popular underwater spot off Kota Belud.

Tourism activities have resumed on the island since the state government gave the thumbs-up during the conditional movement control order (CMCO).

A group of divers said they were shocked when they heard blasts while underwater.

Reef Check Malaysia’s (RCM) Adzmin Fatta, who runs the Cintai Mantanani conservation programme on the island, said he was with the divers when the blasts went off.

“There were several blasts on June 6 and 7 and a louder one last weekend. The last blast was so loud that we felt the vibration. It was not a good start to the reopening of the tourism industry,” he told FMT.

Aerial view of Mantanani Island, a popular diving spot off Kota Belud in Sabah (Reef Check Malaysia pic)

Fish bombings had been reported before at the island and although they had reduced over time due to higher awareness and enforcement efforts, they are still taking place.

Shamil Arif, a marine science student from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), said it was not the experience he and his friends had anticipated during their dive off the island after the restrictions were lifted.

“Our first dive at 11am started off with an amazing view of the vibrant coral reefs. Visibility was excellent and there were lots of corals and I could see small fishes hiding and feeding among the crevices.

“Without a doubt, this was the best 50 minutes’ dive I have experienced.

“However, soon after, we heard several loud fish bombs going off while we were still underwater. It was a terrifying experience as we know fish bombs can kill if you are close by,” he said.

Ghosts nets caught among the reefs off Mantanani Island. (Reef Check Malaysia pic)

Michelle Wong of Mantanani Divers, one of the tourism operators on the island, said divers have also seen ghost nets in several dive sites.

“Earlier this month, we organised an underwater dive clean-up on Mantanani Island,” she said, adding that it was meant to attract divers and held in conjunction with World Oceans Day.

“We discovered tonnes of ghost nets caught among the coral reefs. Our divers were terrified and disturbed to see two sea turtle carcasses caught in one of the nets,” she said.

Adzmin said islanders have told RCM the waters off Mantanani Island are a popular spot for passing trawlers, who would often discard their nets in the sea if they had trouble retrieving them.

“The residents had claimed that there were no more turtles on the island but last year, two nests were found and saved, so Mantanani is an important migratory route,” he said.

Robert Thien, founder of Mantanani Divers, said action should be taken immediately to ensure local tourism is managed properly.

Coral reefs believed to have been destroyed by fish bombs off Mantanani Island (Reef Check Malaysia pic)

“How can we attract tourists, especially Malaysians during this period, to enjoy diving activities if we cannot ensure the beauty and safety of our seas?” he asked.

Diving instructor Aaron Gavin said reports of fish bombing incidents in the state are frequently shared in a WhatsApp group called “Sabah Fish Bombing”, which also included state enforcement authorities.

One of the postings included a claim by a social media user on June 15 that fishermen from Vietnam were believed to have been carrying out fish bombing. The area is close to an oil rig and about 50km from Mantanani waters.

“We reported the matter and I am sure the authorities who are also in the group are investigating it,” he said.

Adzmin said fish bombing is a destructive fishing method widely used in Sabah even though it is illegal. Costing as low as RM15 per bottle, a bomb made from kerosene, nitrate fertilisers, and handmade fuses can destroy up to a 15m coral reef radius.

This area could be destroyed forever or take a long time to recover from the damage.

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