Pop quiz: Where is Malaysia’s biggest marine park? And what is our largest island?

Contrary to expectations, this park is not around the scuba diving havens of Redang or Tioman. It’s in northern Sabah.

The Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), officially launched just last month, covers almost one million hectares of seas (898,762 to be exact).

And it includes the marine areas around our country’s largest island – once again, moving beyond peninsula-centric ideas of Penang or Langkawi, this is Pulau Banggi, an hour by ferry from Kudat town in north Sabah.

Size does matter. But it’s the unique management skills needed for this park that really make this our most ambitious conservation idea yet.

Unlike traditional “national parks” where the residents are not allowed to touch the wildlife; the 80,000 inhabitants of TMP will (it is hoped) continue to harvest about 100 tonnes of fish – every day. That’s a daily haul worth RM600,000!

The key word here is sustainable fishing.

Bombs, cyanide, trawlers

“The seas here have long been suffering from overfishing. Fishermen have seen their catch going down every year,” explains Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma, executive director of WWF-Malaysia (WWF-M), which was a key partner along with Sabah Parks (a state government agency), in realising the park.

While big trawlers have scooped up too much, small-scale local fishermen have also been guilty of using destructive methods such as bombs and cyanide. Turtle egg collection has also driven many species close to extinction.


The massive TMP will include the seas (but not lands) of 50 islands, including Banggi.

Dionysius points out that the area has great potential due to its rich marine biodiversity including mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs (with a whopping 430 species of reef fish).

“The Tun Mustapha Park will be Malaysia’s first multiple-use park. What that means is that certain areas will be set aside as ‘No Take Zones’ where no fishing at all is allowed. These zones are often determined by the village fishermen themselves,” he says.

Elsewhere, there will be Community Zones where fishermen can only use traditional (non-destructive) methods like drift nets. There will also be Commercial Zones where trawlers can operate.

The main idea, Dionysius explains, is that the other zones where fishing is banned or limited will serve as breeding sites where fish can be “fruitful and multiply” before they “go forth” into the big seas to be harvested.

Ecotourism in the area is still just taking off. With so many lovely islands, beaches and coral reefs, could it some day become a tourist haven for snorkellers and scuba divers like the marine parks of South Thailand? With proper conservation, plus the expansion of ecotourism, a 2011 study estimates that TMP can be worth RM343mil per year!

A guide taking a tourist snorkelling at the Tip of Borneo. Ecotourism in TMP is just starting out. Photo: The Star/Andrew Sia

A guide taking a tourist snorkelling at the Tip of Borneo. Ecotourism in TMP is just starting out. Photo: The Star/Andrew Sia

But there are challenges ahead as the balancing of commercial and ecological interests is often tricky.

For example, coastal mangroves in north Sabah will not be included in TMP, even though it’s a key area for the regeneration of marine life. Some mangroves are being converted to shrimp ponds or farms for the aquaculture industry, something which a WWF statement describes as an “unsustainable practice” which damages this important habitat.

The boundaries on exactly where the different zones will be are still being finalised. There is also the question of how the rules will be enforced.

Even without the marine park, many fishing trawlers are not licensed to operate within three nautical miles from shore, but there are still reports of encroachment.

Although Sabah Parks is the lead government agency for TMP, senior parks officer Augustine Binson admits that it currently has only one boat and two staff rangers stationed in Kudat for patrols.

“We are planning up to five more substations within the next 10 years. Ideally, there should be at least two boats and three rangers for each substation.”

In the meantime, Sabah Parks will have to depend on other government arms such as the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the marine police for help.

So far, 20 villagers have been trained as community or honorary rangers to help be the “eyes and ears” on the ground for Sabah Parks. 40 more are planned.

Convincing the people

Crucially, Dionysius points out, this park wants to avoid the top-down mindset where certain rules are “declared” and the people are then forced to obey.

Conservation will ensure that villagers will continue to be able to carry out sustainable fishing, like here at Balambangan island.

Conservation will ensure that villagers will continue to be able to carry out sustainable fishing, like here at Balambangan island.

Rather, the park strives for a ­bot­tom-up approach. This is to convince all the people involved to WANT the park because they understand that it will benefit them in the long term.

The extensive process of consultation and negotiation with all stakeholders over the TMP has taken 13 years. Joannie Jomitol, the lead community organiser in Kudat for WWF-M, says that many villagers support TMP.

“Their traditional fishing areas have long been encroached by the big trawlers. Many of them find that they have to go further and further out to sea and spend more on fuel while catching ever less fish,” she relates.

“So they like the idea of having certain areas near their villages preserved for community use only. However, there are also some who still want to use bombs and cyanide, so we have to keep persuading them.”

The big players had a different view. Dr Robecca Jumin, head of Marine (Section) at WWF-M, recalls the first workshop with commercial fishermen in 2007: “They already knew even then that fish catch was declining. But they didn’t want any changes as they feared the park would further cut their income.”

But even the big boat operators came to realise that something had to be done to prevent a collapse of fisheries.

“They have engaged in the zoning process and attending meetings called by Sabah Parks. Some of them have also proposed that the government buy back their fishing trawlers, but that is a costly step that has not been agreed to yet.”

Yes, there are challenges ahead. But as Dionysius says: “For environmental issues, there is sometimes too much doom and gloom. We must remember that the Tun Mustapha Park is a huge landmark for Malaysian conservation. So, we are celebrating it!”

He adds: “But the journey of the park has not been completed. In fact, it’s just beginning.”