Every little seascape matters: Restoring the Perhentian Islands Reefs

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5 July 2022
Hidayah Halid

My name is Hidayah Halid, and I’m proud to manage the Perhentian Marine Research Station (PMRS) in Malaysia.

Located on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, the Perhentian Islands face the South China Sea and lie within the so-called Coral Triangle, an area considered the world epicenter of marine biodiversity, with 76% of coral species and 56% of all reef fish. The name ‘Perhentian’ means ‘stopping point’ in Malay; the name comes from the islands’ historical role as a rest stop for traders traveling between Singgora (southern Thailand) and Kuala Terengganu (Malaysia) before reaching land between the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the islands still serve as a strategic waypoint for local fishermen. 

The Islands Landscape and Ecosystem

In 1994, the Perhentian Islands were designated as one of Malaysia’s 44 Marine Parks, covering two nautical miles from the shoreline. The islands’ reefs host predominantly branching Acropora species, which thrive on fringing reefs and coral gardens that are also perfect for recreational diving and snorkelling activities. The islands are surrounded by beautiful dive sites that are unique to each site, ranging from clearwater shore reefs to shipwrecks to open sea dive spots. The diversity of dive sites offers immense marine life and rich biodiversity.

Our marine ecosystems are sensitive to their surroundings and very vulnerable to changes. Over the years, the islands have experienced extensive coastal development to accommodate tourists, which has had both positive and negative effects. On one hand, increased tourism has benefited the islands’ economy. On the other hand, it has also exerted pressure on the islands’ marine ecosystems. The reefs are a silent victim of unsustainable tourism practices that are slowly killing the ecosystem, together with the ecosystem services they provide.

Green turtles

Apart from the coral reefs, the Perhentian Islands are enclosed by seagrass beds that support the reef ecosystems with two dominant seagrass species. These seagrass beds are primarily feeding grounds for grazing turtles. The islands are home to two species of turtles: hawksbill and green sea turtles, which use the islands as a base for grazing and nesting. Adult green turtles adopt a herbivorous diet and feed mainly on seagrass, while hawksbill turtles are omnivorous, with a diet ranging from marine algae to sponges and jellyfish. Green turtles can be easily spotted in the seagrass feeding area and have successfully adapted to cohabit with the island’s busy life, making them a local tourist attraction. Divers are occasionally greeted by hawksbill turtles gliding on the reef looking for sponges from one coral colony to another.

Acelerating Conservation Effort in Perhentian Islands

I have worked along with the Perhentian Islands community for three years, and my job is to ensure that conservation strategies are implemented through reliable research findings, stakeholder engagement and capacity building. The PMRS focuses on monitoring the health of the islands’ coral reefs while engaging with stakeholders around them. It strives to combine scientific knowledge with bottom-up biocultural conservation to eliminate the separation of nature and social elements and recognize the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders. Throughout the season, a small team of PMRS staff repeatedly monitor marine reef sites around the Perhentian Islands through surveys that include rapid site assessments, resilience assessment, coral reef restoration projects, and the identification and – where possible – removal of reef pollutants.

We are racing against time to save our ecosystem, and the #AnakPulau initiative requires immediate action to accelerate our habitat restoration. The GLF’s support will contribute to the restoration of diving areas, as well as provide training to #AnakPulau initiative members and strengthen the team through program development. As a young manager, I want to investigate holistic and effective conservation approaches that will protect the value of the ecosystem while benefiting coastal communities. We are incorporating many learnings from other island nations that have incorporated their long oceanic traditions and the principles of environmental health into their conservation efforts.

#AnakPulau of Perhentian Islands

Through the networking opportunities that the GLF offers, my team and I are looking forward to expanding the stories and experiences we can learn from. The #AnakPulau initiative will continue to recruit members and create more opportunities, while up-skilled members will be commissioned to conduct annual monitoring dives, rapid response actions for ghost nets, underwater reef cleanups, and conservation activities organized by the PMRS.

It is a privilege to be able to work and live in the Perhentian Islands, and I want to serve the islands as they deserve to be served. Exploring the underwater ecosystem has shown me the interdependency between every existing creature, including humans, as well as the importance of all organisms for healthy ecosystems. This interdependence also applies to landscapes: the Perhentian Islands are a small seascape compared to the vast size of the Earth, but the impacts of the climate and biodiversity crisis in this coastal community and ecosystem must be addressed if we want to restore our planet for people and nature. We hope to be part of these restoration efforts.

Hidayah Halid

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Supporting partners

Under the banner of Generation Restoration, the Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL) and the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) launched the Restoration Stewards program in 2020 to support and highlight the work of six young restoration practitioners and their teams, dubbed ‘Restoration Stewards’. The year-long program provides funding, mentorship, and training to deepen the impact of these projects.
In 2021, the Restoration Stewards and their teams will be supported to further develop their project and will become ambassadors at both global and local levels. Globally, the Restoration Stewards will share their journey in a series of vlogs and blogs documenting their stories of inspiration and challenges. Locally, they will spark a restoration movement, creating pathways to connect, share, learn, and act for more sustainable landscapes.