Since I was little, I have been familiar with the beach and sea, as well as some of the coastal marine wildlife. My late dad would pack up the whole family and, together with family friends, we would go for seaside picnics. We seemed to do this every weekend until I was in secondary school. On at least one occasion, I remember, we went by boat to an island just off the coast. I remember, too, peeking out as the boat slowed down on its approach to the island and looking into the clear water. For the first time I saw a ‘beautiful garden’ under the water.
Many years later, I learnt that the ‘garden’ was a coral reef and that the island is now part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (a marine protected area off the city of Kota Kinabalu). During the beach outings, the adults would catch all kinds of fishes in their nets for eating, and I think my interest in the diversity of fishes was sparked by looking at the different fishes they caught.
In Sabah, northern Borneo, we experience two monsoon seasons a year. The weather is summery all year long, with an annual average high temperature of 31ºC (89ºF). The relatively calm and mild sea conditions enable us to carry out field sampling throughout the year – and commercial and subsistence fishermen to go about their business. Fishing pressure is therefore high in these coastal waters.
Sabah is an important place to be conducting research as it is located within a mega-diverse faunal region of the Coral Triangle. Moreover, in South-East Asia there are very few extensive market survey baseline datasets for elasmobranchs (sharks and rays). For Sabah, however, critical baseline information such as this goes back two decades.
One of the most frequent questions about sharks and rays that I am asked by the public is what their current population status is. I start by explaining that 95 known species of sharks and rays have been recorded so far from Sabah’s waters alone. Of these, about 70% (66 species) are evaluated as Threatened in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Yet for a majority of them, biological and ecological data are completely lacking. In this project, we will carry out biodiversity surveys and assess the abundance of elasmobranchs in Sabah. Critically, the project will enable us to evaluate current exploitation rates and compare population trends with the baseline data. The field work will involve mainly monitoring surveys of fish markets, twice a week in major markets and every two months in smaller ones. Photographs will be taken during the surveys and, when necessary, specimens will be collected for further study in the laboratory. An important objective of the project is to develop practical conservation strategies for sustainable elasmobranch stocks in Sabah. This will be carried out in brainstorming sessions and workshops with stakeholders.