|(Modified from a report by Tim Daw, 2002)|
Official fisheries statistics are available at regional offices of Sabah Fisheries Department but they proved to be of limited use for detecting the targeting of spawning aggregations due to the lack of taxonomic resolution, availability of temporal spread, lack of or reliable measures of effort and inaccuracies related to inadequate sampling. Export statistics for the live fish trade are also available which may provide a more useful indication of seasonal trends in the catches of more valuable and easily identified species.
Nearly half of the records likely to represent actual spawning aggregations were of Plectropomus species and 36% were Epinephelus. A Total of fourteen species were included in these records. Siganids were also mentioned, particularly in the Semporna region but it was not always possible to identify them to species.
Aggregations which had been observed at Sipadan and on Lyang Lyang atoll were unusual in being fully protected from fishing. If all other aggregation sites disclosed during interviews (i.e. at fished sites) are considered, only 20% appeared to be stable and more than half of all aggregations in which a trend could be discerned were either extinct or suffering severe (>50%) declines.
Nearly all fishers agreed with the view that stocks and catches of reef fish have declined. In a few notable exceptions, fishers in the Semporna region claimed that there were more fish now since fish bombing had been reduced. Where a decline was observed, fisheries reasons were commonly cited. However, no clear consensus seemed to exist on the need to curtail fishers' own fishing practises. Some fishers appeared unconcerned with the declines, pointing out that prices had increased to such an extent that they were actually better off now even with lower catches, as well as the range of other species which could be collected in order to survive. Others seemed to think that declines were inevitable or caused by other parties (outsiders or commercial fisheries). Fishers in Sabah may not be easily convinced of the need or desirability of protecting spawning aggregations, especially in cases where overall catches have declined and aggregations may be the only opportunity to make sizeable catches.
There is conclusive evidence from many studies that stocks of reef fish (especially predators) are in steep decline on Sabah's reefs and management measures are needed to sustain catches of these valuable fish. Aggregations could specifically be protected by spatial or temporal closures. Marine protected areas (MPAs) which are closed to all fishing are one measure which can be used to sustain populations of reproductively mature stocks which could replenish fished areas. These areas should be planned to include spawning sites in cases where they have been confirmed as present and where the necessary community support and enforcement capacity exists. Issues of enforcement are likely to be a serious constraint on the ability to protect aggregations, especially in remote reasons and there may be little point in the legislative protection of aggregations in the absence of these factors. In such cases, programmes of joint research and awareness raising with the communities involved would be the first stage of long-term management and sustainability. During this study, if fishers were interested enough to learn some key facts about reef fish biology they generally became more supportive of the idea of MPAs on the condition that the areas were small enough or located in such a way that they did not loose substantial proportions of their fishing grounds.
Even very remote communities in Sabah often have video facilities, so the production of informational VCD in simple Malay or local languages could be a useful way to efficiently disseminate simple fish biology to a large number of fishing communities. This could include interviews with fishers and scientists as well as graphical representation of the concepts. Good quality underwater footage of valuable species would no doubt be of great interest to the fishers and encourage them to watch the VCD.