Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sarawak’s Draft Marine Mammal Watching Guidelines

Sarawak now has a draft set of guidelines for marine mammal watching. As I’ve argued before such guidelines are long overdue. The need to develop dolphin watching guidelines for Sarawak was first brought to the attention of the Ministry of Tourism and Sarawak Forest Department in 2002 when the Sarawak Tourist Association raised the matter. The idea then was to develop guidelines through a consultative process involving the tourism industry via workshops and practical training for boatmen. At that time the Forest Department was not even aware that tour operators and boat owners were conducting dolphin watching tours even though these tours had been running for years. Nothing came of the proposal. Anyway, fast forward 5 years and it seems that the relevant wildlife agency is now taking an interest in Sarawak’s nascent dolphin watching industry which should be a good thing.

Last month members of the tourism industry and government sector were invited to a presentation by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), the agency currently responsible for wildlife management in the state. SFC gave a presentation on the wider actitives of SFC and then the marine mammal watching guidelines. This was the first time the tourism industry were aware of the guidelines as tourism operators were not consulted in the process of developing the draft guidelines. A number of operators and boat owners that offer dolphin watching tours were not at the meeting and many of those at the meeting do not even offer dolphin watching tours in Sarawak. This week I did a quick check amongst existing operators and many are not aware that there is now a draft set of dolphin watching guidelines.

So how useful are the guidelines and how relevant are they to Sarawak? Well first off the guidelines have not been specifically tailored to suit Sarawak’s dolphin watching industry which is currently focused on the Irrawaddy dolphin. In fact Sarawak’s guidelines are copied almost word-for-word from the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching. Yes, someone at SFC has done a ‘cut and paste’ job. On the printed copy of the Sarawak guidelines, there is no acknowledgement of the fact the guidelines were lifted from the Australian regulations.

Using the Australian guidelines as a model for Sarawak is not a bad thing. However, I think greater effort should have been made to adapt the Australian guidelines to the local Sarawak setting. In addition the local tourism industry should have been consulted more and given the chance to provide some meaningful input. According to people that were at last month’s presentation, some wildlife officials were not very well briefed on the local dolphin watching industry.

Currently all dolphin watching tours in Sarawak take place in rivers and estuaries not in the open ocean. However, the guidelines allocate just two sentences to confined waterways.

In confined or crowded waterways such as bays, estuaries, channels and rivers it may not be possible for vessels to maintain approach distances or appropriate number of boat within the caution zone. In these instances take all necessary caution to avoid whales and dolphins.

So just 44 words of the 17 page document are directly relevant to Sarawak’s existing dolphin watching industry. In this respect, the guidelines essentially boil down to last sentence “in these instances take all necessary caution to avoid whales and dolphins”. Which basically amounts to “its up to you lah”!

Many aspects of the guidelines are more relevant to Australia than Sarawak. This is hardly surprisingly since the guidelines were copied from Australia. For example there is a section on land based marine mammal watching that states “cliffs and headlands can provide excellent advantage points for viewing many different whale and dolphins” Does anyone out there know of any cliffs or headlands on Sarawak’s low lying coastline? Last time I looked most of Sarawak’s coast was as flat as pancake. There may be the odd cliff here and there but most of these overlook shallow waters. You’d have to camp out on a cliff for a few years before you catch sight of a whale or dolphin.

There is also a whole bunch of stuff in the guidelines on feeding and dolphin swimming programmes, again lifted directly form the Australian guidelines. These sections state that feeding and dolphin swim programmes are not allowed unless authorised by SFC. I think it would have been better to state that feeding and swim programmes are banned, period. Australia has a pretty good licensing and monitoring system for feeding and swim programmes. In contrast there is limited enforcement and monitoring of conservation and wildlife regulations in Sarawak. In view of the limited resources allocated to monitoring and enforcement I think no authorisation should be given for feeding and swim programmes.

With regards to dolphin swim programmes, there is also a safety concern in Sarawak. In many places swimming with dolphin programmes are not viable in Sarawak. The accessible dolphin populations are found in rivers and estuaries where crocodiles are also commonly found. Not sure too many tourists would fancy swimming with dolphins with a bunch of crocs lurking nearby?

All in all the draft guidelines are a bit disappointing. Not much work has gone into them, they have just been copied from elsewhere. In their current form the guidelines are not going to have much impact. Hopefully there will be more discussion, debate and consultation so that the existing draft can be adapted to local conditions.