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.


editor said...

If it were not so serious for the dolphins I would find this rather amusing. The problem of how to deal with marine animals in confined waterways is a big issue right now in Moreton Bay, Queensland where the BayJournal is based. We have a major review of our Marine Park going on and how to reduce the number of strikes from the growing fleet of large boats that use the waterways is being turned over by the Queensland EPA. Like you, I find the idea of using the Australian rules for open water whale and dolphin watching bizzaire.
At present we have implemented go-slow zones in many areas with hefty fines but have found that this is not enough. One option currently doing the rounds is either caging or installing deflectors on props to minimize damage. Initially the thought is to just do it on the big fast commercial ferries but it could be extended over time.
Boat strike is the major cause of death of our marine wildlife in the Bay. Do try to find a solution that will work for your waters--we don't know what to do either.

surfer said...

As a Sarawakian, I have only seen the t.v. !!!

acid burn said...

excellent blog. I'll be going to Kuching next month and would love to have a chance to watch the dolphins. Also quite concerned about the sustainability of these ecotours, hope it will continue to be conducted in a manner that will not affect the dolphins too much. Wouldn't want to contribute to something that would disrupt the animals lives.

Pazuzu said...

save the animals~~~~

it's really nice to see tat there r ppl who r concern...


Humpback said...

i agree with you, by applying directly these guideline to sarawak waters may effect the balance of the ecosystems. i am studying about this animal in Sabah as they also inhibit near to cowie bay, but the the bay structure may not as flat as yours, still the dolphin watching activity is not suitable to be commercialize in bay area... traffic is a serious concern. without the program itself, the death of dolphins still exist and what evidence can support that this will not contribute to any death of dolphins.
instead of direct application, i suggest the SFC to construct a team involving specialist to study the area first before proceeding this matter.
Irrawaddy dolphins most commonly found in sarawak waters, may no longer be there if this matter not to be taken seriously.
still, the idea in making sarawak water as a dolphin's watch ground is not bad but with adjustments and more research may work this out...
good luck.

sousa said...

im a marine science that will graduate soon..i've seen dolphin but not in Sarawak but in Cowie Bay Tawau. there are two species of dolphin in Cowie Bay, indo-pacific humpback dolphin and irrawaddy..amazingly there are no tourism activities such as dolphin watching my lecturer said there is no need to inform the public about the occurence of the dolphin becoz it will bring attractions and cause many impact to the dolphin. i suggested that research can be done easily for the dolphin in Kuching. just put one or two researcher on the tour bot and let the tourist be their eyes by filling the survey form. its not very difficult only that the agreement need to be signed between the researchers and the tour operator.

pesut said...

Sousa, thanks for the comment, yes it would be quite easy to put researchers on a tour boat. But this would just result in sighting data. This data is useful to have but we already know the dolphins are there and seen almost daily. Some operators (and their tourists) do already record sightings. In terms of research, what is really required is some form of population study to estimate the number of dolphins. Such research requires a permit from the wildlife agency and funding. Obtaining both is not so easy. Saying that, the good news is that it looks like a proper research project will be launched soon in Sarawak. I'll post on this later when everything is 100% confirmed.