Semporna is often called the gateway to Sipadan, which obscures the importance of Semporna’s own ethnic disputes and economy to multiple artificial reef projects in Eastern Sabah. Sipadan and Mabul are world-class dive sites. Chinese tourists flock to Semporna for seafood and their scuba certification, GoPro’s in selfie-stick, and then to Sipadan. Sipadan is a preserved reef with a restricted number of divers permitted per day. Semporna’s dive industry ballooned with Sipadan’s new exclusivity, predicated on the number of available permits. Semporna itself, conversely, was described as “the armpit of Sabah” to me. Personally, I liked it.
Artificial reefs act as fish aggregators and habitat for juvenile fish development, replacing habitat destroyed by unsustainable fishing practices in the name of the future of Malaysian fisheries. They mitigate the damage done by immediate human destruction. Several times a year, the Malaysian Fisheries Department visits with Sabah National Parks to check up on what they call “coral frames” scattered throughout Semporna’s waters. They’re basic rebar structures, like the one I built in Thailand. These frames act as shelter and substrate in the place of natural coral reefs, now destroyed by fish bombing often practiced by the local ’sea gypsies’ or Bajau. The gypsies’ problematic fishing practices (or, I think more accurately, the problematic fishing practices the gypsies are blamed for) are in fact the product of Malaysia and the Philippines’ mismanagement of a local refugee crisis.
Semporna is surrounded by a chain of small islands in the Celebes Sea, small pink shoals dotted with resorts and crowed with water villages. Just to the Northeast lies the Sulu Sea and Archipelago. These territories, while claimed by the Philippines, are inhabited by ethnic and religious groups who dispute their claims. These islanders managed to resist Spanish colonization, then Japanese colonization, then American colonization, primarily though religious unification under Islamic beliefs. Some of the refugees in Semporna come from these islands, but others are the nomadic Bajau. They’re seafaring nomads, coming ashore only to bury the deceased and to live temporarily while making new boats. Not recognized by either Malaysia or the Philippines and without papers, the Sama-Bajau have no access to formal education, labor rights, or cash. Many barter for gas with fish, harvested with highly destructive and cheap fishing practices. The Bajau are also known for their breath-defying native freedive fishing techniques. Contemporary fishing practices, however, like fish bombing and cyanide fishing, are challenging to regulate when the perpetrators don’t exist under any formal law.
The coral frames installed by Sabah Parks actively replace habitats destroyed by bombs in name of enhancing fisheries and perpetuating the livelihoods of all fishermen in the area, of which there are many. The no-take marine parks will ultimately enhance local fish stocks, but not before fishermen desperate for income resort to extralegal practices. The marine parks can only employ a few of the fishermen displaced by the establishment of no-take marine parks. For now, they’ll keep building coral frames and, David hopes, pass them off to locals for maintenance. Other programs rely on paying volunteers for their labor.