Tun Mustapha Marine Park, Malaysia

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Malaysia

Humphead (or Napoleon, or Maori ) wrasse, subadult, ca. 40 cm long. Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia.
© WWF-Canon / John E. RANDALL


Bordering the Sulu Sea in the east and the South China Sea in the west, the proposed Tun Mustapha Marine Park off northern Sabah in Malaysia is an important habitat for marine turtles and coral reefs. Covering over 1 million hectares, it has the potential of becoming one of the largest marine parks in Asia.

But the area is threatened by overfishing, destructive fishing and uncontrolled coastal development. WWF is therefore assisting in the development of the park’s management and conservation plan to help protect and restore the marine habitats and fisheries.


At over 1 million hectares, Tun Mustapha Marine Park has the potential to be Southeast Asia’s largest marine park. As well as providing protection for coral reefs and mangrove forests, the waters are home to populations of endangered dugongs and sea turtles. The Balabac Straits, passing along the northern edge of the area, is a major migration route for marine mammals, fish and larvae between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. Within the three districts which encompass these waters (Kudat, Marudu, Pitas) thousands of fishermen make a living through substance and commercial fishing.

In the course of three surveys conducted by the National University of Singapore (2001-2004) only 3 sharks, a few endangered humphead wrasse and even fewer large groupers were sighted (Koh et al. 2002, Lee and Chou 2003, Tanzil and Chou 2004). This indicates that the fish resources are heavily overused and trophic structures within the park are severely degraded. Trawlers regularly fish too close to reefs. Bombing and cyanide fishing are still rampantly conducted to feed the live reef fish trade. Reclamation projects have impacted the coastal zone around Kudat and intensive agriculture (oil palm) is planned for the islands.

The park will use a comprehensive zoning system to control artisinal and commercial fishing, tourism and set aside large areas for conservation. It will include large local communities who will continue to live and earn a living from the park through fishing, tourism, and other resource-use livelihoods.

The objectives listed below were all deemed to be of fundamental importance to establishing the park and better management. Sabah Parks and the Department of Fisheries have both expressed interest in awareness and training programmes, and establishing pilot marine protected areas (MPAs). Surveys and monitoring programmes have been endorsed by Sabah Parks and the Universiti Malaysia Sabah. Continued emphasis on the live reef fish trade was deemed lower priority for the short term until the Department of Fisheries Sabah has more capacity to complete its management plan.

The development and eventual success of the Tun Mustapha Marine Park is a major undertaking. Conservation at such large scales is essential for long term sustainability and success, especially in the marine realm where habitats and populations are connected over huge areas (Skilleter et all 2005, Mumby et al 2004). WWF-Malaysia will have to be engaged in this effort for many years. If successful, though, this park has the potential be one of WWF’s greatest worldwide success stories. It can be compared in importance to Bunaken National Park in Indonesia or the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. It can bring enormous attention to Sabah, Malaysia and WWF-Malaysia. Malaysia has such superlatives as the Petronas Towers and the Sepang F1 circuit – why should it not also have one of the largest and most successful parks?


The project will adopt a five-legged approach comprised of:

1) Developing communication, consultation and education programmes for the community members in and around the proposed park.

2) Establishing a smaller scale community managed no-take area as a pilot and demonstration site for other no-take areas in the park.

3) Fostering institutional support from relevant government agencies and decision makers through ongoing dialogue, communication materials and engagement in activities and programmes.

4) Assisting in the development of the park’s zoning and management plan to ensure that it is based on latest scientific developments, evidence and theory.

5) Conducting a scientific survey to complete an ecological baseline and establishing a strategic and comprehensive monitoring programme to track ultimate biological success of the park.


Ultimately, the Tun Mustapha Marine Park will help protect and restore the marine habitats and fisheries around the southern Balabac Straits and vicinity. The establishment and functioning of the marine park will be a major milestone, but not the ultimate aim of WWF-Malaysia’s work in the area. Documented evidence of healthy marine systems and reaching yet-to-be-established biological targets will be the main aim of WWF-Malaysia’s work.

This project is intended to create greater awareness and support for the development of the park and its intended outcomes of protecting biodiversity, restoring fisheries and enhancing community livelihoods. The project will:

1) Engage local communities in marine conservation, including consultations on park zoning and management plans and establishing a community-based small MPA.

2) Enhance the biological baseline that has been in development for 3 years and establish a monitoring system to track the success of management programmes.

3) Maintain and enhance institutional support for the park and its development process.

WWF’s involvement in the Tun Mustapha Marine Park must be for the long term. The park is creating a new paradigm for marine conservation in Malaysia by introducing a large marine managed area concept and working closely with local communities who will be an integral part of the management of the park. This will require many years of participation and engagement. This project will be one of the major first steps towards the process. Future engagement will be required beyond this project.

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