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© WWF-Malaysia / Mazidi Abd Ghani

An ocean of promise

“I’ve been told I’m stupid for doing this stuff for no money,” says Yusof Bural, chairman of the Banggi Youth Club. “But I really love the environment here and I want to see more members in the BYC, so I keep going, even as a volunteer.”

Yusof’s younger brother Omar Bural is also a member of the youth club on Banggi Island, off the tip of Sabah, Malaysia. The brothers are living proof of the power of catching kids at the right age to instill a lifelong interest in nature. Both started volunteering with WWF before BYC was formed in 2009. They were drawn in by the opportunity to learn to dive, and what they learned changed the course of their lives.

“I did dynamite fishing and tried cyanide fishing,” says Yusof. These practices are dangerous to both the people and environment involved. He saw accidents firsthand, and when he started snorkeling and diving with WWF, he saw the underwater devastation. “I didn’t want to keep doing that dangerous stuff,” he says.

Fighting for their future

So, instead of going underwater with poison or bombs, he went with a toothbrush.

Yusof, Omar and other dedicated BYC volunteers built frames to which they tied living coral fragments in an effort to rebuild reefs destroyed by dynamite fishing. But to get the coral to start growing, they had to keep it free from algae. That meant diving every day for the first month the frames were in place and brushing every inch clear to ensure algae didn’t take over.

This is just one of the painstaking, time-consuming activities club members do without pay – sometimes prompting dismissive comments from neighbours. BYC members also patrol the waters around their island to discourage dynamite fishing and run off those who don’t have the right to fish in the area. It’s a massive job, and the volunteers have neither the equipment nor authority to do it properly. Still, every bomb they keep from hitting the reef is a victory in the battle for the future of Banggi Island.

For generations, nature has provided for the residents of Malaysia’s islands and coasts. But growing demand for seafood throughout the region has left the seas nearly empty. As communities face the reality that fishing is no longer enough to support the economy, they are hoping tourism can create new opportunities. But those banking on this long-term solution are in a race against time to secure the foundation of their future development before it is fished, bombed, trawled and trashed beyond repair.

Striking the right balance

“People like Yusof and Omar are at the heart of WWF’s work to restore ocean health,” says John Tanzer, Director of WWF’s global marine program. “A healthy ocean is a natural economic engine. It can support sustainable livelihoods for billions of people – but only if we take care of it. WWF’s role is to support these efforts, whether they are driven by communities or governments or international agreements.”

WWF is supporting the creation of a massive marine park that would include Banggi Island. Covering  almost 1 million hectares, Tun Mustapha Park would allow for various uses of the natural resources. It’s hoped that by striking the right balance between fishing and strictly protected areas, the habitats and fish populations can recover and thrive.

“In a year or two, I want Banggi Island to be a tourism center, and I want BYC members to be guides and patrol the new park,” says Omar. “I want to see people involved, but not just for the income – so they take ownership and take care of their own environment.”

Together, anything is possible.