KOTA KINABALU: Responding to the growing threat to marine life, and the push for businesses to be more environment-friendly, an island resort has set up a research centre and a programme to rehabilitate corals and fish injured by trawler nets.

The Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) at the Gayana Eco Resort also teaches its guests about the island's ecosystems and the need to conserve them.
This is part of the Sabah Development Corridor (SDC) blueprint, as the state moves to boost its economy through tourism.

MERC director Alvin Wong said a key programme was the breeding of giant clams, which in the past had ended up on the tables of seafood restaurants and displayed as ornamental pieces.

He said seven of the eight species of giant clams in the world were being monitored and bred at the centre, including two which had been classified as locally extinct.
"Giant clams are important in the ecosystem as they take in harmful waste nutrients and expel clean water into the environment.

"They grow slowly and have a minimal defence system which makes them highly vulnerable to natural enemies or human threats, such as unsustainable collection, which have accelerated extinction rates."

The centre at Malohom Bay in Pulau Gaya, 15 minutes by speedboat from the city, has also started a Coral Restoration Programme to restore the reefs around the resort that have fallen victim to destructive fishing methods, sedimentation and pollution from the mainland.

Wong said an artificial reef structure connected to low voltage electricity had been built to encourage the growth of corals.

"The current encourages dissolved minerals to crystalise on the surface of the structure.

"This layer is the same mineral that makes up the natural skeleton of coral reefs.

"Corals rapidly colonise the encrusted structure and grow quickly because the electrical current also attracts vital minerals and nutrients."

Under the programme, visitors can also replant hard coral fragments found around the bay.

Wong said the centre had also built tanks replicating the mangroves and sea grass beds around the island to teach visitors about its ecosystem.

"We want our visitors to see the massive root systems of the mangroves which protect the coast from erosion and storms, and provide an environment for many commercially important species of fish.

"Sea grass beds are another ecosystem we want to teach people about.

"Important species such as dugong and sea horses feed on sea grass."

The centre also has a "touch tank" where children can touch and hold marine organisms such as starfish.