Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo (Mar. 3 - Mar. 21)
Borneo was amazing. It was absolutely my favorite place I've visited yet. And I am going back. Volunteering at the Borneo Marine Research Institute (BMRI) was absolutely the best decision I have made on this trip, despite the fact that I initially dreaded the decision. It takes me a few days to adjust to a new place, which I tend to forget in the moment. After 1 day at BMRI had elucidated my volunteer project: a proposal describing marine ecotourism and public outreach initiatives that BMRI could implement in an effort to help conserve Sabah's marine resources and to communicate BMRI's research to the public. Woah, that was a mouthful. It was surprisingly fun to have a project and a deadline. I even enjoyed reading some of the current literature on ecotourism. I spent almost every weekday at the Institute. My typical day, although long (usually 8AM - 6PM), was filled with reading, emailing friends, calling family, drinking caramel Tea-Chinos, hanging out with the aquarium staff, Moose and Musa, chatting with BMRI staff, meeting with organizers of other marine public outreach programs (one really cool local NGO focusing on high school students and marine conservation and I also met with the WWF-Malaysia marine project manager), and of course I worked on my proposal.
The staff and professors were so welcoming and friendly - quite a few took the time, a lot of time, to sit down and explain their research to me as well as discuss current environmental issues in Borneo. One afternoon two professors took me to lunch, then, once back at the Institute, a third joined us and we talked for a couple hours about mangroves, shrimp farms, coral reefs, sea turtles, fishing techniques that are illegal but still common, and loads more.
During my stay, BMRI held a seminar, jointly organized with Kinki University in Japan, focusing on sustainability of seafood resources. The director of the Institute invited me. I got to participate in every aspect of the conference - I even got my own nametag and bag! The first day was dedicated to aquaculture and the second focused more on marine diversity and policy. It's sad how quickly this area's marine resources are being depleted and destroyed. One big problem here is shrimp farming. Mangrove forests (important nurseries for many economically important fish species) are often destroyed to build these farms; furthermore farming exchanges a high volume of water with the surrounding natural environment, in turn causing nutrient enrichment (leading to eutrophication), introducing disease, and not to mention it is costly to constantly fill and refill tanks. One of the PhD students here was testing the effectiveness of Aquamats, a US product, that is placed in a shrimp tank and provides substrate for phytoplankton to grow. A simple yet highly effective technique, the phytoplankton successfully filtered the water and increased water quality as well as greatly reduced the frequency of water exchange with the surrounding ocean. There is no governmental support (money), however, for implementing such sustainable measures. Quite a frustrating problem. There is a solution but how do you get everyone to participate?
Everyday that I went to the Institute, Mabel picked me up from my guesthouse and then dropped me off again in the evening. She quickly became my closest friend at BMRI. We spent a lot of time together: in the car, at work, and just hanging out. One day after work we stopped at a local restaurant to get tea and a snack and talk about her research. The snack ended up being intestines and stomachs. I originally thought I was eating chicken and beef. I understood when Mabel ordered these two things in Malay (ayam dan daging), I just failed to understand the waiter when he said they didn't have anymore of either meat and that they only had perut - intestines and stomachs. It was actually pretty good, I just thought the "beef" was a little undercooked. Halfway through, Mabel told me what I was eating and she thought it was quite hilarious. I finished eating, and it was ok, but not nearly as good as when I thought it was just chicken and beef.
My last full day in Borneo was a public holiday - Muhammad's birthday. Mabel invited me to go with she, her husband, and her little sister to a huge local market. Of course I went. I love markets. They are so overwhelming: the smells, the sounds, the crowds, thousands of different things to look at and try. It was really interesting walking through the seafood section, especially after having spent a few weeks at the Institute learning about all the problems with illegal fishing techniques, over-harvesting of marine populations, and fishing of endangered species. Mabel was my translator and we walked from vendor to vendor asking from where they got their fish or shellfish and how much it cost. Some guys were selling giant clams. Have you ever seen one? They're beautiful. Tons of different colors because of the photoautotrophic algae living in their mantles. They're endangered, but that doesn't deter people from eating them; there were loads being sold at the market. Most were still alive. Also, the freshwater fish that they were selling were almost all in bags, with a minimal amount of water, and again, still alive. They had live eels and turtles in plastic bags, too. As a whole, the seafood section was quite a sad sight. Borneo has such a diversity and abundance of marine resources. And they have laws to protect them (well sort of), just no money or manpower to enforce all the laws they make.
Seafood is delicious. And to keep it in the markets and on our tables we need to make responsible decisions when choosing and eating seafood. We should always ask before we eat: From where did the fish, shrimp, crab, etc. come and how was it caught (ie: farmed, trawling, long-line, etc)? The Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains an awesomely informative website about how to sustainably eat seafood in the USA, including a useful pocket-size guide listing the best and worst seafood choices (based on fishing methods, current status of populations, metal content, etc.) that you can consult whenever and wherever: http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/SeafoodWatch.asp
Print one and put it in your wallet!