Mersing Archipelago IMMA
Size in Square Kilometres
1 244 km2
Qualifying Species and Criteria
Dugong – Dugong dugon
Criterion A; B (2); C (1, 2); D (1)
Marine Mammal Diversity
Neophocaena phocaenoides, Orcaella brevirostris, Sousa chinensis, Tursiops aduncus, Delphinus delphis tropicalis
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The Mersing Archipelago is situated off the east coast of the state of Johor, Peninsular Malaysia, comprising 11 main islands. These islands have a rich geological history, and host high marine biodiversity and ecosystems that include mangroves, coral reefs and verdant seagrass meadows. Since 1994, these islands’ surrounding waters up to 2 nautical miles from the lowest watermark have been gazetted as Marine Parks. Tourism is the main economic activity, while artisanal and commercial fishing communities are found along the adjacent mainland coast. Of particular significance in this IMMA is the seagrass meadows, especially those found on the leeward sides of Sibu and Tinggi cluster of islands which constitute the last known critical habitat for dugongs (Dugong dugon) in Peninsular Malaysia. Ongoing research on the dugongs since 2014 has revealed a small but reproductive population that feed on the seagrasses in the meadows, breed and socialise in this IMMA year-round.
Description of Qualifying Criteria
Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability
Dugongs are listed as VU on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and the species is also listed as a Marine Endangered Species under the Malaysian Fisheries Act 1985 and Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species) Regulation (Amended) 2008. Furthermore, the Mersing Archipelago is the only place in Peninsular Malaysia where dugong occurrence is frequent and reliable. The population is small and there have been at least eight dugong deaths recorded over the last 3 years (2015 – 2018), most of which were of juvenile individuals (Ponnampalam, unpublished data).
Criterion B: Distribution and Abundance
Sub-criterion B2: Aggregations
Systematic aerial surveys was conducted three times a year from 2014 to 2016 covering total search effort of 23,790 km over 145 hours (Ponnampalam, 2017). A total of 642 dugong sightings were made over the course of the surveys with group size ranging from solitary animals to large herds of more than 30 animals (maximum count of 43) (Ponnampalam, 2017). Although dugongs have a wide global range, populations are often small and fragmented throughout its range. While this population do not represent a large proportion of the entire global population of the species, it is the only population currently known to be present around Peninsular Malaysia, where regular occurrences of the species have been observed, which also include sightings of dugong herds of between 20 – 43 or more animals particularly around Sibu Island. These herds are usually inclusive of mother-calf pairs. These aggregations were observed mainly in the mornings, centered in a small area south of Sibu Island (Ponnampalam, 2017)
Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities
Sub-criterion C1: Reproductive Areas
The area around Sibu island, especially to the southwest, is considered to be an important nursing ground where most dugong mother-calf pairs are observed (24% of all dugong sightings sighted during aerial surveys were of mother-calf pairs/contained mother-calf pairs) (Ponnampalam, 2017).
Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas
The seagrass meadows in the area, especially those around Sibu Island are known dugong feeding grounds due to documented presence of many feeding trails during surveys throughout the year (Heng et al. 2017; Ponnampalam, 2017).
Criterion D: Special Attributes
Sub-criterion D1: Distinctiveness
The seagrass meadows in the area especially those of Tinggi Island and the area south of Mentigi and Nanga Kecil and Nanga Besar Islands are identified as dugong ‘vocal hotspots’ where dugong vocalizations are often detected (Ichikawa et al. 2015 ; Ponnampalam, 2017). The ‘vocal hotspot’ is believed to be an area for daily communication and social cohesion for the dugongs using the area.
Heng, W.K., Ooi, J. L. S. and Ponnampalam, L.S. 2017. ‘Mapping seagrass habitat and understanding feeding preferences of endangered dugongs (Dugong dugon) in the Sibu-Tinggi Archipelago, Johor, Malaysia’, paper presented at the 10th WESTPAC International Scientific Conference – Advancing Ocean Knowledge, Fostering Sustainable Development from the Indo-Pacific to the Globe, Qingdao, China, 17 -20 April 2017.
Heng, W.K., Ooi, J.L.S. and Ponnampalam, L.S. 2017. ‘Mapping seagrass habitat and understanding feeding preferences of endangered dugongs (Dugong dugon) in the Sibu-Tinggi Archipelago, Johor, Malaysia’, poster presented at the 2nd International Symposium on Dugongs, , Toba, Mie, Japan, 22 – 23 February 2018.
Ichikawa, K., Akamatsu, T., Ponnampalam, L., Alfian, K. and Arai, N. 2015. ‘Heterogeneous movement of dugongs between a vocal hotspot and a seagrass bed in Johor, Malaysia’. Abstracts of the 3rd Design Symposium on Conservation of Ecosystem (SEASTAR2000)’, Kyoto, Japan, 15 March 2015.
Jaaman, S.A. and Mohamed, C.A.R. 2014. ‘Marine mammals in the waters of east coast Johor, Malaysia’. ASM Science Journal 8(2): 143-149.
Kili, K.A. 2016. ‘Johor seeks best way to protect dugong’, The Star Online, 19 May, accessed 22 October 2018
Ooi, J.L.S., Kendrick, G.A., Van Niel, K.P. and Affendi, Y.A. 2011. ‘Knowledge gaps in tropical Southeast Asian seagrass systems’. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 92: 118–131.
Ponnampalam, L.S. 2017. ‘A three-pronged approach for overcoming knowledge barriers on the ecology and status of dugongs in Johor, Malaysia – Towards critical habitat protection’. Narrative Report #3: Year 3 (Final) Progress Report of PEW Fellowship in Marine Conservation (2014 – 2017). Report submitted to The PEW Charitable Trusts.
Ponnampalam, L.S., Fairul Izmal, J.H., Adulyanukosol, K., Ooi, J.L.S. and Reynolds III, J.E. 2015. ‘Aligning conservation and research priorities for proactive species and habitat management: the case of dugongs Dugong dugon in Johor, Malaysia’. Oryx 49(4): 743-749. DOI:10.1017/S0030605313001580
Ponnampalam, L.S., Fairul Izmal, J.H., Ichikawa, K., Akamatsu, T., Kee Alfian, A.A., Wetzel, D. and Reynolds III, J. 2014. ‘A multi-pronged approach for overcoming knowledge barriers on the ecology and status of dugongs (Dugong dugon) in Johor, Malaysia: Towards critical habitat protection’. In: Wan Musthapa, W. F. Z., Nik Rosely, N. F. and Othman, A. S. (eds.) Johor Nature Heritage, pp 101-112. School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.
Sock Ken, L. 2017. ‘Dugong Sanctuary at Pulau Sibu soon’, The Sun Daily, 15 May, accessed 24 October 2018,