CEMACS: A Little-known And Highly Effective Research Centre

CEMACS houses the largest collection of hard coral and marine invertebrate specimens in the country.

The CEMACS field station is equipped with laboratories and accommodation facilities.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is the second oldest university in the country, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Within its fold is the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS), located in a 3.75 ha site at Teluk Aling within the Penang National Park.

Although relatively unknown to those outside the field, CEMACS has been attracting local and international scientists with its research and training facilities, with a focus on biodiversity and the conservation of marine ecosystems, coastal forest ecosystems, mariculture and marine mammal ecology.

CEMACS began life in 1978 as the Muka Head Marine Field Station, set up to conduct research on marine science. This oldest marine centre in the country has been a hive of marine science activity ever since, involving postgraduate students and researchers.

The field station was upgraded to a centre of excellence in 1991 and adopted the current designation of CEMACS. It is equipped with laboratories and accommodation facilities, such as dormitories that can house 70, and flatlets – ample space for students and researchers.

With changing times and evolving issues, CEMACS directs its research and studies to keep with the flow. In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), CEMACS aims to apply research findings to community needs, and is moving towards “green” mariculture and addressing future food security issues.

Mariculture research conducted at the centre takes sustainability and environmental impact factors into account, and has contributed greatly to the development of oyster culture, paving the way for the first commercial oyster hatchery in Malaysia to be set up in Balik Pulau. The oysters from this hatchery are supplied to restaurants, hotels and wholesalers.

Oyster culture is considered “green” mariculture as these organisms are filter feeders – they feed on naturally available plankton – and the culture setup does not require any extra artificial feed which may pollute the waters. Knowledge from oyster culture research was also translated into a community development strategy; oyster culture techniques were taught to fishermen who needed some side income during difficult fishing months.

A success story lies in an oyster farm located at Sungai Merbok, Kedah. The oyster culturist there, a former fisherman, now focuses on ecotourism activities centred on his oysters and the surrounding mangroves. He also gives back to the community in the area by providing part-time jobs to housewives and students on holiday to work at his farm during their free time. His full-fledged ecotourism-themed oyster farm was initiated from community linkages surfacing from research in CEMACS’s laboratories. Research on the culture of other organisms such as mud crabs, mantis shrimps and sea cucumbers are ongoing.

As the nation’s pioneer research centre for marine science, CEMACS aspires to fulfil Goal 14 of the SDGs: Life below Water – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Malaysia is one of the 12 mega-biodiverse countries in the world. Apart from its terrestrial flora and fauna, it is strategically located at the Coral Triangle – a marine area located in the western Pacific Ocean and includes the waters of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands.

The route map of the ROSES expedition. Blue marks the start of the journey from Penang; red marks the return route from Kota Kinabalu.

Recognising the importance of preserving and conserving marine biodiversity, CEMACS has spearheaded a number of expeditions to discover, document and account for our marine organisms. The Research on the Seas and Islands of Malaysia (ROSES) Expedition in 2004 was the nation’s first scientific voyage, led by the then-director of CEMACS, Prof. Dr Zulfigar Yasin, across the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea.

The expedition took 42 days on the MV Commander, documenting and charting the unexplored submerged reefs belonging to Malaysia in the Spratly Islands and off Sarawak’s waters. Subsequently, a few other such expeditions were carried out by CEMACS and as a result, the centre now houses the largest collection of hard coral and marine invertebrate specimens in the country.

Marine biologist working on a coral reef.

In response to climate change and ocean acidification, CEMACS has undertaken the challenge of understanding the biological impact of ocean acidification on marine organisms, focusing on the coral reefs in our surrounding waters as well as shellfish, which are important to the country’s aquaculture industry.

Using the centre’s location on the Straits of Malacca to its advantage, CEMACS uses this “natural laboratory” to project the condition of the marine environment of the future as it comes under pressure from pollution and ocean acidification, which is already posing a bleak outlook for many marine life forms. The situation worsens with increasing plastic and microplastic pollutants, which are found to accumulate in seafood. CEMACS takes on the challenge to conduct research and find solutions to this threat.

Besides research, CEMACS is committed to serving the regional community as an education hub focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) education. CEMACS opens its doors to any institution and members of the public who wish to learn about various natural ecosystems such as tropical forests, rivers, coastal rocky and sandy shores, and ocean ecosystems.

It also aspires to integrate the arts into natural sciences, and vice versa. There are a few culture-themed gardens specially designed to inspire researchers at the centre, such as a Japanese farmer’s garden and a rock pool.

The centre also conducts public lectures, exhibitions and other collaborative corporate social responsibility projects with various partners, and constantly looks towards collaborating with interested parties.

Keep abreast of CEMACS and its activities at www.facebook.com/cemacsUSM and www.instagram. com/cemacs_usm.

Dr Abe Woo Sau Pinn is a lecturer at CEMACS. He is currently studying the biodiversity of marine invertebrates and their systematics. His research interests include ecology, diversity, systematics and taxonomy of echinoderms.
Dr Annette Jaya Ram is a lecturer at CEMACS. She is working on the mariculture of mud crabs to find the best ways to culture them, to reduce human dependence on harvesting mud crabs from the wild.



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