Friday, June 21

Conserving denizens of the deep

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Asia’s mega movie star Datuk Michelle Yeoh (left) with staff from SFC during her visit in support of the Turtle Adoption Programme at Talang Satang National Park last year. Braken is third from right.

SARAWAK boasts some of the most biologically diverse coastal and sea eco-systems in the world.

The largest state in Malaysia, it has a coastline stretching some 1,035km along the northwest coast of Borneo.

Sarawak’s seas and coasts encompass a variety of habitat types, from silt-dominated benthic environments to large areas of coral reefs patches.

These habitats vary from inshore to offshore and from southwest to northeast.

Of these, mangroves, sea grass and coral reefs are the most important marine ecosystems because they provide feeding, breeding and nursery grounds for marine fishes, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates.

Marine life also play their significant ecological roles in the marine ecosystems.

The state’s coasts and seas are also home to whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine flora and fauna but yet, some of the areas are almost entirely unprotected, except for small areas around the national parks.

Aside from that, Sarawak waters are also inhabited by critically endangered painted terrapins and other endangered marine creatures such as the four species of marine turtles, 15 species of marine mammals, sea horses and whale sharks.

Like anywhere else, commercial fishing techniques are wreaking havoc on the state’s delicate and biologically diverse area and its marine inhabitants, and if urgent and drastic actions are not taken immediately, the state will lose this treasure forever.

A volunteer releases turtle hatchlings on the beach at Talang Satang.

To protect Sarawak’s seas and coasts, some portions have to be left alone. That’s where marine reserves come into the picture.

A marine reserve is like putting a giant Do Not Disturb sign around an area of the seas and coasts.

These protected areas are very important to the future of our seas and coasts — giving wildlife a safe haven.

Many countries and organisations have been working on marine conservation.

And in an effort to protect some of its endangered marine species, the state government implemented the Wild Life Protection Ordinance in 1998.

The Ordinance stated that all species of marine turtles, marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises and dugongs) and painted terrapins are listed as totally protected animals while corals (soft and hard corals) and other species listed in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) appendices are protected.

The state government is also committed to ensuring that some of its marine biodiversity is maintained in a healthy state, and an important tool for this is marine parks.

To ensure the protection and conservation of marine ecosystems and that no species are ever left behind, Sarawak has implemented a broad programme for marine biodiversity and ecosystem conservation.

The hatcheries at Talang Satang.

This is done through the establishment of the State’s Totally Protected Areas (TPAs) system.

To date, over 200,000 ha of water bodies have been gazetted as marine parks — Miri Sibuti Coral Reefs National Park (186,930 ha) and Talang Satang National Park (19,414 ha).

The terrestrial National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries boundaries are also extended to waters bodies to protect and conserve marine eco-systems and marine endangered species.

This involves the Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary for conservation of mangroves and painted terrapin; Tanjung Datu National Park for marine turtles and coral reefs; Similajau National Park for mangroves and marine turtles; Kuching Wetland National Park for mangroves and Irrawaddy dolphins; Rajang Mangrove National Park for mangroves and Irrawaddy dolphins; Tukong Ara-Banun Wildife Sanctuary for breeding ground for migratory birds and Sibuti Wild Life Sanctuary for Important Bird Area (IBA).

To be on par with the rest of the world in biodiversity conservation, Sarawak has been actively supporting the nation in implementing multi-lateral environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention) and CITES.

The state, through Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), is also collaborating with internationally renowned organisations in marine ecosystem conservation such as the UN Environment Programme/Convention on Migratory Species (UNEP/CMS).

The MoU on the Conservation and Management of Dugong and their Habitats throughout their Region had been signed between UNEP/CMS and SFC.

Sarawak’s most notable marine conservation project, however, is in Talang-Satang, the state’s first marine national park, established to primarily conserve Sarawak’s marine turtle population.

The park, managed by Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), comprises the coastline and seas surrounding four islands of the southwest coast of Sarawak — Pulau Talang Besar (greater Talang Island) and Pulau Talang Kecil (lesser Talang Island) off Sematan and Pulau Satang Besar (greater Satang Island) and Pulau Satang Kecil (lesser Satang Island) off Santubong near Kuching.

These four Turtle Islands are responsible for 95 per cent of all the turtle landings in Sarawak.

One of the female turtles that lands at Talang Satang.

The park also includes the Pulau Tukong Ara-Banun Wildlife Sanctuary, two tiny islets which are important nesting sites for colonies of Bridled Terns and Black-Naped Terns.

Talang-Satang National Park covers a total area of about 19,400 hectares (19.4 sq km), comprising all lands below the high tide marks on the respective islands, and the surrounding seas for a radius of 4.8km from the highest point on each island.

Beautiful shallow reef areas surround all the four islands. The reefs generally consist of several species of hard coral and colonies of soft coral. They provide shelter and resting grounds for sea turtles, and are also important fish breeding areas. Sea turtles conservation in Sarawak began in the 1950’s.

Sea turtles are among the world’s longest-lived creatures, with many reaching a lifespan of over 100 years.

Graceful swimmers that spend most of their time underwater, they have survived almost unchanged since the Triassic period, some 200 million years ago.

However, the breeding habits that have served them so well for so long are now contributing to their extinction.

Sea turtles mature slowly, only starting to breed between 15 and 50 years of age (Balaz, 1982; Bjorndal and Zug, 1995).

Once they start breeding, females usually produce eggs once every four or five years.

SFC said five marine turtle species are known to nest in Sarawak with the peak turtle nesting season running from April until September.

By far the most important is the Green Turtle (chelonia mydas), which represents 90 per cent of all turtle landings, mainly on the islands of Talang-Satang national park.

The other species that occasionally lands on the islands is the Hawksbill Turtle (eretmochelys imbricata), while the Olive Ridley, Leatherback and Loggerhead Turtles nest primarily on the mainland.

All of these species are critically endangered worldwide.

Because of the threat to marine turtles, SFC has launched a conservation programme on Talang-Satang’s three larger islands, and also on Tanjung Datu and Similajau National Parks on the Sarawak mainland.

Eggs are either removed from nests and placed in guarded hatcheries — or left in place and guarded round the clock by Sarawak Forestry wardens.

After 40 to 60 days incubation, young hatchlings are released at night to reduce losses from predators. In addition, some hatchlings are tagged with miniaturised radio tracking devices to learn more about their ecology and life cycle.

The programme appears to be working well, as the number of landings has stabilised at between 1,500 and 3,000 per year over a 10-year period, after sinking to an all time low of under 1,000 in the early 1980s.

SFC also allows the public to actively participate in the Sea Turtle Adoption Programme at the turtle conservation station in Pulau Talang-Talang Besar.

This programme aims to create awareness among the public of the importance of sea turtles conservation and at the same time encourage knowledge sharing on this noble conservation effort.

The successful reef-ball programme is also believed to have increased turtle landings in the state’s beaches.

SFC deputy general manager (protected areas and biodiversity conservation) Oswald Braken Tisen said the main target of implementing the reef ball project in Sarawak is marine turtle protection.

He, however, said reef balls were also designed for marine life enhancement as they encouraged the growth of coral reef and served as refuge, nursery and breeding ground for fish.

“Before implementation of this project, 70-100 adult turtles were found dead along the coast of Sarawak (particularly around Sematan and Telaga Air) annually.

“After implementation, the number of annual deaths had decreased to about 20.

“The annual marine fish landing in Sematan and Santubong District were also higher since then,” he said.

Braken explained reef balls discouraged illegal trawling activities in the areas that they were placed by destroying fishing nets while at the same time encouraging, protecting, conserving and enhancing marine ecosystem and biodiversity from anthropogenic threats.

Braken said a project that aimed to conserve, protect, regenerate and enhance marine biodiversity, especially coral reefs, by placing reef balls in the waters of Similajau National Park, had also been launched last year.

Known as the BEACON Project, it’s a signature environmental sustainability development programme by Malaysia Liquefied Natural Gas (MLNG) and SFC.

The project also provides resources for conservation management, including comprehensive marine and coastal studies at Similajau National Park.

The BEACON Project is divided into two components — the Reef Balls Project and Conservation, Education, Promotion and Awareness (CEPA) – Endangered Marine Life Exploration, Conservation and Management Activities.

Under the BEACON project, SFC and MLNG have conducted marine mammals’ aerial survey and boat survey.