KOTA KINABALU: A Universiti Malaysia Sabah researcher-lecturer has expressed his concern about the rapid decline in turtle population in Sabah.
According to Dr James Alin, nesting records collected by the Kudat Turtle Conservation Society (KTCS) and sightings by artisanal fishermen and recreational divers’ show that Green and Hawksbill turtles in these areas are rapidly declining.
“What we are now observing is a consequence from decades of human predation. Slaughtering of turtles and poaching on eggs has taken its toll on the sea turtles population.
“Although, today, Rungus people – one of the natives in the area, no longer slaughter it for food at least in the open, turtles are still under serious threats,” he said.
Sea turtles are hit by boat engine propellers, he said, adding that the community patrolling teams under KTCS can only protect turtles while they are nesting and laying eggs but not before or after the landing.
Once they leave the white sandy beach and head back to open sea, they are in great danger of being hit by boat engine propellers, he pointed out.
According to Dr Juanita Joseph, a sea turtle expert working with Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, while underwater, sea turtles can hear the sound of boat engines, especially noisy pump boats, but cannot tell which direction it is coming from, Dr James disclosed.
During high tide, submerged coral reefs and sea grasses which happen to be sea turtles’ foraging and habitat areas, are busy navigation routes for passengers and fishing vessels.
“The unlucky turtle is sucked up by the turbulence created by the spinning propellers; causing it to tumble again and again while being hit by the blades which cause holes or deep cuts impressed on its carapace.
In fact, nine out of ten dead turtles washed ashore from September 2009 until August this year had signs of physical injuries.
“Most had grotesque deep cuts on either or both limbs (flippers), neck and head. While others had broken, cracked or deep scratch marks and gaping holes on the carapace or plastron.
However, none of the carcasses were entangled in fishing nets or had ropes tied on its body like the cases of dead turtles found in Semporna and Labuan, he said.
He also said that sea turtles are incidental catch of fishermen as according to previous studies on dead turtles in Peninsula Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia, carcasses washed to shore with these types of visible marks of injuries are either victims of boat engine propellers or fishing nets.
Sea turtles caught accidentally by gill net, trammel net, drift net, trawlers and purse seine will be severely injured, he pointed out, adding that once caught in a trawl, the turtle will be drowned and pushed to the back of the net, and during hours of dragging near sea bottom, its body will be crushed or squished under the massive weight of shrimps and other targeted species.
“This is a plausible cause of badly damaged carapaces and plastrons. Some of the 654 fishermen working under 121 trawling licenses in Kudat are definitely responsible for disposing of evidence, we just don’t know who and when.
“The cases presented have two more interesting trends. One is that, most carcasses were found during the nesting months of May to September. Second, there are more reports during these months of sea turtles incidentally caught by trammel, gill and drift nets – three popular fishing gears used by artisanal fishermen in the areas,” Dr James said.
He was of the opinion that some purse seiners had been doing such wrong things for so long.
“While almost all the trawlers fish day time, purse seines are nocturnal activities. According to KTCS patrollers, purse seiners encroach into artisanal fishing ground all year round.
“But during good weather, purse seiners can be seen fishing from dusk to dawn, at least eight vessels per night during dark moon and at least three vessels during full month (less fish).
“Most of them fish quite near to the turtle rookeries – the white sandy beaches all the way from Bak-Bak, Bavang Jamal, Kulambu up to Sampang Mengayau (tip of Borneo). The powerful spotlights used by the purse seiners could scare away approaching turtles from landing.
“Some purse seiner crews told me, during “Ikan Banjir” (bounty harvest season), turtles returning to the sea after nesting were caught in the purse seines because they were following the food i.e. aggregation of fish attracted by the lighting,” he said.
According to Dr James, the case against these encroachers is stronger.
“Not because we can find out who among the 660 fishermen working under 35 licensed purse seines in Kudat disposed the dead turtles but because purse seiners are encroaching into artisanal (traditional) zone.
“Purse seine fishing within three nautical miles from shoreline is illegal, therefore unregulated and unreported (IUU),” he said.
He said sea turtles were on the verge of extinction and that the Green turtle is globally listed as “Endangered” in IUCN Red list and are in Appendix 1 -CITES, while the Hawksbill turtle is “Critically Endangered” according to the same list.
“How soon will these threatened, charismatic and migratory species ultimately disappear? The answer is ‘very soon’ particularly when there are more delays in the gazettement of Tun Mustapha Marine Park.
“We conclude with the story of the Morong. My interviews with elders of the Ubian Bajau in Kudat and search on archival records for marine turtle trading in North Borneo, shows that ‘Morong’ is in fact the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys Olivacea).
“Today, Olive Ridleys are globally ‘Endangered’ according to IUCN Red list and listed in Appendix 1 –CITES. Sadly, in Kudat it is already extinct. In the past, according to my respondents, the Tip of Borneo was like their place of origin, the village of Nagbalong in Morong town, Bataan Peninsula, Philippines where the Arribadas was found in abundance.
“Although Arribadas or Olive Ridleys are no longer in abundance nevertheless their rookeries in Morong are protected by Pawikan Conservation. The Olive Ridley turtles in Kudat were not that lucky. The only record of its existence in the area was a carcass found washed ashore at Kulambu beach in September 2009,” he disclosed.