IMCC5: Sarawak, sea turtles and some slightly obsessed scientists

By Kristen Louise McNamara (Perhentian Turtle Project)

Sea turtles, with their ancient lineages and countless unique traits as marine reptiles, attract many of us towards understanding their populations and conservation. Their populations, particularly in Malaysia, are under threat because of poaching, fisheries by-catch, marine debris, destruction of habitat, boat strikes and many other factors. As you can imagine, when a group of sea turtle researchers hailing from all over the world come together in the same room, there’s never a dull moment amongst old and new friends.

The 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5) was held in Kuching, Sarawak from 24-29 June 2018. Here the Malaysian Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology came together to discuss the plight of sea turtles in the region for the first time. Being the first conference I attended, I had travelled from my project on the Perhentian Islands off the coast of Terengganu in Peninsular Malaysia, not really knowing what to expect. Throughout the week I started to recognise familiar faces attending turtle-related talks who seemed eager throughout the presentations. Once Wednesday 27th June came around, everybody was keen to share their findings and discuss the current landscape (or should I say seascape) for sea turtles in Southeast Asia.

The day started with Dr. Juanita Joseph from Universiti Malaysia Sabah giving a plenary talk about sea turtles to the whole of IMCC5. She spoke about the sad demise of the Leatherback Turtles in Malaysia and how she did not wish to see other sea turtle species have the same fate. From poaching to habitat loss and exploitation, the turtles in Malaysia, and for that matter around the world, have the odds stacked against them. After discussing such poignant literature, she called for more enforcement of legislation and further research to close current gaps and combat challenges in the field.

In the afternoon a symposium entirely dedicated to turtles in Southeast Asia took place, with all of the research and conservation efforts of those attending from turtle backgrounds combined. It might sound cliche but it was inspiring after all these years working in turtle conservation, to sit in a room filled with professionals in this field. Firstly, Gavin Jolis’ fascinating and also heartbreaking investigation into the illegal sea turtle trade in Sabah also captured everybody’s interest. As part of the WWF-Malaysia, his team in Semporna, Sabah had come across dozens of turtle skeletons in an area akin to a graveyard where adult turtles had been slaughtered and left at a stockpiling point. It was thought that foreign fishermen, likely from China would be called to collect them to be sold onto the market, fulfilling the demand for turtle meat and shells. Furthermore, it was estimated that between 1999 and 2016, more than 200,000 eggs have been poached and sent to the Philippines, Indonesia and throughout Malaysia. Gavin’s team, with the help of local community members have uncovered that these are well-planned operations. To combat this new mode of operation in poaching, enforcement, task force and advocacy throughout the region is the ultimate goal.

Dr. Jarina Mohd Jani from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu discussed the local challenges of sea turtle conservation in Terengganu, where the consumption and trade of turtle eggs have been commonplace since the arrival of modern infrastructure in the 1920s. She outlined that despite conservation efforts involving an egg tender system and hatchery, the Leatherback Turtle population in Terengganu was depleted by 2001 when no eggs hatched successfully. With the selling of turtle eggs still permitted in Peninsular Malaysia and poaching for meat continuing in northern Sabah, it is a critical time to reflect on the tragedy of losing Malaysia’s Leatherback Turtles. There is now much being done to conserve sea turtles throughout Malaysia, however with an increased market price for eggs being documented, poaching activities are also on the rise. Conservation efforts are being challenged because policies and initiatives for their protection have failed to take into account human interactions with the species. Her research thus implemented a livelihood approach framework in an attempt to better understand what sea turtles mean in the lives of whom they share marine resources with. She concluded by saying that alongside a wider research scope of the sea turtle’s life cycle, more information beyond their biological aspects is needed to mitigate the anthropogenic threats that sea turtles face.

Noor Azariyah Mohtar (Naja), also from WWF-Malaysia then spoke about her preliminary study of the geomorphology of Terengganu’s turtle nesting beaches and their vulnerability to climate change. With an intense northeast monsoon, the coastline of mainland Terengganu is very susceptible to erosion. Her research aimed to monitor how nesting beaches were affected due to erosion and anthropogenic activities such as oil and gas exploration and coastal development. With the shoreline shifting, nesting turtles are having to travel further to lay their eggs and are exposed to more risks in this process. Suggested mitigation methods for this included implementing erosion buffers, sustaining the integrity of the coast and organising a coastal watch with prescribed guidelines and protocols.

Tanya Leibrick from the Turtle Watch Camp at Pulau Tengah then discussed her findings and recommendations for the first sea turtle conservation project in Johor, Malaysia. Here the turtle population faces problems due to lack of enforcement where both unlicensed and licensed egg collectors sell turtle eggs for consumption. The project aims to protect the population by distributing eggs laid there and on the neighbouring islands into a hatchery along with the implementation of regular patrolling efforts, an outreach/awareness program and liaison of information to the marine protected areas (MPA) authorities. In this way, Tanya and her team hope to better understand the population and eventually improve the legislation and enforcement to protect sea turtles in the area.

Sue Audrey Ong from LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute) outlined her work on Apo Island in the Philippines. The island is a popular tourist destination for turtle snorkelling activities, having recorded 71,000 visitors to the island in 2015. The aim of the project is to understand the size, aggregation and seasonality of the turtle population, their habitat use and the impact of tourism in the area. This is done by performing photo identification of foraging turtles, surveys of turtle and tourist interactions both in and out of the water, and ascertaining the local perception of turtles through various levels of engagement.

K.L. Chew then shared her collaborative research from the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch (LTTW) and Perhentian Turtle Project (PTP). Like LAMAVE, these two projects are also using photo identification to understand the movement patterns of green turtles throughout their foraging and nesting habitats in the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia. After collating the known populations between the two projects, it was discovered that a turtle who is known to nest at Lang Tengah Island has also been seen feeding in the waters around Perhentian Islands. This offers some insight into the movement of green turtles between the two sites. The sharing of databases amongst projects that use photo identification will no doubt reap benefits in the coming years by using a non-invasive effort to understand the movement of turtles throughout the area.

Last, but not least, Dr. Nicolas Pilcher, founder of Marine Research Foundation (MRF), spoke about the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) throughout Malaysia. With a significant number of turtles lost to fisheries each year, the long-term engagement of the Malaysian Department of Fisheries (DoF) to make TEDs a legal requirement has been a decade-long journey. This has been no small task. Dr. Pilcher spoke about his efforts to combine science-based evidence of by-catch with the engagement of fishers and finding solutions to socioeconomic challenges. He spoke about the challenges and triumphs throughout the process, but with TEDs ultimately offering a win-win situation for fishers and turtles, their gradual implementation will surely help to reduce by-catch rates over the coming decades.

Symposium group photo (left to right): Seh Ling, Sue, Dr. Jarina, Tanya, K.L., Naja, Dr. Nick and Gavin.

Following the symposium, the Turtle Working Group of SCB Malaysia Chapter ran their first meeting to further discuss the work that everybody was involved with. It was recognised that despite the growing body of data pertaining to turtle populations and mortalities, it is still biased by the reporting agencies’ location. To gain a whole understanding of sea turtle mortality throughout Malaysia, more data is vital. As active conservation efforts and awareness increases around the country however, people are becoming more compelled to report mortalities. This will allow understanding the scope of threats in a more wholesome sense. Alongside this, it was mentioned that growing interest in turtle conservation and their life cycle will require some guidelines in protocol and best practice in the field. Everyone in attendance discussed their specific concerns and how best to combat them. It was clear this would require more collaboration towards influencing conservation efforts throughout the region, but this meeting served as the perfect starting point for the group. I tingled with excitement while everyone talked eagerly around me. This was a completely new experience and incredibly inspiring.

After the meeting I attended the poster session where Nur Izzati Roslan and Alberto Garcia Baciero from the Juara Turtle Project (JTP) presented their research about using multi-disciplinary conservation strategies to recover sea turtles on Tioman Island, Pahang. These strategies involved collecting eggs for a hatchery and calculating hatching success rates, and how the involvement of the local community can serve as a cornerstone for successful conservation efforts in the region.

Enjoying the poster presentation by Izzati and Beto from JTP

The day wrapped up well after dark and I arrived back to my accommodation almost overflowing with new knowledge and ideas. No aspect of the IMCC5 had been left untouched by the turtle working group and couldn’t wait to share my experience with my colleagues back on Perhentian.

I was greeted by many familiar faces for the remainder of the week, and shared some insight into what I had learned from the talks I had attended and vice versa (it was impossible to attend everything we were interested in!). I took in all I could of Kuching, strolling along the riverfront with the majestic State Legislative Assembly Building in the frame of almost every photo I took. Being currently based in Terengganu, it was interesting to see the difference in culture between Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. Kuching has strong roots tied to more than 40 indigenous groups with their own dialect, traditional dress and lifestyle. The diverse range of cultures resonated throughout the streets as I grew comfortable with the city over the week. All too soon however, my time at the IMCC5 had come to a close. The turtle working group said their goodbyes at the closing gala which was held at the Sarawak Cultural Village, each of us inviting the other to visit our bases dotted throughout Malaysia and nearby. As a working group in the SCB-Malaysia chapter, we’d been brought together by our common interest in turtles, and by the end of the week I could feel that here is where I had made some life-long friendships. Finally I had found a space to share my passion.

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