Malaysia: Turtle deaths rising due to stingray demand

SIM LEOI LEOI The Star 14 May 16;

EXCLUSIVE: DUNGUN: Terengganu’s iconic mascot, the turtle, is dying. The irony – it is not being killed or hunted but has become the victim of the hunger for another marine creature, the stingray.

Metres of illegal nets (pukat pari), laid out to catch stingrays along the shores of the state – some as close as 30m from the beach – are also trapping and drowning the turtles.

With months to go until the nesting season ends for these reptiles, the state Fishery Department said 30 turtles had died in the first four months of this year.

In 2014, 47 turtles were reported to have died. Throughout 2015, there were 59 recorded deaths. With 30 dead so far this year, the number for 2016 could be significantly higher.

WWF-Malaysia senior marine conservation officer Sharifah Ruqaiyah Syed Mustafa said she had received reports of over 20 deaths in the Kemaman district alone and 10 to 15 deaths in Setiu so far this year.

Conservationists, worried that many more deaths have gone unreported, are deeply concerned about the lack of enforcement against the use of the illegal nets by fishermen, some of whom are now “bold enough” to mark the position of these nets with buoys.

And while some fishermen used to furtively retrieve their nets in the wee hours, some of them now turn up as late as 7am to 8am.

State Agriculture, Agro-based Industry, Plantations and Commodities Committee chairman Nawi Mohamad confirmed the increase in the number of turtle deaths, mainly green turtles.

“Most of these deaths are caused by fishermen using nets banned by the Government to catch the stingrays. Nets with a mesh size of 25cm and above are banned because they also trap turtles,” he said in an interview here.

While smaller nets with mesh size of 15cm or 20cm are not banned, fishermen prefer using nets with bigger mesh – some as large as 33cm or 35cm – to catch bigger stingrays that can fetch up to RM10 per kilo at wholesale price.

At some hypermarkets in Kuala Lumpur, stingray – popular as ikan bakar (grilled fish) and for local curries – can fetch up to RM28 per kilo.

Unfortunately for the turtles, stingrays are also known to be found along the coast, particularly around reefs, in the sand and between the rocks, at this time of the year.

“The deaths of these animals are basically fuelled by demand for the stingray,” said a source who used to be in turtle conservation.

“Turtles are a useless by-catch for the fishermen because Malaysians don’t eat the meat. The carcasses of turtles trapped and drowned in these nets are usually sunk with stones.

“Catching stingrays brings in a lot of money despite the risks. There is no motivation to stop catching them,” she said.

The length of a pukat pari – which catches only stingrays – can run up to metres long when strung together.

One pukat pari – known as a bidang – measures 18m by 18m and is usually brought in from Thailand.

In 2014, the state Fishery Department was reported to have seized 15 such illegal nets. In 2015, there were no enforcement patrols.

So far, no one has been charged with possession of the banned nets, which can see a fine of up to RM3,000 and the fishing equipment seized.

“In my eight years here, I have never seen anyone charged or fined,” said Sharifah Ruqaiyah.

A state Fishery Department official said some fishermen were now stringing together nets of different mesh sizes to fool authorities patrolling the waters.

“Many of the fishermen also leave their nets in the sea, only checking their catch every day. The nets could be in the sea for days or even weeks.

“A turtle trapped in one of the nets could have been saved if the fishermen checked on the nets every three to four hours or so,” he pointed out.

Swampy Terengganu island doubles as turtle graveyard
The Star 14 May 16;

EXCLUSIVE: KUALA KERTEH: In the middle of a river mouth leading towards the sea, just a five-minute boat ride from the sleepy jetty of a fishing village here, lies the turtle graveyard – an island where local fishermen dumped dead turtles for years.

On their way back from sea, the fishermen would stop and throw the carcasses on the island, usually far from the bank to hide them from view.

No bigger than a football field and overgrown with mangroves, the swampy island is half-submerged during high tide in the monsoon season despite the steep bank.

This year’s dry spell, however, has made it possible to wade into the swamp and clamber onto the island.

A 45-minute search turned up 55 pieces of old turtle bones, including rib bones that form the carapace and plastrons (belly plates).

The Star was recently taken to the island by Lang Tengah Turtle Watch co-founder Raphe van Zevenbergen.

The organisation was tipped off about the so-called “turtle grave” by a local fisherman, shortly after its founder Hayati Mokhtar began investigating the recent spike in turtle deaths.

“There is no way these turtles could have come here and died naturally. This is a freshwater river and the banks are very steep so the turtles couldn’t have climbed up,” said van Zevenbergen, who found the bones along the edge of the swamp.

Looking through the bones, which he later hid deeper in the swamp, he estimated them to be over a year old.

“The bones we have found are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Given that most were almost entirely consumed by the mangrove swamp, many more would have sunk to the muddy depths.”

The fisherman who took us there by boat revealed that the island had been used as a dumping ground for turtle carcasses as far back as the 1980s.

“Two years ago when I was here, I saw fresh carcasses but the monkeys and other wildlife could have eaten these.

“Last year, they stopped dumping the carcasses here. I don’t know where they dump them now,” said the man, who declined to be identified.

The fishermen were dumping the carcasses secretly as they did not want to get into trouble for using the illegal nets that incidentally trapped and killed the turtles.

WWF-Malaysia senior marine conservation officer Sharifah Ruqaiyah Syed Mustafa said the island had been used as a dumping ground for dead turtles until quite recently, adding that she had gone there in June last year.

“The fishermen who took us there told us that they had seen some ‘very young turtles’. I saw the carcass of a young turtle there,” she added.

MB concerned over turtles dying in illegal nets
The Star 15 May 16;

PETALING JAYA: The Tereng­ganu Mentri Besar is concerned over the dying turtles as a result from the use of illegal nets to catch stingrays.

Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman (pic) said the state government would call relevant parties, especially the state Fishery Department, to discuss ways to end the problem.

He would also request for the Fishery Department to act immediately and monitor the use of illegal nets.

“I am worried about the situation and will take the necessary steps to make sure that fishermen are more responsible while using the nets.

KUALA TERENGGANU 27 April 2016: Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman leaving his office after chaired a weekly exco meeting at Wisma Darul Iman in here.zabidi tusin/the star/kuala terengganu.

“If there is no action taken, I am afraid that the turtles, especially those on the coastal areas of this state, would become extinct,” he said in a statement yesterday.

Ahmad Razif said the state government had always been concerned about issues surrounding the endangered species which were synonymous with Terengganu.

Yesterday, The Star highlighted the dangers faced by the turtles in Terengganu due to the use of illegal nets in the lucrative fishing of stingrays.

The report said that the metres of illegal nets laid out to catch stingrays along the shores of the state – some as close as 30m from the beach – were also trapping and drowning the turtles.

Turtles left defenceless
SIM LEOI LEOI The Star 15 May1 6;

PETALING JAYA: The turtles of Terengganu are defenceless – literally.

For all of last year and up to March this year, the state Fishery Department did not carry out any enforcement operation against errant fishermen using banned nets – pukat pari – with a mesh size of 25cm and above.

The department just does not have money to fund such operations. With no money forthcoming, efforts to protect turtles in Terengganu may be in jeopardy.

It is understood that the programme, which includes enforcement against banned fishing nets and hatcheries carried out by the department, has seen its allocation slashed since January.

WWF-Malaysia senior marine conservation officer Sharifah Ruqaiyah Syed Mustafa said when asked why there was no such operation in 2015 when 59 turtle deaths were reported by the department, it told them that there was no money for oil or that the department’s boat had broken down.

However, the department did carry out one operation in April this year in the Setiu and Kuala Terengganu area, during which it seized 40 bidang. One pukat pari is known as bidang and usually measures 18m by 18m.

Most of the turtle deaths in the state are due to these nets, which are used to catch stingray but also trap turtles as the animals swim around the shore and come up to nest.

It is believed that the minimum costs for an operation can come up to over RM3,300 each time, inclusive of allowances for enforcement officers.

A source said the problem of the turtle deaths was due to the lack of enforcement, adding that he also received word that “funding for the hatchery was to stop for the time being” from June.

There are thousands of turtle eggs in hatcheries in 12 reserve areas – in Redang, Perhentian Island, Rantau Abang, Kerteh, Paka, Geliga and Kemaman – under the department, which has 44 staff, including rangers and workers.

These areas can see over 100 landings by the turtles each year. It is now feared that without money to pay the workers – who only receive the minimum wage – they may have no incentive to keep and incubate the eggs and instead, sell them in the market.

To save costs, it is understood that the employment of rangers, which is seasonal – usually only for five to 10 months during the nesting season – was postponed from March to April.

“For that reason alone, 200 nests were lost in Geliga alone,” said the source, adding that a night could see up to 28 nests in that area.

The lack of funds was confirmed by state Agriculture, Agro-based Industry, Plantations and Commodities Committee chairman Nawi Mohamad in an interview with The Star.

“We did not have allocation for any enforcement operation or campaign activities last year,” he said, adding that there had been a reduction in the funds set aside for the turtle conservation activities from the state government from RM200,000 yearly to RM50,000.

“Yes, we did not have any allocation from January to May. The state government will give allocation after June,” he said, adding that the lack of funds however would not affect the hatchery programme under the department.

“The hatchery programme for the eggs continues,” he maintained.

Nawi said the state Fishery Department had held two meetings, during which it was decided that it would ask the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency to carry out enforcement against errant fishermen.

Fisheries Dept urged to explore methods to prevent turtle deaths
SIM LEOI LEOI The Star 16 May 16;

DUNGUN: The state Fisheries Department should look into other ways of preventing turtle deaths besides enforcing the ban against illegal fishing nets.

Citing recent studies carried out by Exeter University in Britain, Lang Tengah Turtle Watch co-foun­der Raphe van Zevenbergen said using green LED lights could help reduce the number of deaths.

“Their studies show that turtle by-catch can be reduced by over 60% – without affecting the amount of fish harvested – by using green LED lights that cost only US$2 (RM8) each,” he said, adding that adult turtles were scared of bright lights.

The study conducted off the coast of Peru also saw some of the same turtle species in Terengganu such as the green and the hawksbill.

Trapped turtles, said van Zeven­ber­gen, were actually a major inconvenience for fishermen as they damage the nets.

Furthermore, fishermen did not want turtle meat.

According to the department, there were 30 reported turtle deaths between January and April alone.

With months to go before the end of the nesting season, authorities and conservationists are afraid that the number of deaths may be higher this year.

In 2014, 47 animals were reported to have died while in 2015, there were 59 recorded deaths.

The deaths are mainly due to drowning after being trapped in fishing nets – known locally as pukat pari – used to catch stingray. Nets with mesh size of 25cm and above are banned.

WWF-Malaysia senior marine conservation officer Sharifah Ruqaiyah Syed Mustafa said fishermen could practise the seasonal placing of their nets.

“Maybe they don’t put the nets early in the year when it’s the nesting season for the turtles,” she said.

Other methods include the Turtle Excluder Device, which allows the marine animals to escape from shrimp trawl nets through an escape hatch.

Group working to rid nets trapping turtles
The Star 21 May 16;

DUNGUN: A conservation group is working with the state Fisheries Department to carry out enforcement against illegal nets trapping turtles off the Terengganu coast.

Lang Tengah Turtle Watch raised enough funds to cover petrol and personnel costs for a two-day operation from last Sunday, to help fishery officials target “hot areas” where such nets – known locally as pukat pari – were known to be strung up by fishermen.

During the operation, officials even managed to rescue a turtle trapped in one of the nets hauled in by two local fishermen.

The department later confirmed that six illegal nets – with mesh size of 25.4cm (10-inch) and above and a boat were seized from the fishermen, as well as three other nets found in the waters off Dungun.

It also said the fishermen were now being investigated for using the illegal nets.

The operation, targeting areas like Chendering, Marang, Merchang, Rantau Abang and Tanjung Jara along the coast, also found three turtle carcasses.

Nets with a mesh size of over 25.4cm are banned because they trap turtles as the animals swim around the shore during the nesting season.

Lang Tengah Turtle Watch founder Hayati Mokhtar, who helped initiate the operation, said they were pleased that the operation had yielded a positive result.

“We hope that in this way, not only did we create a greater awareness of the issue, we also raised more funds and cooperated with the authorities in mobilising future operations,” she said.

The state’s turtle programme, which includes enforcement against banned fishing nets, had seen its allocation slashed since January. It was reported before that the minimum cost for an operation could come up to over RM3,300 each time, inclusive of allowan­ces for enforcement officers.

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