Guidelines being developed to protect marine animals from recreational boaters: NParks

Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 19 Jan 17;

SINGAPORE: The authorities and non-governmental organisations are working together to develop a set of guidelines for recreational boaters to minimise the impact of their activities on the rich marine life found in Singapore waters.

In a statement to Channel NewsAsia, National Parks Board (NParks) said it is working with interest groups under the recently formed Marine Turtle Working Group, which also comprises academics and nature enthusiasts.

Channel NewsAsia understands the process is still at an early stage, as the working group was only formed towards the end of 2016. But recommendations could include the responsible manoeuvring of vessels, such as maintaining a safe speed when boaters see marine animals such as turtles surfacing and keeping a distance of about 50m.

In the statement, NParks said it is already working with the Singapore Boating Industry Association and marinas to educate recreational boaters on how they can reduce their impact. “Through regular engagement with boating marinas, we encourage boaters to reduce their speed near shallow coastal areas as that can result in resuspension of sediment which can aggravate marine life.”

NParks said it also encourages boaters to keep a lookout for distressed marine animals such as turtles, and inform relevant authorities. But Stephen Beng, who chairs Nature Society Singapore’s Marine Conservation Group, said not all marinas are proactive about educating their members on marine conservation.

“We have a large boating community and everyone has to practise responsible behaviour in terms of speed, slowing down when they do see animals,” he said.

Mr Beng, who is part of the working group, went a step further, saying there should be guidelines for all stakeholders. "This helps businesses - from shipping companies and marinas to fishing tours and scuba diving operators - to adopt responsible practices."

“Education can also come via civil society and the scientific community by collecting data on the behaviour and movement patterns of these reptiles and mammals so we can make aware to the boating community that, say, this channel is a common channel for turtles and dolphins so maybe slow down,” said Mr Beng.

SINGAPORE WATERS: TEEMING WITH MARINE LIFE

The waters around Singapore are some of the busiest in the world, with hundreds of commercial ships passing through and as many as 1,000 ships in its port. Despite the activity, marine conservationists like Ria Tan said the waters are a haven for marine wildlife.

“In the north you have seagrasses, it’s a bit mucky, muddy and silty, which some animals love and you can only find them in such estuaries. Whereas other kinds of animals require higher salinity so things like corals are found in the south,” said Ms Tan.

Larger animals such as marine turtles and dolphins have also been sighted in Singapore waters, and Ms Tan said this is a result of good regulations. “The Maritime and Port Authority is very strict about dumping of oil and other kinds of rubbish,” she said. “Every ship parked in port gets visited by garbage barges to collect trash just like how we get the garbage trucks at our homes.”

ACCIDENTS INVOLVING MARINE LIFE STILL OCCUR

But from time to time, nature enthusiasts come across instances that highlight the risks posed by ships and boats to the marine life that inhabits local waters. Earlier in January, a dead sea turtle washed ashore at Changi Beach with a deep gash across its shell, believed to have been caused by a ship's or boat's propeller.

Mr Beng said such incidents are uncommon. He also said oil spills, such as the one that occurred recently as a result of a vessel collision off Pasir Gudang, are also a concern.

“Young turtles go to convergence points and that’s where oil gathers and when it washes up to shore, it devastates the nesting areas or nesting sandy beaches. When it covers the corals, the source of marine life, it also affects what marine life like turtles ingest,” he said.

Mr Beng said the authorities responded quickly to the oil spill. But the incident also offered an opportunity to see whether lessons can be learned from what happened.

"There can be a multi-stakeholder process to assess the immediate and long-term damage to sensitive marine habitats, like coral reefs and mangroves. This allows our scientific and civil communities to accurately account for stressors to the marine environment," he said.

Mr Beng also said there needs to be better awareness among shipping companies about the environmental impact of their business. “Shipping companies can have policies where they require vessel masters to navigate cautiously when there are marine animals such as dolphins or sea turtles,” he said.

He said harbour masters that bring ships into port can also keep the safety of marine animals in mind.

- CNA/mo

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