Best of our wild blogs: 9 Oct 12

CleanLah – an iPhone app to lodge photo-reports to the National Environment Agency from News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

Plant-Bird Relationship: 4. Poaceae
from Bird Ecology Study Group

90 percent of oil palm plantations came at expense of forest in Kalimantan
from news by Jeremy Hance

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Unusual problem of littering in Jurong East

Ng Lian Cheong, Melissa Chong Channel NewsAsia 8 Oct 12;

SINGAPORE: In Jurong East, residents living close to Block 275 Toh Guan Road are complaining of a foul smell coming from the trees nearby.

Some residents living on the higher floors are suspected of throwing their rubbish bags out of their homes, with the litter landing on the nearby trees.

Removing the litter is no easy task as the trees are quite tall.

"Some bags have been hanging there for a whole year," said one resident.

"Maybe they can install a camera or something to catch the culprits," said another.

In the last five years, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) said 20 people had been arrested in cases involving killer litter.

Last year alone, the HDB said there were seven cases involving killer litter.

Those convicted could face a fine or jail sentence of up to two years, or even have their flat forcibly acquired by HDB.

- CNA/cc

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Malaysia: Guarding shark numbers

The Star 9 Oct 12;

MALAYSIA ranks 15th among the world’s top 20 shark catching nations. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we provide 2.95% of the world’s total shark and ray catch.

At least one endangered shark species – the scalloped hammerhead – ranks among the top 10 most commonly taken shark species in Malaysian waters, according to a recent report by World Wide Fund for Nature and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. Many others on that list are close to qualifying, or likely to qualify, for a “threatened” category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in the near future. They include the spadenose shark, brown-banded bamboo shark, spot-tail shark, Indonesian bamboo shark, blackspot shark, milk shark, graceful shark, sicklefin weasel shark and grey bamboo shark.

The report An Overview Of Shark Utilisation In The Coral Triangle points out that landings of sharks and rays have increased over the years in the context of a decreasing fishing fleet. This, it says, indicates that sharks are desirable, targeted species.

“It is difficult to prove whether fishermen are actively seeking to catch sharks or are mainly taking sharks as incidental catch of other fishing activities,” says Mary Lack, fisheries management consultant and one of the authors of the report. “However, the high value and strong demand for shark fins certainly makes sharks attractive and targeting of sharks cannot be ruled out.”

Not targeted

The Fisheries Department, however, says sharks are not a targeted fishery in Malaysia, but rather bycatch in the fisheries of other commercially important species. Its data showed that shark landings fluctuated from 5,677 tonnes in 1991 to 9,165 tonnes in 2005, and 5,975 tonnes in 2011. Its figures from 2004 and 2005 show that sharks make up less than 1% of the total marine landings.

Gopinath Nagaraj, fisheries consultant at Fanli Marine and Consultancy, says increased landings in themselves do not necessarily mean that sharks are being targeted; it could be the result of increased fishing efforts, for example, boats going out longer or further. “Shark landings have been stable over a 20-year period from 1991-2011. The increase observed in 2005 could be due to natural surges in population. The problem here is that there is no species breakdown, and we don’t know how individual shark species have fared over the years.”

Gopinath says most sharks are caught as bycatch, partly because shark densities are too low in the peninsula to justify a dedicated shark fishery. He says the main elasmobranchs (cartilaginous fish which includes sharks and rays) caught in the country are skates (ikan pari). He notes that there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that sharks might be sought after in the deep waters off Sabah’s east coast, but iterates that sharks are not entirely caught for their fins as the poorer communities in Sabah do consume the fish as food.

Many of Malaysia’s shortcomings, iterated in the report, are not unique. A long-standing gripe among many of the world’s top shark catching nations is the lack of species identification within catch and trade data that is reported to the FAO. There is a lack of management guidelines in place for shark species – only the whale shark is afforded protection by the Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species of Fish) Regulation 1999. Also, Malaysia is reported to have failed to meet the shark catch reporting requirements to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, its regional fisheries management organisation (sharks are also caught by long line and purse seine tuna fleets).

The sustainability status of shark catching looks clear cut. When Malaysia’s National Plan of Action for Sharks was released in 2006, it noted that landings of sharks in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia had already exceeded the maximum sustainable yield, a term which refers to the maximum level at which a natural resource can be routinely exploited without long-term depletion. (The situation in the east coast was not assessed.)

It is unlikely that an update on the maximum sustainable yield for shark fisheries will be done. The Fisheries Department has said it would be impractical because of the fish’s relatively low numbers and the fact that they are not considered a targeted fishery.

A review of the National Plan of Action for Sharks is due by the end of this year. Since the release of the first report, awareness campaigns and research initiatives aimed at increasing our knowledge of local shark species have been initiated. One commendable effort is the establishment of anti-trawler artificial reefs between 2006 and 2011, to protect 115 breeding and nursery ground sites for sharks and rays.

Fishing ban

Sabah, meanwhile, has already banned shark hunting and “finning” under its wildlife conservation laws whereby offenders can be jailed up to three years or fined RM30,000. It wants to have the same legal provision for the state to be included in the federal Fisheries Act 1985. The draft amendment has been submitted to the Federal Government.

There will be enforcement challenges, however. Experts suggest it could be hard to prove that sharks found onboard a fishing vessel have been caught within Sabah waters, something Fisheries agrees with.

In an e-mail reply to The Star, Fisheries director-general Datuk Ahamad Sabki Mahmood says enforcing a total ban across Malaysia, without consulting with neighbouring countries, will not be a practical solution as most shark species are migratory.

“Such a move will create socio-economic impacts on fishermen. Therefore, it is crucial that before such a drastic decision can be made, surveys on the impacts of such a ban on stakeholders are carried out.”

Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun acknowledges these challenges: the technicalities of enforcing the law; amassing enough proof for successful convictions; and sharks being caught as bycatch.

However, his stance is that no change will happen without the establishment of a protection law.

“Having the (legal) foundation for prosecution will encourage hardcore offenders to think twice about whether they want to continue with their actions.”

He says though stakeholders such as restaurant operators might feel the initial sting, a drop in tourism owing to the collapse of shark populations would bite them even harder.

“Dive tourism is one of the largest revenue earners in terms of tourism in Sabah. The industry is worth RM240mil. Most of the people who come here to dive want to see sharks. If Sabah loses its sharks, and the dive industry suffers, restaurant owners will see a drop in patrons, too.”

Some fisheries experts feel that a total ban on finning might not be the best option since not all species are endangered and some fishermen, especially those in Sabah, are dependent on shark fishing for their livelihoods.

Marine consultant Kevin Hiew, formerly head of the marine parks unit in Fisheries, advocates a legally binding and enforceable management plan for shark fishing. That has to be preceded by a study on sharks in Malaysia.

Lack agrees: “Sharks are more vulnerable than many other species to over-fishing, and sustainable catch of sharks requires very careful management. It is the lack of management of shark catch in totality in Malaysia, and in many other countries around the world, that needs to be addressed.” – By Natalie Heng

Helpful jottings
Natalie Heng The Star 9 Oct 12;

One group of divers decides to do something about the dearth of data on sharks.

GUY RAYMENT, 47, had overheard lamentations about shark data deficiency many times before. One day, just as divers do, he was complaining about the severe decline in shark populations around the world when his friend said: “Why don’t you stop complaining and do something about it?” He thought she had a good point, and that was how the Asian Shark Conservation group was born.

Worldwide, there is a vacuum of information on shark populations, behaviour and ecology. Around 2% of the world’s 500 or so shark species are at “extremely high” risk of extinction in the wild, 4% are at “very high” risk, 11% are at “high” risk, and 13% are close to qualifying or likely to qualify for a threatened category, in the near future.

Just 23% of our shark species are safely listed as of “least concern” in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of endangered species. That leaves roughly half of the world’s shark species literally swimming in a black hole of information.

The best way Rayment and his group of diver friends decided they could address that would be to build a shark sighting database. Not enough is known about the 47% of “data deficient” shark species to assign them a definitive category of threat under the Red List. Already a notoriously difficult animal to study, as sharks deplete further, gathering data on them will only become harder.

But divers can help. They are uniquely privileged, and from behind their underwater masks of tempered glass, it’s not just the majesty of the ocean they get to witness, but its decline. Most divers record their sightings into logbooks, and these jottings can be incredibly useful.

Sabah-based Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC) director Steve Oakley has studied sharks for over 30 years, 16 of which have been spent in Malaysia. A while ago, he began amassing logbook data through e-mail submissions to reconstruct how shark sightings have fluctuated over the years. Preliminary data from his 2011 Global Shark Survey shows that of the 109 shark species recorded in the South China Sea, only 18 have been seen in recent memory. This, Oakley says, means that 91 species might now be regionally extinct.

He is supportive of Asian Shark Conservation’s efforts. “Where my surveys present a historical picture of decline, what they are doing will help us keep track of how frequently sharks are being sighted now, and into the future,” he notes.

The group’s web-based shark sighting database will fill a niche in South-East Asia, and provide data to complement TRACC’s surveys. The website ( is up and running, ready for divers to register and log in their data.

Making the case for conservation effort requires good, science-based information – which is why amassing the data is important. Oakley says diver-assisted shark surveys have helped in the past. Information from Britain’s Shark Trust helped extend protection for tope, a hound shark that has been targeted heavily for its meat, fins and liver oil.

Slow breeders

Most shark species take many years to reach sexual maturity. They have long gestation periods and only breed every second or third year, usually giving birth to few offspring. So sharks don’t respond quickly to the removal of many individuals from a population.

Worldwide, the vulnerability of sharks to over-fishing is starkly contrasted with demand. Sharks are eaten all over the world: spiny dogfish as fish and chips in Britain or schillerlocken in Germany; porbeagle is prized as “veal of the sea” in France; while mako, thresher or blacktip shark make popular steaks in the United States. Also, shark liver oil is used in all kinds of industries while shark skin is used to make leather. And let’s not forget the Asian tradition of shark fin soup.

Huge declines present us with a resounding wake-up call: spiny dogfish and porbeagle populations have dropped 80% in the eastern Atlantic, and hammerheads by 89% in the north-west and western central Atlantic. Meanwhile, 14 of the species most prevalent in the shark fin trade have seen declines between 50% and 100% (total population collapse) depending on geographical regions. So far, one third of pelagic (open ocean) sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.

Official figures tend to underestimate the problem. The main reference used by the Food and Agriculture Organisation is catch data, which comes from commercial fishing fleets.

In 2006, a reported 750,000 tonnes of sharks, rays, and chimaeras were landed.

However, a study which used fin trade records to estimate the weight of sharks killed annually came up with a figure of between 1.21 and 2.29 million tonnes, the equivalent to between 26 and 73 million sharks.

Actual mortalities are probably much higher because this data excludes figures for sharks killed for domestic fin markets, sharks killed only for their meat, illegal catch data, bycatch and shark landings from artisanal fisheries.

“Sometimes, figures for catch can be misleading,” says Oakley.

“Let’s say hypothetically, five years ago, you catch 100 fish. And today, your catch is still 100 fish.

“It looks like nothing has changed, but the fisheries industry may have had to double their fishing efforts to achieve that same figure,” Oakley explains.

It took Oakley 10,000 hours worth of meticulous data collection to make a solid case, but his data is partly responsible for Sabah’s decision to push for a total ban on shark hunting in the state.

His data shows a 98% decline in whitetip reef shark population in Sabah.

He says things are worse in Peninsular Malaysia, where whitetips have been wiped out.

In contrast, his data shows about 300 to 350 whitetips in the reefs of Sipadan marine park, where fishing is banned.

On the other hand, no whitetips swim around the similarly sized, but unprotected, reefs of Pom Pom Island. Both islands lie off the eastern coast of Sabah.

Having such information helps make the case to pressure governments into action, be it gazetting more marine protected areas, enforcing tougher legislation on finning or listing more species as protected.

Rayment, a dive instructor, says with the new Asian Shark Conservation database, divers can help contribute to our understanding of questions like “Which sharks are being hit the hardest?” and “How fast are they declining?”

To support the cause, divers need to register on the Asian Shark Conservation website, and key in their observations, such as what species was seen, where, and when.

There are also additional boxes to state if the shark had been tagged, and if you are a pro, the sex of the fish.

There’s also a box for non-sightings, and photographs can be uploaded to help with verification.

“Now, we just need as many divers as possible to go diving, so we can collect as much data as possible,” says Rayment.

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Malaysia: Land clearing rampant in Cameron Highlands since last four months - Residents

Simon Khoo The Star 9 Oct 12;

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Rampant land clearing is being carried out in several forest reserve areas here, according to nearby residents.

Responding to their complaints, the District Office conducted a raid and seized heavy machinery, including backhoes and excavators.

Residents said tree-felling was especially rampant in the last four months.

K. Rengasamy, 58, said: “From what I observed, some 12ha have been cleared.”

Another resident Oh Peng, 58, said the felling of trees had affected water supply to houses downstream.

R. Subramaniam, 51, feared that the exposed slopes would suffer from erosion during bad weather.

Tanah Rata assemblyman Datuk Ho Yip Kap said land clearing was rampant, but he did not know if it was illegal.

He was, however, worried about the consequences.

“With the rainy season approaching, we do not want landslides and rivers silting up,” he said.

Cameron Highlands MP Datuk S.K. Devamany said illegal land-clearing was rampant in the constituency, and all parties should meet and come up with strategies to address the situation.

In an immediate response, Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob said he had instructed Cameron Highlands' district officer to check on the claims.

“If it is true (that land in forest reserve areas are being cleared), I want the relevant authorities to resolve the matter as soon as possible,” he said.

District officer Datuk Ahmad Daud said a site in Blue Vallley was raided three weeks ago and heavy machinery was seized.

He added: “The culprits carry out their work at night, and we are short of manpower. They clear land deep inside the forest reserve, and when our officers reach the site, they have long gone.”

Ahmad said some areas of the forest reserve were under the Foresrty Department's jurisdiction, adding that “we will act if illegal activities are detected on state land”.

Regional Environmental Association Cameron Highlands president R. Ramakrishnan said he had submitted a letter to Adnan, complaining about the land clearing on Aug 13, and to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. He believed that most of the clearings were illegal.

Even if permits had been issued in some cases, the conditions were not adhered to in accordance with the Land Conservation Act 1960, he said.

Ramakrishnan claimed that besides Blue Valley, illegal land clearing activities were also happening in Mensun Valley, Brinchang, Tanah Rata and Kampung Taman Sedia.

Camerons already affected by land clearing: Malaysian Nature Society
The Star 9 Oct 12;

PETALING JAYA: Land clearing activity will bring a long-term blow to the environment, said the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS).

Its head of communications Andrew Sebastian said massive land clearing in forest areas was hastening the degradation of the country's biodiversity.

“Forests play an immediate service to the area by providing oxygen and clean water. When it is cleared for agriculture or development, its natural surrounding will be changed permanently,” Sebastian said.

Among the effects of land clearing were soil erosion, deteriorating river and water quality and loss of flora, he said.

“It would also cost more to produce and transport clean water and to produce electricity as sediment in the water would affect the power turbines,” he said.

“MNS has recorded micro climatic changes in the area due to continued earthworks. The overall temperature in the highlands has increased. There are also more mosquitoes, which naturally do not inhabit highland areas,” Sebastian noted.

In August 2011, seven people were killed and homes destroyed in a landslide in the orang asli settlement in Kampung Sungai Ruil in Cameron Highlands.

Authorities said that land clearing and earth works near the settlement for a township development could have contributed to the disaster.

Last Thursday, Regional Environmental Association Cameron Highlands president R. Ramakrishnan sent an open letter to the press, highlighting the unabated land clearing activity that is still going on.

“It has now reached the heart of Tanah Rata bordering the forestry department, near the army camp, local council building, golf course, behind the hospital, behind Mardi and near Strawberry Park Resort,” said Ramakrishnan.

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Australia scientists tackle reef-killing starfish

Martin Parry (AFP) Google News 7 Oct 12;

SYDNEY — An Australian research team said Monday they have found an effective way to kill the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish, which is devastating coral reefs across the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The discovery by James Cook University's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Queensland state comes after a study showed the Great Barrier Reef had lost more than half its coral cover in the past 27 years.

Outbreaks of the large, poisonous and spiny starfish, which feast on coral polyps, was linked to 42 percent of the destruction.

Researchers said they have developed a culture that infects the starfish with bacteria and can destroy them in as little as 24 hours.

The bacteria also spreads to other starfish that come near or into contact with an infected individual.

The next step will be tests to see if it is safe for other marine life, particularly fish.

"In developing a biological control you have to be very careful to target only the species you are aiming at, and be certain that it can cause no harm to other species or to the wider environment," said Morgan Pratchett, a professor at the centre.

"This compound looks very promising from that standpoint -- though there is a lot of tank testing still to do before we would ever consider trialling it in the sea."

Outbreaks around tourist sites in Australia are currently controlled using a poison injection delivered by a diver to each starfish.

If the new culture is found to be safe, it would only need a single jab into one starfish, enabling a diver to kill as many as 500 of the creatures in a single dive.

Another scientist from the centre, Jairo Rivera Posada, said that over the past 50 years the starfish had caused more damage to reefs than bleaching.

"There were massive outbreaks in many countries in the 1960s and 1980s -- and a new one is well under way on the Great Barrier Reef," he said, highlighting the urgency of tackling the threat.

"In the current outbreak in the Philippines they removed as many as 87,000 starfish from a single beach," he added.

"This gives you an idea of the numbers we have to deal with."

Posada said other fresh crown-of-thorns outbreaks have been reported from Guam, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea and the central Indian Ocean.

Research released last week by the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences warned that coral cover on the heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef -- the world's largest -- could halve again by 2022 if trends continued.

As well as starfish, intense tropical cyclones and two severe coral bleaching events had been responsible for the damage.

The study pinpointed improving water quality as key to controlling starfish outbreaks, with increased agricultural run-off such as fertiliser along the reef coast causing algal blooms that starfish larvae feed on.

The Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies scientists agreed.

"Any attempts to control these outbreaks will be futile without also addressing the root cause of outbreaks, including loss of starfish predators as well as increased nutrients that provide food for larval starfishes," they said.

Last week, the Australian government admitted the Great Barrier Reef had been neglected for decades, but said it had contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to address the issues over the past five years.

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