Marine Turtles: Malaysia’s National Heritage
Living in Malaysia means that you are surrounded by a great variety of life forms. This is evident in the fact that one of Malaysia’s national heritage is a marine turtle.
Did you know that one of our national heritage is facing great danger? Did you also know that we each hold the responsibility to reverse that?
Marine Turtles in Malaysia
Malaysia is blessed with four marine turtle species out of seven known in the world. They are the green (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) turtles. Malaysia is also home to important habitats for these turtles such as nesting beaches for female turtles to lay eggs, feeding grounds such as coral reefs and seagrass beds for turtles to forage, and migratory pathways for turtles between feeding grounds and nesting beaches.
Different areas in Malaysia are home to large green and hawksbill turtle nesting populations; in Sabah, Sarawak, Terengganu, Pahang, Perak, Johor and Melaka.
The roles of our national heritage
Marine turtles play an important role in ocean ecosystems by maintaining healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs. Green turtles graze seagrass beds, which in turn, increases the productivity of the seagrass ecosystem. Hawksbill turtles forage on a variety of marine sponges and this changes the species composition and distribution of sponges in the coral reef ecosystem.
Not only do marine turtles encourage healthy ecosystems, the marine reptile brings benefits to the country’s economy. Healthy and productive marine ecosystems are known to be important breeding and nursery areas for many marine species, including shrimp, lobster, and fish. Hence, grazing turtles contribute to better marine harvest, benefitting the fishery industry and the human survival in the long run.
Turtles are one of the main attractions for tourism in Malaysia. Pictures of them are repeatedly used in promoting Malaysia as a tourism destination and generating revenue for the country. In Sabah, Marine turtles are considered a flagship species and are heavily featured in promotional tourism videos and advertisements.
Marine turtles have also existed as an integral part of Malaysia’s rich history and culture. Turtles were featured in the country’s stamps in 1995 by Pos Malaysia and in the new series of Malaysian banknotes in 2012 by Bank Negara Malaysia.
According to The Star (2017), the tourism industry continues to remain a key-income generating sector for the state. In 2016, the industry generated a revenue of RM7.25 billion in tourism receipts with 3.427 million tourists arrival.
A study done by WWF-Malaysia in 2013 (Louise S. L. Teh, Lydia C. L., & Gavin Jolis. (2018). An economic approach to marine megafauna conservation in the coral triangle: marine turtles in Sabah, Malaysia. Marine Policy 89: 1-10) estimated the Total Economic Value (TEV) of marine turtles in Semporna Priority Conservation Area to be RM73 million (USD23 million). Of this, marine turtle-based tourism could potentially provide RM1.5 million annually in employment benefits to local communities. In a nutshell, the study highlighted that marine turtles have a positive economic impact on fishers and tourism sector in Semporna.
Ignorance at what cost? – Threats to our marine turtles
However, marine turtles in Malaysia are constantly facing threats to their survival. One of the threats include turtle egg poaching, trade and consumption, thus removing turtle eggs from the ecosystem. Turtle egg poaching is banned in Sabah and Sarawak. However in Terengganu, eggs are being openly sold for consumption. With the decreasing population in the state, there is urgent need for a statewide ban on turtle egg trade and consumption. Marine turtles naturally have a low survival rate. Out of 1,000 hatchlings, only one hatchling reaches adulthood. The lack of turtle egg ban further deteriorates the viability of marine turtle population.
The impacts of egg trade for consumption coupled with various threats have led to the drastic population decline of the nesting leatherback population in Terengganu. It once hosted one of the world’s largest nesting leatherback turtles, with 10,000 annual nesting in the early 1950’s. 50 years later, in 2006, not a single nesting was recorded. In 2017, the Department of Fisheries only recorded two nests.
One of the drivers for egg trade and consumption in Terengganu is due to the generally weak, limited, vague and non-conservation based approach of the legislation on turtles in Peninsular Malaysia, where turtles fall under the jurisdiction of each individual state.
Killing of turtles, known as direct take, involves the act of hunting and capturing turtles at sea for their meat and parts. Direct take largely occurs in Sabah waters feeding into the illegal wildlife trade into East Asia, including poaching of turtles by Chinese and Vietnam foreign vessels fishing illegally in the area. According to TRAFFIC in 2011, a study revealed a consistent illegal trade route to mainland China from the Coral Triangle region of Southeast Asia spanning the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Direct take threatens marine turtle survival as adult turtles are being removed from the lifecycle. Each adult functions to mate and ensure the continuity of the population. Thus, removing adult turtles will severely affect its population.
Other than egg poaching and adult turtle direct take, coastal reclamation has damaged the marine turtle population. In Melaka, coastal reclamation affects hawksbill turtle nesting grounds. Pulau Upeh, adjacent to a massive reclamation project, faced a drop of turtle landings from 111 in 2011 to a mere 36 in 2017. Coastal reclamation destroys the entire area for female marine turtles to lay eggs. Nesting beaches must be protected if we want to ensure a healthy population of marine turtles.
Indiscriminate fishing is also a threat to turtles. Fishing gears such as trawls, long lines, and ray nets are the main types of fishing gear known to be harmful to turtles. Simply put, these detrimental fishing methods are enormously harmful to turtles as they tend to get caught in the gears.
Another threat to turtle is the global phenomenon of climate change. The sex of hatchlings is determined by temperature and an increase in nesting beach temperatures will have an impact on marine turtles. Eggs incubated in lower, cooler temperatures will produce more males, while warmer nests will produce more females. With global warming, scientists predicted that there will be more female than male hatchlings produced, creating an increasingly female-skewed sex ratio.
Further impact of climate change towards turtles is sea level rise. The increase of sea level and wave intensity creates erosion and loss of beaches, which leads to fewer areas for females to nest.
All hope is not lost – what we’re doing
WWF-Malaysia works with various partners such as the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, Sabah Parks, Sabah Wildlife Department, other Non-Governmental Organisations and private sectors such as resort operators, to protect turtle eggs in nesting beaches from being poached.
WWF advocates enhancement of protection such as recommendations to strengthen laws and shifting to usage of turtle-friendly fishing gears, advocates protecting nesting beaches as turtle sanctuaries, enhances enforcement on the ground, and conducts awareness to various target audiences on the importance of turtles.
In relation to the impacts of climate change, WWF currently monitors the sand temperature of turtle hatcheries, the sea surface temperature at coral reefs where turtles forage for food (higher temperature kills corals), and profile changes of nesting beaches. This information is critical in helping plan further on how to protect the turtles from the ravages of climate change.
What can we do? – play your part
World Sea Turtle Day (WSTD) celebrated annually on 16 June is a time to recognise and celebrate the survival of these ancient creatures. There are many ways to commit ourselves to be a turtle guardian. Every action towards conserving our marine turtles will create a bigger impact globally.
We can be a turtle guardian by supporting and engaging with marine turtle conservation projects, avoiding single-use plastic such as straws, plastic utensils, and plastic bags, as well as increasing our knowledge and awareness on the importance of reducing human impacts to the ocean.
The responsibility of saving these magnificent marine reptiles lie in our hands. Everyone holds a duty in the future of our marine life and can potentially be a turtle guardian.
Malaysians, as custodians of our rich and mega diverse environment, need to stand united in conserving, enhancing and protecting our biodiversity and heritage for the present and future generations. The continued integrity of our biodiversity and environment remains critical for the sustainable development and continued prosperity of the nation.
Coral reefs are habitat to marine turtles. The protection of coral reefs also provides protection to the species. International Year of Reef (IOYR) 2018 creates the opportunity to highlight this importance.
This year, WWF celebrates IYOR 2018. IYOR is a global effort to increase awareness and understanding on the values and threats to coral reefs, and to support related conservation, research and management efforts.
Over 225 organizations in 50 countries and territories participated, and over 700 articles in papers and magazines were generated, and hundreds of scientific surveys were undertaken.
WWF-Malaysia’s IYOR 2018 theme is: Protect our coral reefs.
Senior Marine Conservation Officer (Marine Turtle Protection and Climate Change)
Senior Communications and Campaigns Officer, Marine Programme