Marine mammals inhabiting the sea generally include cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins), sirenians (sea-cows, including manatees and dugongs), and pinnipeds (the carnivores of the group: seals, sealions and walruses).
A Bryde’s whale off the coast of Malaysia.
However, not all of these are found in Malaysia. Marine mammals frequently create headlines when they are beached on our coastlines, attracting huge attention of the media and public. But all the media buzz and attention vanishes once the beached mammal dies. As difficult it is to admit, this has been the normal reaction in Malaysia.
There have been numerous cases of marine mammals stranding on beaches or deaths: a dugong calf was sighted in the waters off Terengganu, Kapas Island, in August 2006; an injured Bryde’s whale was stranded in the shallow waters off Kota Kinabalu in December 2006; a pygmy sperm whale was found at the Batu Buruk beach in Kuala Terengganu with injuries sustained on its underbelly and pectoral fins in January 2008 (it sadly died two hours after discovery); a disembowelled two-metre long dolphin weighing 45 kilograms was found washed ashore at Batu Ferringhi, Penang in January 2008; a ten-metre long Bryde’s whale was found beached at Sungai Nenasi estuary, in Pahang on October 2008; a two-metre long dolphin with a deep cut on its head was found dead in George Town in December 2008; and a three-tonne Bryde’s whale was found beached in Pekan, Pahang on October 2008 (it died two days after it was found).
It is interesting to note that a post-mortem showed plastic bags, nylon ropes and bottle caps in the intestines of some of these whales. This illustrates some of the real dangers facing marine mammals and is just the tip of the iceberg. Why is this so? What can we do about it?
Malaysia has a rich marine ecology and its waters are blessed with abundant marine mammals. However, it is tragically becoming a thing of the past. Although these exotic marine mammals can still be encountered in certain parts of our waters, the overall population appears to be dwindling at an alarming rate.
Some of the major threats affecting marine mammal survival include traditional hunting for meat, starvation, vessel collisions, dynamite fishing, entanglement in fishing gears, diseases and degradation of seagrass areas caused by sedimentation and pollution from coastal development and palm oil plantations, as well as other anthropogenic threats. For examples, in Sabah, many fishermen regard cetaceans and dugongs as fish species and the animals caught are consumed, traded or used as fishing bait. Moreover, the slow growth and low reproductive rate of most of the marine mammals’ species further impede their population recovery. Additionally, their generally high trophic levels and degree of habitat specificity make them even more vulnerable.
Many marine mammals are endangered species and are currently protected under the Fisheries Act 1985 and the Wildlife Act 1972 in Malaysia. Nevertheless, despite legislative protection, incidental catches of cetaceans and dugongs still occur, requiring intense monitoring, documentation, and enforcement. Looking at all these threats, one of the most critical deficiencies in the conservation of marine mammals is the lack of a proactive, forward-looking approach for better management. In addition there are roadblocks caused by a lack of data, including information on the health and demography of marine mammal stocks in the country.
However, it is not all doom-and-gloom where marine mammals conservation in Malaysia is concerned. There have been numerous research and conservation efforts initiated by the government and other stakeholders on the matter. For example, efforts by the Universiti Malaysia Sabah under the Marine Mammals and Whale Shark Research and Conservation Programme, which started in October 1996, remains one of the most active programmes in studying these animals and continuously receives support from various government agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as the private sector.
Besides that, the Turtle and Marine Ecosystem Centre (Tumec) also carries out key statistical information (ground surveys and social surveys) in the country. In addition, the Department of Fisheries Malaysia has prepared a draft National Plan of Action for Dugong Conservation in the country. The Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences, University of Malaya on the other hand is studying the significance of marine mammal strandings as well as promoting information gathering in an appropriate manner to create a valuable database.
Other important efforts include those by the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, especially in the Sungai Pulai area in Johor, where dugong habitats are being identified through feeding trails and aerial surveys. Some NGOs such as the Malaysian Nature Society is also playing an active role in this regard, especially awareness building among the public.
The Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) continues to play an active role in marine mammal conservation by organising related events, bringing together key experts and relevant stakeholders to discuss the issue and offering suggestions to address the problem, as well as raise awareness among the public through various mediums.
MIMA in collaboration with the University of Malaya and the Malaysian Nature Society is organising a ‘Roundtable Discussion on Establishing a National Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network in Malaysia’ on August 3, 2010 in Kuala Lumpur. It is hoped the support and active participation of relevant stakeholders in the event will result in forward-looking options for the protection and conservation of marine mammals.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in marine mammals’ protection, drastic and innovative steps are necessary to address the declining population. Without an immediate, committed and concerted effort to educate the public, monitor fisheries, enforce conservation laws and conduct detailed assessment of the dugong and small cetacean populations and their habitats, there may be little hope to reduce or eliminate the threats. We need to chart the path now.
Cheryl Rita Kaur (Senior researcher at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia)