Turtles are dying at a massive rate in the Malaysian state of Terengganu. But the irony is that they are not getting killed or hunted, instead they are the accidental victims of the hunt for the stingray.
Metres of illegal nets have been laid out to catch the stingrays along the shores of the state, some as close as 30m from the beach, either trapping the turtles or causing them to drown. The length of these nets, which are meant to catch stingrays, can run up to metres long when strung together.
Unfortunately for the turtles, stingrays are also found along the coast, particularly around reefs, in the sand and between the rocks, at this time of the year.
The state Fishery Department has said that already 30 turtles have died in the first four months of this year. It is only the fifth month of this year and the nesting season for these reptiles still has time to go.
The rates of turtle deaths are increasing day by day. In 2014, as many as 47 turtles were reported to have died. Throughout 2015, some 59 deaths were recorded. With 30 dead so far this year, the number for 2016 could be significantly higher.
The Star reported that 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.
The conservationists are worried about the fact that many more deaths might have gone unreported. They are deeply concerned about the lack of enforcement against the use of the illegal nets by the fishermen, some of whom are now “bold enough” to mark the position of these nets with markers.
Some of the fishermen used to retrieve their nets cautiously in the wee hours; but some of them now turn up as late as 7am to 8am.
State Agriculture, Agro-based Industry, Plantations and Commodities Committee chairman Nawi Mohamad has confirmed the increase in the number of turtle deaths, adding that mainly green turtles were in that list of deaths.
In an interview with The Star he said: “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.”
Instead of using smaller nets, the fishermen are using nets with bigger mesh which are as large as 33cm or 35cm to catch bigger stingrays that can fetch up to RM10 per kilo at wholesale price. The sole reason being that at some hypermarkets in Kuala Lumpur, stingray can fetch up to RM28 per kilo.
A source who used to be in turtle conservation has said: “The deaths of these animals are basically fuelled by demand for the stingray. 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.” She also added, “Catching stingrays brings in a lot of money despite the risks. There is no motivation to stop catching them.”
In 2014, the state Fishery Department was reported to have seized 15 such illegal nets but in 2015, there were no enforcement patrols.
But so far, no one has been charged with possession of the banned nets. Possession of banned nets can see a fine of up to RM 3,000 and getting the fishing equipment seized.
Sharifah Ruqaiyah said that she has never seen anyone to get charged or fined in her eight years of working span.
A state Fishery Department official has said that some fishermen were now stringing together nets of different mesh sizes in order 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.