Singapore scientists, volunteers on a mission to protect local reefs from marine trash

Divers and volunteers from Our Singapore Reefs sorting the trash they collected in the waters around Lazarus Island on May 11, 2019. — TODAY pic
Divers and volunteers from Our Singapore Reefs sorting the trash they collected in the waters around Lazarus Island on May 11, 2019. — TODAY pic

INGAPORE, May 20 — As the divers navigated their way through Singapore’s southern waters, the beam from their flashlights came across a child-like hand sticking out from the murky depths.

They approached it with apprehension and, to their relief, discovered that it was a doll.

“It was during the Seventh Month (Hungry Ghost Festival) It was so creepy that I couldn’t sleep the whole night!” said Sam Shu Qin, 30, one of the founders of Our Singapore Reefs.

Undeterred by the spooky encounter, the team from the non-profit organisation has continued on their mission to clean up the waters around the southern islands of marine trash.

The debris poses a threat to the marine biodiversity in Singapore, said Sam, a marine biologist.

Research is emerging on the environmental damage caused by plastic — the most common type of marine debris retrieved in Singapore, making up 57 per cent of the pieces retrieved.

A new study released on May 15 revealed that the production and incineration of plastic in 2019 will add more than 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — equal to the pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

According to the report by the Centre for International Environmental Law and other groups, oceans absorb as much as 40 per cent of all human-produced carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial era.

Divers and volunteers from Our Singapore Reefs carrying bags and baskets with them to collect trash in the waters around Lazarus Island on May 11, 2019. — TODAY pic
Divers and volunteers from Our Singapore Reefs carrying bags and baskets with them to collect trash in the waters around Lazarus Island on May 11, 2019. — TODAY pic

A small but growing body of research suggests plastic discarded in the environment may be disrupting the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, said the report, titled Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.

Collecting data to influence policies

Last year, Our Singapore Reefs removed 3,439 pieces of marine debris weighing around 704kg from around Sisters’ Island Marine Park and Lazarus Island.

This does not include bulky finds such as shopping trolleys, car tyres, bicycles and even a washing machine.

The scientists tag these items and work with the National Environment Agency to engage commercial divers to remove it later.

Bulky items with “living things growing on it” are left alone.

“Our stance is to leave them there unless we can safely recolonise (the organisms) elsewhere,” said Sam.

The team retrieves everything else that can be safely retrieved.

Due to the poor visibility of Singapore’s waters, it can be a challenge to spot marine debris that is hidden by thick layers of sedimentation.

When TODAY joined Our Singapore Reefs for a marine clean-up on May 11 at Lazarus Island, the visibility was so poor that divers could barely look beyond their outstretched palm.

This was largely caused by strong currents brought about by a morning storm that had stirred up the seabed.

On a calm day, Sam said the visibility can range between two and five metres.

Debris collected is first sorted according to their type. The data is compiled and uploaded to a website run by Project Aware, an international non-profit that focuses on shark conservation and marine litter.

Project Aware is also the team’s sponsor this year, helping to cover the cost of boat rentals.

Other dive groups in Singapore that do marine clean-up efforts also contribute to the public database.

“Anyone can use this data to make real change or influence policies,” said Sam.

After plastic, metal is the second-most common marine debris retrieved here, making up 15 per cent of the total, said Sam. Glass and ceramics make up 5 per cent, while the remainder includes material such as wood, cloth and rubber.

The top three plastic items collected are bottles, food wrappers, and cutlery, followed by bottle caps, fishing lines and plastic bags.

It is hard to pin-point where exactly the trash comes from, and it is possible they could have come from passing ships or even party boats, said Sam.

They could have also been swept here by currents from the coastlines of Singapore and its neighbouring countries before ending up stuck in the lagoons of the southern islands.

Why we must protect our reefs

Our Singapore Reefs was formed about two years ago by Sam and Dr Toh Tai Chong, a fellow marine biologist from the National University of Singapore with an interest in coral conservation.

They have since roped in another marine biologist and a creative designer to form the core team. The rest of the team comprises volunteers — everyday Singaporeans and foreigners, many without any scientific background, only a love for the deep blue.

During the course of their research on corals, Sam and Dr Toh, 34, often found the marine invertebrates smothered by trash, which denied them the sunlight needed to grow, or completely destroyed by it.

The loss of coral cover has consequences on humans — even those who are not interested in marine life, said Sam.

“The corals provide a home and shelter for fish. When they are destroyed, we don’t have all these nursing grounds for juvenile fish, which are in turn food for a lot of our fish which we see on our plates.”

Furthermore, she said that plastic left in the sea degrades over time and eventually becomes micro-plastics that get ingested by the sea creatures, which humans may eventually eat.

‘Singapore can dive meh?’

While there are more land-based efforts such as beach clean-ups to eliminate trash, fewer people do it at sea as it is often “out of sight and out of mind”, said Sam.

“Some of the common remarks we get are: ‘Singapore can dive meh? What is there to see? It’s so dirty,’” said Sam.

Singapore’s marine biodiversity is more vibrant than some think, she said.

More than 100 species of reef fish can be found in Singapore waters, which are also home to hawksbill turtles, colourful nudibranchs and at least 10 different kinds of sharks.

“Although Singapore is so small, we actually have a lot of animals in our waters. In fact, we have one-third of the entire world’s coral species,” she said.

There used to be more, but more than 60 per cent of reefs have been lost to land reclamation, she said.

Marine clean-ups help volunteers to witness threats to the environment for themselves.

A diver retrieves a can while cleaning up the waters of Lazarus Island of marine debris. — Our Singapore Reefs via TODAY
A diver retrieves a can while cleaning up the waters of Lazarus Island of marine debris. — Our Singapore Reefs via TODAY

“They will realise that it is not (something pretty) like a scene from the Blue Planet documentary,” said Sam.

One of the volunteers, Melody Yin, 29, signed up after seeing trash in even the best dive sites in the region, such as Raja Ampat in Indonesia.

“When we are swimming with the fishes, we are also swimming with plastic bags and all kinds of marine debris. I’ve even seen a pufferfish getting entangled by fishing lines,” said Yin, who works in sales and has dived four times with Our Singapore Reefs.

Another volunteer, Pang Kim Shen, 26, said: “It is just so disappointing to see so much trash in the sea.”

The team’s outreach efforts also involve speaking to the elderly at markets and organising workshops on yachts.

“People are getting more aware and they want to be more involved. (Our Singapore Reefs) is a platform for them to contribute actively to the environment,” she said.

The group will be conducting its next marine debris clean-up around Lazarus Island on World Ocean Day on June 9. — TODAY

Related Articles