Academic: Seaweed farmers main suspects in turtle deaths

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies green sea turtles as endangered.— file picture
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies green sea turtles as endangered.— file picture

PETALING JAYA, April 21 — Seaweed farmers are believed to be responsible for the deaths of four green turtles found floating in the sea between Bum-Bum Island and Kulapuan Island in Semporna.

Universiti Malaysia Sabah economics researcher and animal activist, Dr James Alin, said he believes seaweed farmers were responsible because they consider green turtles as pests.

“As the green sea turtles can consume an entire seaweed plot overnight, seaweed farmers are inclined to harm them,” he said.

Besides seaweed farmers, the other possible suspects are artisanal fishermen and fishing vessels.

Alin claimed that some fishing vessels were poaching endangered marine animals like the manatee, dolphin and whale sharks.

Seaweed farming was introduced in Semporna in 1978 when Aquatic Resource Ltd, an American company, set up an experimental farm in collaboration with the Sabah Fisheries Department.

It remains a lucrative business for local island communities and has been named a high-value commodity under the agricultural National Key Economic Area.

The Sabah Fisheries Department recorded a total of 1,258 registered seaweed farmers, with a total of 530 farmers in Semporna alone.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia spokesman Angela Lim said their Kudat operations team is working closely with the Sabah Wildlife Department to investigate allegations that seaweed farmers are secretly killing the endangered turtles.

“Although we are unable to confirm the farmers are the main culprits, historically they have been known to kill the turtles to protect their livelihood,” she said.

According to data from WWF, every year around 60 nests are recorded in Semporna, with about 5,300 turtle hatchlings per year.

The peak season for turtle nesting is between May and September every year, during which as many as 140 turtle eggs can be laid at a single nesting site.

The district is part of the Priority Conservation Area, a section of the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion, a conservation project formed collaboratively by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in 2004.

The conservation area is known as a frequently used migration route for marine turtles, such as the hawksbill and the green turtle.

Sabah Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun confirmed the authorities are investigating allegations that seaweed farmers were involved in the killings.

However, he refused to comment on further action by the ministry to look into the farmers’ claims the turtles were disrupting their business operations.

“We will wait for the conclusion of the investigation first,” said the minister.

Green sea turtles are classified as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, killing a protected animal can lead to a maximum fine of RM100,000 and five years in jail, or both.