Protecting Living Exhibits of Rich Biodiversity
By Eric Au Yong
The past 50 years holds many lessons for our efforts in conserving our island heritage. Historically, there was a time where Singapore had numerous islands but at the start of the 1980s, many islands were reclaimed as we tried to expand our physical space in a bid to modernise and develop the economy. Last year, we celebrated our Jubilee year and this is an opportune time to consider some of our offshore islands as heritage places, not just for their cultural and social heritage but natural heritage as well.
Are our islands worthy of conservation? How can we balance the challenges of conserving our islands’ historical and natural heritage while pursuing economic development for progress? Before we get to that, let us first explore the natural heritage of our Southern Islands.
Our rich marine heritage
Singapore is a port city and despite the busy port activities and correspondingly high sediment loads due to shipping and terrestrial surface run-off, Singapore has more than 250 species of hard corals, more than 100 species of reef fish, approximately 200 species of sponges and 12 species of sea grass. One way to appreciate Singapore’s natural marine heritage is to walk around the rocky shores of St John’s Island and Lazarus Island during the low spring tide. Visitors may hear sounds of the Snapping Shrimps (Family Alpheidae) and tunicates (Subphylum Tunicata) squirting water out from their siphons, and observe small marine species including crabs, shellfish and sea stars. A number of pelagic charismatic macrofauna species such as the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Indo-pacific Humpback Dolphin (Sousa chinensis) and Bamboo Shark (Family Hemiscylliidae) can be found in the waters of Singapore’s offshore islands.
Probably the most significant of all finds was the re-discovery of the Neptune’s Cup Sponge (Cliona patera) in 2011, a species of marine sponge that can grow up to more than 1m in height and diameter. Hopefully, there will be more new discoveries to be made in these dark murky waters surrounding our island home. Additionally, some of these islands also provide green spaces for Singaporeans to observe plants and animals that they do not normally spot on mainland Singapore, or engage in other leisure activities.
Conserving our riches
As the number of visitors to our offshore islands increase, steps should be taken to manage the human impact on the islands’ natural habitat and biodiversity. In August 2015, The Straits Times reported that 13 juvenile Blacktip Reef Sharks (Cacharhinus melanopterus) and more than 30 crabs of various species were caught in three fishing nets at Lazarus Island. Authorities could introduce measures to promote responsible fishing such as recreational fishing permits, catch limits and size limits. Furthermore, specific fishing methods such as catch-and-release could be permitted, with gillnets being prohibited.
Such guidelines ensure that anglers can experience the joys of fishing while minimising impact on the marine environment. Designated fishing areas such as those being implemented at our freshwater reservoirs may be counterproductive as the target animal is highly mobile and may eventually learn to avoid the area. This will encourage fishermen to follow the animals in their pursuit. As with all regulation, enforcement is necessary. The introduction and subsequent enforcement of clear regulations prevents over-exploitation and protects individual species.
It must be mentioned though that the situation is not one where nothing has been done. From a policy standpoint, steps have been taken to effectively manage and raise awareness about the natural heritage of Singapore’s offshore islands. Besides introducing the National Biodiversity Action Plan in 2009 and Marine Conservation Action Plan in 2015, the Sisters’ Island Marine Park (SIMP) was recently established on 15 July 2015. Approximately 40 hectares (0.4km2), it is Singapore’s first marine park extending from Sisters’ Island to the western shores of St John’s Island and western Pulau Tekukor.
Visitors may explore the SIMP’s intertidal areas during the low spring tides. For the more intrepid explorers, there are two dive trails, one shallow at 6m deep and a deeper one at 15m. The SIMP is going to play a key role in conserving our marine habitat, protecting species such as the Neptune’s Cup Sponge and many others. Managed by NParks, only a limited number of divers may dive at the SIMP during certain dive windows every month. This helps to minimise impact of divers on the natural environment. As a platform for education, conservation and research, the SIMP is a victorious start.
With the establishment of the SIMP come other opportunities to expand the SIMP or create other similar protected marine areas. Such areas could not only serve as sanctuaries for animals, but also opportunities for public engagement so as to increase knowledge and understanding of Singapore’s marine environment. However, Singapore is a small country and its priorities need to be measured carefully based on current as well as projected conditions. Policymakers need to achieve a balance between creating more marine parks and boosting socioeconomic development. With this in mind, let us explore an example of what this could be.
Complementary development and conservation
Pulau Semakau is a prime example of how nature conservation and development are complementary. Designated as a manmade landfill for incinerated waste, Pulau Semakau boasts impressive mud and sand flats that are teeming with all manner of marine life. It also serves as a known stopover for migratory birds. With careful management and clever engineering, the authorities have managed to address Singapore’s need for waste disposal while minimising environmental impact. The ability to strike this balance is essential as the economy and population grows in the next 50 years and beyond.
Social media can also be used to spread the word about Singapore’s biodiversity. Government agencies, conservation groups and interested members of public have already harnessed social media to create awareness about protecting our natural heritage. This will continue to be advantageous.
But more than public campaigns, schools can educate youngsters about Singapore’s natural habitats and biodiversity. Incorporating topics such as ecology in the context of Singapore’s offshore islands provides students with an appreciation of what is present here. Such public education efforts can be supplemented with guided walks and workshops such as those conducted by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Such museums are a rich source of information on Singapore’s natural history and an excellent starting point for anyone looking to begin their journey into Singapore’s natural heritage. Hopefully, more business organisations will devote resources towards conserving the natural environment as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes. Banking group HSBC is among those who are already doing this.
The value of our islands
We have made progress in conservation policies, and our efforts should continue in the next 50 years. Our deliberations on which offshore islands to protect as nature reserves, and how conservation could be balanced with socioeconomic development will become increasingly important as urbanisation continues to spread from mainland Singapore to some of our offshore islands. Robust research on the islands’ natural significance equips policymakers with more data to formulate and implement thoughtful conservation policies.
Looking at it from another perspective, the islands are living exhibits of Singapore’s marine habitats and biodiversity and are not merely geographical land masses. They offer meaningful insights into our history as a young nation. Without a doubt, such insights not only provide a picture of what is present in this very instance of time but also a glimpse of what may have happened in the past, and what may happen in the future.
Eric Au Yong is a Senior Executive at the National University of Singapore. He is trained in the natural sciences and has been involved in ecological studies locally. He believes that nature reserves are excellent classrooms and should be conserved in a scientifically sound manner.
Top photo from Flickr