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Marine Trafficking: Stolen From Malaysian Seas And Sold On Social Media

Malaysia’s marine biodiversity is one of its many natural treasures. From coral reefs to seagrass meadows, we are home to a wide variety of marine habitats that we should be proud of and do more to protect.

Yet, we are also all too familiar with the threat of poaching and wildlife trafficking. A report by the wildlife trade monitoring nonprofit TRAFFIC documented the seizure of more than 25,000 live animals and over 120,000 metric tons of wildlife, its parts, and plants from illegal trades between June 2003 and September 2021 in the Sulu-Celebes Seas region, a maritime border zone between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines[1].

The report’s co-author, Serene Chng, senior program officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, highlighted the gravity of this problem in a statement:

The sheer volume of hundreds of marine and terrestrial species poached and trafficked through this[sic] lesser-known seas is a wake-up call for action before it’s too late.[1]

We would do well to acknowledge her warning, especially since this issue is happening at a vital biodiversity hotspot at the apex of the Coral Triangle.

The Underworld of Illicit Trades

In the region, TRAFFIC recorded 452 seizures of live animals and wildlife. The Philippines accounted for 239 (53%) of the cases, Malaysia for 125 (28%), and Indonesia for 88 (19%). The incidents encompassed a variety of terrestrial and marine wildlife, with animals comprising 89% of the cases and plants making up the remaining 11%[1].

The report also shows that marine species such as sea turtles, giant clams, seahorses, sharks and rays – are specifically targeted and frequently seized in large quantities, signalling the alarming frequency of these illicit activities[1].

Sea turtles are especially vulnerable to this illicit trade, as their eggs are considered a delicacy, their meat consumed as part of local cuisine, and their shells used as decorations and fashion accessories. In Sabah, populations of green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles are threatened by the egg trade and direct take.

The turtle trade is the act of buying and selling turtle eggs, transported in sacks on boats. Direct take is the act of hunting and capturing turtles at sea. – Monique Sumampouw, People and Marine Biodiversity Manager, WWF-Malaysia[2]

Based on records from WWF-Malaysia, there were 129 reported cases of egg trade between 1999 and 2017, which were predominantly in Sandakan. These cases involved a total of 238,396 eggs. Additionally, from 2004 to 2017, 23 instances of direct take, primarily in Semporna, were documented, amounting to 835 turtles[2].

The 2023 TRAFFIC report shows that sea turtle eggs constituted 95% of the seized marine turtle items, and were predominantly trafficked between the southern part of the Philippines and Sabah, Malaysia, with Malaysia responsible for nearly 80% of the seizures.

The eggs, believed to originate mainly from the Philippines’ Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, are often found in the bustling consumer market in Sabah, with Sandakan being identified as the main entry point for their illegal transport[1].

Source: Sabah News

Sharks and rays are other charismatic species being threatened by this illegal trafficking. According to the report, 409 sharks and rays, nearly 2.3 metric tonnes of their meat, and almost 29,000 shark products were seized in 12 incidents, primarily in the Philippines. One seizure was reported in Malaysia. Except for two live pelagic thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus) and three whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), whose trade is highly restricted as they are both endangered species, all the seized sharks and rays were found dead[1].

The worrying high number should not be overlooked. According to the 2015 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Malaysia was ranked among the top nations in the world for capturing sharks and rays. Additionally, due to local demand, the country is recognised as one of the top three buyers of shark fins[3].

Shark Fins for Sale on Social Media

Lately, the illicit trade of marine life has experienced a surge, largely facilitated by social media platforms. Prominent online marketplaces such as Shopee and Lazada feature listings for the sale of protected wildlife with zero restrictions. Following an analysis of over 600 posts about sharks, rays, marine turtles, and pangolins, TRAFFIC discovered that one of the species that was offered most in the online market was rays[1].

An instance of online trading featured the live streaming of Indonesian fish markets on Facebook, where sharks and rays were actively being sold. The videos displayed different species and their respective prices, while viewers actively participated by commenting, posing questions, and negotiating prices[1].

Source: Malay Mail

The menace of online trade is not limited to charismatic species alone; even less renowned species face threats. TRAFFIC’s 42-page report titled “A Rapid Assessment of Online Trade in Sea Cucumber and Fish Maw in Malaysia and Singapore” reported over 5,000 kilograms of sea cucumber and fish maw were available for sale. This finding was a result of monitoring more than 30 online platforms in Singapore and Malaysia over 11 days in 2020.

Sea cucumbers and fish maw, which are dried or processed bladders of fish, enjoy their popularity in the Southeast Asian region due to their perceived medicinal value and are considered delicacies in Chinese cuisine. Typically found in Chinese eateries and restaurants, these items are certainly highly sought after. Despite the predominantly legal nature of online trade, it’s worth noting that there were instances of threatened species and internationally regulated species of sea cucumber and fish maw being offered for sale[4].

For example, three sea cucumber species—the Holothuria fuscogilva, Holothuria nobilis, and Holothuria whitmaei—protected under Malaysian and Singaporean regulations were featured in at least 21 online advertisements and posts. Likewise, online posts advertising fish maw included offerings from six species of fish classified as endangered and five species considered vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List[4].

Marine Ecosystems in Peril

Undoubtedly, many trafficked marine species are species crucial in sustaining the health of marine ecosystems. Monique Sumampouw, People and Marine Biodiversity Manager at WWF-Malaysia, emphasised the vital role of sea turtles in preserving Malaysia’s ocean ecosystems, habitats, and marine food webs.

Green turtles forage on seagrass beds. When they graze, they increase the productivity and nutrient content of seagrass blades. Without constant grazing, seagrass beds become overgrown and obstruct currents, shade the bottom, begin to decompose, and lead to the growth of slime moulds. Turtles can be considered the lawnmowers of the sea. – Monique Sumampouw, People and Marine Biodiversity Manager, WWF-Malaysia[2]

Hawksbill turtles contribute significantly to reef health by controlling sponge populations through feeding. In contrast, leatherbacks play a role in ecosystem balance by feeding on jellyfish, regulating their populations and preventing them from overconsuming fish eggs and larvae.

As apex predators, sharks, too, play a crucial role in regulating the populations of prey species, such as stingrays. This, in turn, contributes to the maintenance of healthy populations of commercially important species, including crabs and clams.

Chitra Devi G, WWF-Malaysia’s Marine Programme Sustainable Seafood Manager, explained how the exploitation of sharks to cater to the market today is and will not be sustainable:

The high consumption of shark fins in Malaysia causes sharks to be overfished. The decline of sharks will cut short our supply of seafood and affect human survival. This is a matter of food security, and if the present trade of sharks continues, businesses will exhaust supply of fins and of sharks forever. The current exploitation of sharks is simply not sustainable. Sharks cannot reproduce fast enough to cope with the high demand and many shark populations are on the verge of collapse.[5]

Like the rest, sea cucumbers contribute significantly to the marine ecosystem. They enhance seabed health by burrowing, promoting bioturbation, and creating favourable conditions for other species. As deposit feeders, they play a vital role in nutrient cycling, reducing organic loads, redistributing sediment, and enhancing benthic productivity. Their activities also increase seawater alkalinity, providing a local buffer against ocean acidification and supporting coral reef survival. Additionally, sea cucumbers are integral to various food chains and host symbiotic relationships with other species[6]

Behind the Lashing Waves: What is Driving this Trafficking?

Many individuals engaged in this illicit trade often come from impoverished communities, with hopes of seeking a more lucrative source of income. For instance, 1951, sea turtle eggs were primarily consumed in the coastal villages where they were conveniently accessible and collected, serving as a crucial protein source to supplement the predominantly seafood-based diet of villagers. 

However, the construction of roads connecting these villages led to the emergence of new markets, resulting in increased demand[7]. Seizing this opportunity, impoverished fishermen began collecting sea turtle eggs and selling them to market vendors, supplementing their meagre fishing incomes. These vendors, in turn, sold the eggs alongside other products like cakes or dried foodstuff[8].

Apart from batik and silk fabric as well as keropok keping (dried fish crackers), turtle eggs are among the attractions for the public to visit the market because only Terengganu still allows the sale of turtle eggs. – Zainab Mohd Elias, a market vendor at Pasar Besar Kedai Payang[8]

With B40 households earning less than RM5,250 per month[9] and artisanal fishermen making only RM1,000 per catch on a good day[10], it’s possibly one of the reasons why people turn to poaching and trafficking sharks and sea turtles for their income.

Source: The Star

For many poor fishermen, the high sums they can earn from selling turtle eggs or shark fins are worth the risk of potentially getting arrested for their crimes. Indeed, a 2016 article in the New Sabah Times reported the confiscation by marine police of 9,900 eggs, worth about RM20,500, being smuggled into Sandakan from the Philippines in five boats[2]

Illegal trafficking of wildlife is further facilitated by its links with other criminal trades like drugs and guns. The supply chains utilised for transporting one illegal product are often leveraged for others, and there are instances where various illicit products are transported together. Different species are frequently transported on the same vessel and the lack of enforcement enables these activities to flourish through available loopholes. This oversight extends to people and smuggling activities using these vessels[6].

Sending Signals for Stricter Action

Given the seriousness of this situation, environmental groups have called for more robust action to address the escalating issue of marine life trafficking.

The TRAFFIC report emphasises the importance of a holistic, regional approach to finding solutions, including increased interagency and transboundary cooperation, as the illegal wildlife trade is interconnected and there is a low number of successful convictions.

At least 45 different agencies from these three countries made arrests and seizures, with over a quarter of incidents involving collaboration between multiple agencies within a country. – Serene Chng, senior program officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia[1]

Despite the presence of laws in Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia like Singapore to regulate the trade in marine products, TRAFFIC highlighted some gaps that exist. For instance, while Malaysia’s Fisheries Act governs the trade in marine and fisheries products, it fails to protect most fisheries products, including sea cucumbers[4].

While there have been countless campaigns to reduce the demand for wildlife products such as shark fins, Chitra highlighted how reducing demand alone is not an effective measure without other methods or strategies in place.

Source: Mongabay

Demand reduction alone is inadequate to address the overfishing of sharks and rays. We need to focus on coordinating efforts to mitigate incidental catches of sharks and rays in small-scale and commercial fisheries to reverse the decline of these species in our waters. A strong mitigation plan should be reflected as a priority under the National Plan of Actions for Sharks (NPOA) Plan-3. – Chitra Devi G, Marine Programme Sustainable Seafood Manager, WWF-Malaysia[3]

An effective approach to combat poaching often involves educating local and native communities about the significance of conservation and ways to derive benefits from it. Taking the conservation of sea turtles as an example, local fishermen can apply their knowledge of turtle nesting sites to discover, tag, and protect these nests rather than exploit them for eggs. 

This shift not only contributes to conservation efforts but also attracts more tourists and provides local communities with a more sustainable source of income[11]. Research indicates that as residents on Redang Island transitioned to a tourism-focused livelihood, they also developed a greater appreciation for turtle conservation[12].

Mundita Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), shared how social media is both a blessing and curse in the fight for conservation in an interview with Mongabay.

While social media is being used in these illegal activities, it can also be the solution to such a worsening problem. Everyone can contribute to curbing such illegal transactions by reporting accounts that engage in illicit trade. – Mundita Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity[1]

Ending this illicit trade in marine life requires the combined efforts of many groups and countries on both regional and international levels. It also calls for our individual commitment to play a role in safeguarding our ecosystem.

Explore our sources:

  1. K.A.S. Fabro. (2023). A Southeast Asian marine biodiversity hotspot is also a wildlife trafficking hotbed. Mongabay. Link.
  2. WWF. (2018). Fighting the marine turtle trade in Malaysia. Link.
  3. WWF. (2021). Wake-Up Call to Save Sharks and Rays in Malaysia. Link.
  4. TODAY. (2022). Global trafficking, booming online trade in Malaysia, Singapore could endanger sea cucumber and fish maw populations, says NGO. Malay Mail. Link.
  5. WWF. (2016). Removal of Sharks Has Far Reaching Impacts on the Environment and Food Supply. Link.
  6. T.P. Bondaroff. (n.d.). Why Sea Cucumbers? Oceans Asia. Link.
  7. B. Yong. (2021). Reconsider Ban on Turtle Egg Sale, say Terengganu Traders. Macaranga. Link.
  8. Bernama. (2022). Traders ready to comply with turtle eggs sale ban rules. New Straits Times. Link.
  9. R.H. Romeli. (2022). Income Classification in Malaysia: What is B40, M40, and T20. iProperty. Link.
  10. A. Shah & J. Goh. (2021). Malaysia’s coastal fisher folk are losing their livelihoods as fish stocks decline. The Star. Link.
  11. C. Hutang. (2020). From egg hunter to protector, Malaysian battles to save turtles. The Deccan Herald. Link.
  12. B. Yong. (2022). An End to the Culture of Eating Turtle Eggs. Macaranga. Link.

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