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  New Straits Times 30 Sep 06
Do: Save our seahorses
Debra Chong

Seahorses are fast disappearing and not just into the cooking pot. DEBRA CHONG joins the Save Our Seahorses brigade for a day and learns what's at stake.

“THERE used to be seahorses a-plenty here. We used to catch and sell them to Singapore, 50 sen for one. Now, you’d be lucky to see even one.”

So said the weather-beaten fisherman from Tanjung Kupang, Johor. He was also our hired boatman for the day, charged to ferry us from the rickety wooden jetty in his seaside village to the Straits of Tebrau, roughly 2km downstream of Sungai Pulai estuary.

Beneath the murky, mucky waters is an incredible world that is home to diverse marine lifeforms including the endangered dugong, Green turtle and Spotted seahorse.

For a few hours some days a month, this magnificent world becomes accessible to the intrepid human visitor, when the tide is at its lowest. As if by magic, the waters part and a carpet of emerald green unrolls before one’s eyes.

At 1.8km long (and up to 200m at its widest), it is Malaysia’s single largest tract of seagrass bed.

“In the middle of the Johor Straits, you’re standing on a green carpet filled with life. It’s amazing,” said Choo Chee Kuang, 28, programme coordinator of Save Our Seahorses, SOS for short.

A local non-profit organisation, it was formed last year to create and enhance community awareness and co- operation for marine conservation particularly in the vicinity of Sungai Pulai estuary.

In an effort to educate the local community, it roped in students from the nearby SMK Gelang Patah to help conduct on-site research.

For the teenaged Geography Club members, it was an eye-opening experience being able to walk on the sea, hold a ‘live’ seahorse in one’s hand and even taste dugong food, Halophila ovalis, a round-leaf seagrass favoured by the shy sea mammal.

Sungai Pulai estuary is possibly the richest marine bio-diversity spot in the country. “It’s very rare for an estuary to have a seagrass bed, mangrove swamp and coral reefs so close to each other,” said Choo, who also lectures in Marine Science at the University College of Science and Technology, Terengganu.

In 2003, Sungai Pulai basin, one of three in Johor, was gazetted a Wetland of International Importance.

The status is not lightly awarded. In plain speak, the ecosystem is recognised as being greatly valuable to the whole world. Coral reefs and seagrass beds breed myriad marine species of fish and other seafood.

According to a World Wildlife Fund fact sheet updated in March this year, Southeast Asia is considered the global epicentre of marine diversity.

In the Straits of Malacca, the yield from coral reefs is thought to be worth US$563 million (RM2.139 billion).

After the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami that affected much of Asia, many governments are waking up to the role of mangrove swamps in protecting against coastline erosion. Flora and fauna in these wetlands also filter pollutants and make the water clean and clear again.

Naturally, they have their limits. That is why Ramsar sites are closely monitored to ensure that any development will not harm the natural environment or life forms contained within the area.

Unfortunately, that particular tract of seagrass bed we visited lies just outside the boundaries of the Sungai Pulai Ramsar site. That means, it is unprotected.

Since 1995, increased human activity has endangered the balance of this delicate marine environment.

Motorised fan blades from boats and ships that ply the narrow channel shred the seagrasses. Seagrasses are very much like land grasses. The only noticeable difference is the former grows on soil underwater. They still depend on sunlight and nutrient-rich soil to grow.

Rapid construction of industrial plants and housing developments create pollutants that choke the life out of the seagrasses, as do encroaching seawalls.

Choo is fearful. An adjacent plot was destroyed the same year the Ramsar Bureau in Switzerland conferred the honour on Sungai Pulai, Tanjung Piai and Pulau Kukup.

His goal is for the policy-makers to designate the seagrass bed a fully-protected area. “Seahorses, seagrasses, mangrove swamps and coral reefs are closely-related. In order to protect the seahorse, we need to protect its habitat.”

The rising tide over the seagrass was miraculously crystal — we could see through to the bottom of the bottom of the Johor sea! That day, Lady Luck smiled on us. We spotted two seahorses at the fringe of the seagrass bed. One was female, the other a male which had just given birth.

How to help

* Join the SOS volunteer programme Mapping the seagrass bed and surveying wildlife is hot, sweaty and dangerous (spiky sharp sea urchins) work but rewarding if you are the incorrigibly curious and love poking about outdoors. You need to be at least 18 years old, physically fit, and hold SPM/GCE qualifications.

* Sign the petition All you need do is cut out the petition form on the page in the printed NST, glue it to a postcard, fill up your details, add stamp and post.

* Donate to the Save Our Seahorses fund It needs financial assistance for research, education and conservation work in three major areas:

* Purchase of satellite images of the seagrass beds. This will enable the experts to detect changes in size and dimension of the seagrass beds over time. Estimated cost: RM8,000 per image

* Construction of an on site research station. Estimated cost: RM7,000

* A three-to-five-metre boat and outboard engine. Estimated cost: RM6,000 Cheques can be made out to SUARAM KOMMUNIKASI. Send to: Suaram Save Our Seahorse (SOS) Action Committee 8A, Jalan Ronggeng 11, Taman Skudai Baru, 81300 Skudai, Johor, Malaysia For further details, visit www.sosmalaysia.org.

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