Singapore is home to 25 per cent of the world’s coral species, 55 per cent of mangrove plants in Asia, and 52 per cent of seagrass species in the Indo-Pacific.
Our marine ecosystems are important because of the biodiversity that they contain as well as the crucial role they play in helping Singapore fight climate change.
We need to protect Singapore’s marine ecosystems — our mangroves, mudflats, coral reefs, intertidal zones, and seagrass meadows — because they are our “swords and shields against climate change”, says MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC).
Below is an excerpt from his Adjournment Motion on Protecting our Marine Spaces which was delivered on Mar 20, 2023.
How can we further protect our marine spaces? I have three proposals — to learn more, protect more, and restore what we have lost.
These are not my ideas but what our young researchers and activists, Sam Shu Qin, Inez Alsagoff and Samantha Thian are calling for. This is their Adjournment Motion.
Fund and work with researchers on marine biodiversity survey
The first proposal is to learn more about our marine spaces.
We have many passionate scientists who are studying our marine spaces.
One such scientist is Sam. She is a coral scientist who has been actively studying our coral reefs.
Scientists like Sam are working hard to study our marine spaces. However, there remain gaps in our knowledge and they need the Government’s support to continue and intensify their work.
Our last marine biodiversity survey was in 2015. The last edition of the Singapore Red Data Book List on species in Singapore was in 2008.
Our database of knowledge is due for an update.
I hope that the Government can provide support to and work with researchers to update and plug gaps in our existing knowledge on our marine ecosystems.
Knowledge can be translated into action.
In addition to her research work Sam co-founded “Our Singapore Reefs” which connects marine enthusiasts through diving and raises awareness on marine biodiversity through outreach programmes.
She tells me:
“I envision a future where we can all work hand in hand to create spaces where wildlife can co-exist with humans. Together with our research, conservation and community initiatives, we can better safeguard our native biodiversity and keep our ecosystems healthy with more legislation, funding support and long-term partnership from the Government.”
Increase protection of our marine spaces
The second proposal is that as we learn more about our marine spaces, we also take steps to protect these spaces.
We should designate more marine areas as nature reserves or marine parks.
Nature spaces that are designated as nature reserves, national parks or public parks enjoy protection under the Parks and Trees Act.
Nature reserves and national parks get the most protection. Any changes to their boundaries can only be amended after debate in Parliament.
But public parks like marine parks, don’t enjoy the same level of protection. Their boundaries can be redrawn without the scrutiny of Parliament.
This is not just a hypothetical possibility.
In 2001, the Government had already finalised plans to reclaim the Chek Jawa wetlands. This unique habitat — the home of mudskippers, dugongs, herons and otters — was on the verge of being destroyed.
But these plans were suspended only after activists commissioned a biodiversity survey, wrote their own report and submitted a petition to the Government.
It was a shining day for activism. But we should not protect our marine spaces only when ordinary people take extraordinary action. These areas deserve statutory protections.
Which areas should we protect?
As our first marine park, Sisters’ Islands Marine Park should receive more protection by elevating it to a nature reserve.
The waters around the islands of Pulau Ubin, Pulau Semakau, Pulau Hantu, Pulau Jong, Pulau Biola, Pulau Satumu, St John’s Island, Kusu Island, and Lazarus Island are all rich in biodiversity and have great potential as marine parks.
I hope we can designate these areas as marine parks first before subsequently considering them to be nature reserves.
These waters are familiar to Inez who is an avid diver and a nature guide.
She shared this with me:
“As a frequent diver, I have had the opportunity to conduct research with NUS and explore Singapore’s Southern Islands.
I have witnessed first-hand the remarkable biodiversity present in our waters, including sightings of blacktip reef shark, blue-spotted fantail rays, large groupers, and vibrant coral ecosystems. I strongly believe that we need to take action to protect our marine spaces and ensure their conservation for future generations.”
Restore our degraded marine spaces
The third proposal is that we go beyond protecting what we have to restoring what we have lost.
Our community of activists is working hard on the ground to protect our marine spaces.
Samantha Thian, who founded Seastainable, is one such activist.
Seastainable is a social enterprise supporting marine conservation in the region. On seeing the amount of trash and pollution on our beaches, Samantha started a Telegram group to organise beach clean-ups, gathering hundreds of volunteers. This has now grown to thousands of clean-ups.
While our local community works hard to protect our beaches, I hope the Government can match their efforts a little further from the beach.
We can start by restoring our degraded seagrass meadows.
Currently, the Tropical Marine Science Institute is studying the restoration of marine habitats such as seagrass meadows.
While seagrass may not receive as much attention as coral reefs, they are crucial as carbon sinks, are home to rich biodiversity, improve water quality, and protect our coast.
Seagrasses are 35 times faster than tropical rainforests in capturing carbon.
They are also nurseries to fishes and feed marine creatures such as parrotfish, turtles and dugongs.
Despite their importance, we have lost 1.6 square kilometres or almost half of our seagrass since the 1960s.
It’s critical that we not just protect, but restore our degraded seagrass meadows.
The largest meadows today are found at Chek Jawa, Pulau Semakau and Cyrene Reef.
There are also substantial meadows in the waters of Pulau Pawai, Labrador Beach, Pasir Ris Beach, Changi Beach and Pulau Sekudu.
I hope the Government can support efforts to restore seagrass meadows in these areas.
Give our wildlife a chance at survival
To conclude, I hope that we can respond to the calls of our young advocates to know our marine ecosystems better, protect what we currently have and restore what we have lost, especially our seagrass meadows.
These proposals level the playing field for nature when it comes to development decisions, and give our wildlife in our waters a chance at survival.
In doing so, we also increase humankind’s chances of survival.
I was there at Chek Jawa as a young activist and student more than two decades ago. I saw the amazing biodiversity we were about to destroy at Chek Jawa and it was painful to see what we were going to lose.
But I also saw first-hand the tremendous dedication by the researchers, activists and thousands of people, members of the public who stepped forward to speak up and fight for the protection of Chek Jawa.
And I saw how the Government responded positively, reversed our decision and protected Chek Jawa instead.
I hope we continue to support our researchers and activists, continue to protect our marine spaces and continue to save our nature areas.
Let me end with a quote, as always, from Sylvia A. Earle, the former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
“The oceans matter. If the sea is sick, we’ll feel it. If it dies, we die. Our future and the state of the ocean are one.”
Images via: NParks, Wikipedia, WildSingapore.com/Ria Tan.