SINGAPORE: Social media platforms were abuzz in late May with photographs of clams, which number in the hundreds, in rotting piles strewn along Changi Beach.
These clams, buried with only their tips sticking out of the sand when alive, have all been split open and their abductor muscles harvested – likely for consumption.
In early June, there were reports of dozens of bathers who allegedly collected marine organisms with metal tongs, shovels and rakes on Changi Beach.
Over the last weekend of June, photographs were posted online of barefoot beachcombers holding a horseshoe crab by the tip of its tail on Sembawang Beach.
What explains the sudden interest in the creatures that inhabit our seas? Some want to consume them as food, while others are curious about these animals and still others want to collect them for their home aquariums.
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COASTAL LISTING IS AS OLD AN ACTIVITY AS TIME
Unable to travel due to the pandemic, those looking for a nature-oriented outdoor activity during school vacations likely drew inspiration from several YouTube videos and blogs that featured harvesting with metal tools along Singapore’s coastlines. .
Singapore experiences two high tides and two low tides per day. During low tide, part of the seabed is exposed, revealing mud flats and mud flats otherwise underwater.
The collection of organisms on our coasts is not a new phenomenon. The earliest inhabitants of our island roamed the intertidal areas in search of clams, snails, sea cucumbers and crabs to supplement their meals.
But over the years, Singapore has faced significant losses of natural marine habitats resulting from land reclamation and coastal urbanization. Today, about 30 percent of coral reefs and 1 percent of mangrove areas remain.
We must then ask ourselves whether the indiscriminate collection of native biodiversity is sustainable.
HIGH VISITOR PRESSURE
The negative impact of the high number of visitors to the intertidal zone is cause for concern. In addition to the easily observable flora and fauna, there are a myriad of organisms living in the substrate that are not.
These organisms – usually small worms, crustaceans and molluscs – burrow into the substrate and are collectively referred to as “infancy” or “endobenthos”.
The impact of human trampling on the intertidal zone varies depending on the intensity and frequency of visits. The wildlife community, such as marine soft-bodied worms, is particularly susceptible to trampling.
Studies have shown that heavy human use can reduce the cover of algae and sea grasses, crucial as food and shelter for marine organisms.
Dugongs, for example, are herbivorous marine mammals that feed on specific seagrass species. Seagrass beds along the shoreline of Changi Beach are known foraging sites for this species. Changes in seagrass beds can therefore have far-reaching implications for the organisms that depend on them.
Long-term persistent trampling has been found to significantly alter the characteristics of intertidal areas and negatively impact their resilience and ability to recover from other threats.
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LIMITED PROTECTION FOR SEA CREATURES
Although there has been an increase in public discourse on intertidal plants and animals, legal protection for the great diversity of organisms and the majority of our coastal areas is limited.
Even though wild animals are protected under the Wildlife Act which came into effect in June 2020, most invertebrate organisms, including many of these sea creatures, are exempt. In addition, only a fraction of our coastline is protected or designated as reserve areas.
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However, passing a law is not always the most effective approach because of the built-in punitive measures. The legal process to formalize specific invoices takes several months, so it may not be adequate as an out-of-the-box solution. Once the legislation is in force, it can be difficult to apply.
The ideal scenario is that users of common resources, such as intertidal areas, collectively understand the consequences of non-civic actions. To safeguard our shores, it is much more effective for users to reach consensus on key principles to guide future interactions.
This idea of collective responsibility towards the conservation of our marine and coastal areas was also suggested in the Singapore Blue Plan 2018 – a grassroots initiative by more than 120 contributors and 14 stakeholder groups.
This plan included recommendations to the government for the protection of identified marine areas, improvement of the legislative framework and the implementation of long-term monitoring programs.
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VISIT OUR SHORES IN A RESPONSIBLE MANNER
The intertidal zones are responsible for the protection of the coastline and provide recreational, cultural and spiritual spaces that contribute to our national identity.
The increase in the number of visitors to our coasts signals their importance for our well-being in our urban lifestyles.
The agencies responsible for these resources have demonstrated that they are aware of this. For example, in response to the influx of visitors to Changi Beach, the National Parks Board (NParks) will install signs and increase the presence of staff and volunteers in intertidal areas, rather than closing the shores or limiting the public access.
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Another way people can enjoy these creatures is to learn about the biodiversity of our intertidal areas and how to safely enjoy them when we visit.
We can do this by participating in walks organized by NParks and volunteer groups such as Naked Hermit Crabs and Young Nautilus. These are carefully planned to help prepare for visiting intertidal areas responsibly while maintaining safety.
Observe their behaviors and photograph the organisms you encounter, but do not attempt to touch or manipulate them as many sea creatures carry sharp thorns or are poisonous.
For those who wish to explore the intertidal areas on their own, resources on recommended dress and behavior, as well as the flora and fauna they might encounter are available on the NParks, Celebrating Singapore’s Shores, and WildSingapore websites.
Exhibits such as Human x Nature at National Library and Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum are also great places to learn about native biodiversity and socio-cultural elements of nature.
ADVOCACY FOR OUR SHORES THROUGH RESPECTFUL SPEECH
Communities of nature enthusiasts are also becoming very popular. There are groups dedicated to cleaning or hiking sessions. On Facebook, groups have also been created for specific areas such as Pasir Ris and the Sisters Islands Marine Park, where visitors post photographs of their excursions.
The Friends Of The Parks networks run by NParks allow volunteers to get involved in all kinds of community activities and in the management of their favorite parks.
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As residents of this small island, we recognize the immense pressure to which we put our limited natural spaces. The maturity of the public discussions that have taken place in recent weeks regarding the collection of intertidal organisms was encouraging to observe.
Even if the points of view were sometimes different, the speech remained respectful. If we continue on this trajectory, we will be able to channel our passion into active engagement in nature issues and advocacy for blue and green spaces in Singapore.
Zeehan Jaafar is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore and Editor-in-Chief of the Singapore Blue Plan 2018.