Curiosity is harming Singapore's intertidal wildlife

Crowds descended on a beach at low tide again on Chinese New Year, despite intense media coverage of a similar occurrence in June last year.

Nature advocates and the authorities in Singapore are once again at the drawing board to protect its marine wildlife, after crowds descended on an intertidal coastal area on Chinese New Year and were found to be digging up pails of precious sea creatures.

The low tide that day coincided with a sunny afternoon on a public holiday. A video taken by local science channel Just Keep Thinking showed families with pails of critters like sea urchins and shellfishes at Changi Beach, one of the few natural beaches in Singapore.

It is a repeat of what happened last year during the June school break, when Covid-19 deterred overseas travel.

“When the June incident happened, we didn’t know if it was a fluke; a one-time event. But clearly after a few months down the road, and after what happened recently, it looks like it’s going to continue for some time,” said Kong Man Jing, co-founder of Just Keep Thinking.

Kong, who goes by the handle BiogirlMJ online, added that many families wanted to bring their catch home as pets. If this happened, many of the species would quickly die under captivity, she said.

Do’s and don’ts at intertidal areas

Do: Watch your step, be patient and photograph critters in their natural habitat.

Don’t: Touch anything if unsure, handle animals (unless trained), remove animals from their homes.

Source: Singapore National Parks Board

Singapore is home to at least 12,000 species of marine animals, including threatened corals and shellfishes, according to an official count. The country sits in a biodiversity hotspot that is impacted by pollution and overfishing.

Ng Lee Kiang, co-founder of nature guiding firm Young Nautilus, which conducts guided walks at Changi Beach, said the situation improved for a few months after last year’s incident blew up online. But incidents of wildlife picking has crept up again.

Nature advocates say more public engagement, as well as outreach on more online platforms could help. Marine wildlife picking in Singapore is a popular topic on platforms like Chinese social media site Xiaohongshu.

Kong added that legislative changes, such as imposing more restrictions on what marine animals can be harvested, would be welcome too.

Currently, picking up invertebrate animals outside of Singapore’s nature reserves and parks is allowed. Only rare species like the endangered giant clams and several corals are protected under the country’s Wildlife Act.

Last year, authorities said that a ban covering all invertebrate animals would be too wide, as it would include pests like cochroaches. Environmentalists Eco-Business spoke to said the law also shouldn’t deter responsible fishing and foraging activities.

Singapore’s national parks board (NParks) said they will be putting up more signages on good etiquette at beaches, and intensify public outreach efforts.

“Members of the public are encouraged to act as community stewards and educate others on the general dos and don’ts,” said Ryan Lee, group director of the National Biodiversity Centre at NParks.

“While a few animals can tolerate gentle touch, many are very sensitive to tactile disturbances. People unfamiliar with the different species of marine life may also endanger their own safety as they are unable to recognise stinging or venomous marine life,” he added.

There are also ‘No Fishing’ areas in parks managed by the statutory board, with fines of up to S$5,000. This includes the picking of shellfish, said NParks.

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