DUNGUN (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysian state Terengganu's iconic mascot, the turtle, is dying. The irony - it is not being killed or hunted but has become the victim of the hunger for another marine creature, the stingray.
Metres of illegal nets, laid out to catch stingrays along the shores of the state - some as close as 30m from the beach - are also trapping and drowning the turtles.
With months to go until the nesting season ends for these reptiles, the state Fishery Department said 30 turtles had died in the first four months of this year.
In 2014, 47 turtles were reported to have died. Throughout 2015, there were 59 recorded deaths. With 30 dead so far this year, the number for 2016 could be significantly higher.
World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia senior marine conservation officer Sharifah Ruqaiyah Syed Mustafa said she had received reports of over 20 deaths in the Kemaman district alone and 10 to 15 deaths in Setiu so far this year.
Conservationists, worried that many more deaths have gone unreported, are deeply concerned about the lack of enforcement against the use of the illegal nets by fishermen, some of whom are now "bold enough" to mark the position of these nets with buoys.
And while some fishermen used to furtively retrieve their nets in the wee hours, some of them now turn up as late as 7am to 8am.
State Agriculture, Agro-based Industry, Plantations and Commodities Committee chairman Nawi Mohamad confirmed the increase in the number of turtle deaths, mainly green turtles.
"Most of these deaths are caused by fishermen using nets banned by the Government to catch the stingrays. Nets with a mesh size of 25cm and above are banned because they also trap turtles," he said in an interview here.
While smaller nets with mesh size of 15cm or 20cm are not banned, fishermen prefer using nets with bigger mesh - some as large as 33cm or 35cm - to catch bigger stingrays that can fetch up to RM10 per kg at wholesale price.
At some hypermarkets in Kuala Lumpur, stingray - popular as ikan bakar (grilled fish) and for local curries - can fetch up to RM28 per kg.
Unfortunately for the turtles, stingrays are also known to be found along the coast, particularly around reefs, in the sand and between the rocks, at this time of the year.
"The deaths of these animals are basically fuelled by demand for the stingray," said a source who used to be in turtle conservation.
"Turtles are a useless by-catch for the fishermen because Malaysians don't eat the meat. The carcasses of turtles trapped and drowned in these nets are usually sunk with stones.
"Catching stingrays brings in a lot of money despite the risks. There is no motivation to stop catching them," she said.
The length of a pukat pari - which catches only stingrays - can run up to metres long when strung together.
One pukat pari - known as a bidang - measures 18m by 18m and is usually brought in from Thailand.
In 2014, the state Fishery Department was reported to have seized 15 such illegal nets. In 2015, there were no enforcement patrols.
So far, no one has been charged with possession of the banned nets, which can see a fine of up to RM3,000 and the fishing equipment seized.
"In my eight years here, I have never seen anyone charged or fined," said Sharifah Ruqaiyah.
A state Fishery Department official said some fishermen were now stringing together nets of different mesh sizes to fool authorities patrolling the waters.
"Many of the fishermen also leave their nets in the sea, only checking their catch every day. The nets could be in the sea for days or even weeks.
"A turtle trapped in one of the nets could have been saved if the fishermen checked on the nets every three to four hours or so," he pointed out.