Critically endangered hawksbill turtle rescued from net off East Coast Park

Employees of sea sports and sailing school Constant Wind disentangling the critically endangered hawksbill turtle from a gill net.

SINGAPORE - A hawksbill turtle ensnared in a net was freed by paddlers in waters off East Coast Park last Thursday (Nov 25).

A video of the rescue seen by The Straits Times shows the turtle struggling in a gill net as two employees of sea sports and sailing school Constant Wind untangled its limbs.

The critically endangered creature was one of the more fortunate victims of marine debris here, which has claimed numerous lives, including another hawksbill turtle found headless earlier this year.

Mr Loke Yuen Piew, 70, told ST that he was doing stand-up paddle boarding with his brother last Thursday when he spotted the turtle, which was trapped in a net that was about 15m long.

The avid paddler and boater estimates that he has seen turtles in Singapore waters about 10 times over the past 30 years

"The turtle tried to dive when it saw both of us coming but it couldn't (because of the net)," said the chairman of the Singapore Canoe Federation's Stand Up Paddling group.

Without a knife to free the hawksbill - one of two turtle species native to Singapore and has been recorded nesting in East Coast Park - the brothers contacted the nearby Constant Wind for help.

The rescue operation took about half an hour.

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Without intervention, a turtle trapped below the water's surface in a gill net would have drowned since it cannot breathe, said marine biologist Toh Tai Chong of the National University of Singapore.

Gill nets have fine filaments that render them virtually invisible to marine life that swim into them, he said.

With floats at the top and weights below, the nets float perpendicular to the seabed, catching everything in their path - intentional or otherwise.

When abandoned, these nets become death traps for animals that have no one to release them.

In May, a decapitated hawksbill turtle was found bound in a 100m-long gill net off Pulau Hantu.

In June, at least 12 black-tipped reef sharks were among dead marine species in an abandoned gill net near Pulau Semakau.

Rescuing live animals trapped in these nets, however, is complicated because the fishing method remains legal outside of the National Parks Board's (NParks) waters.

Net fishing in 12 coastal parks and areas managed by NParks, including East Coast Park, is forbidden because of the damage that the method has on marine life.

But the Fisheries Act, which regulates the fishing industry here, does not ban the use of gill nets outside of these areas. Rather, it becomes illegal to damage the fishing implement.

Co-founder of Our Singapore Reefs Sam Shu Qin said the volunteer group is currently discussing how to curb unsustainable fishing practices with other stakeholders in the marine community and hopes to raise more awareness among local fishermen.

"Abandoned gill nets and other kinds of fishing traps often end up breaking off chunks of coral and catching other kinds of inedible fish," she said.

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This comes amid efforts by the Government and marine conservation groups to safeguard local shores and waters by encouraging sustainable fishing and tackling marine litter.

In October, the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment announced plans to launch a national framework to deal with marine litter along the Republic's coastline and waters next year.

Members of the public who encounter animals trapped in gill nets can contact the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society on 9783-7782 or NParks on 1800-476-1600 for help.

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