Protecting Malaysia’s Seas

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Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Malaysia

Green turtle (Chelonia mydas). Hatchlings emerging after 47-66 days of incubation. Malaysia.
© Martin HARVEY / WWF-Canon


The seas around Peninsular Malaysia are home to important populations of endangered and critically endangered green, hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles. Although the seas are rich in biodiversity, they are highly threatened, particularly from overfishing.

WWF is working with partners in Malaysia to develop a marine conservation plan in 3 areas: the east coast of Sabah, Borneo in a part of the Sulu-Sulawesi marine ecoregion and the Coral Triangle; the Strait of Malacca on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, which forms the southern part of the Andaman Sea; and the South China Sea on Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast.


Like its archipelagic neighbours, Malaysia is a maritime country. It is also a Coral Triangle state. With a maritime claim of 334,000 km2, Malaysia’s seas are 5,000 km2 bigger than its land area. These seas include 2 global ecoregions (Andaman Sea ecoregion and Sulu-Sulawesi marine ecoregion). The Coral Triangle spans a vast area extending from Indonesia in the west to Fiji in the east, and the Philippines in the north to Papua New Guinea in the south.

WWF Malaysia has developed a strategy to achieve marine conservation in 3 of Malaysia’s marine areas:
1) The east coast of Sabah, on Borneo, is a portion of the Sulu-Sulawesi marine ecoregion and the biological core of the Coral Triangle.
2) The Strait of Malacca on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia which forms the southern portion of the Andaman Sea ecoregion.
3) The South China Sea on Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast.

An overall objective of healthy functioning ecosystems that support the full range of their rich biodiversity, viable populations of endangered species, and sustainable use of resources links WWF Malaysia’s strategy in these 3 areas. This will be achieved by applying the concepts of ecosystem-based management of fisheries (EBMF) and flagship species conservation primarily through fisheries management and marine turtle conservation.

Marine turtles and terrapins have been the focus of management efforts for more than 40 years in Malaysia. Laws have been passed at the federal and state levels to manage egg collection, ban the consumption of some species’ eggs in some states, reduce incidental catch at sea, and protect important nesting beaches.

The main agencies that have been working on turtle research, management and conservation include the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, via the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre (SEAFDEC) and the Turtle and Marine Ecosystem Centre (TUMEC), and the University Malaysia Terengganu, previously Kolej University Sains dan Teknologi Malaysia (KUSTEM), and WWF Malaysia.

Some of WWF Malaysia’s earliest projects worked on leatherback turtles in Terengganu, including a survey of nesting beaches completed in 1987. In Malacca, WWF Malaysia's first involvement was conducting a population census at nesting beaches in Melaka, in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries (DoF), in the late 1980s. This culminated in a series of recommendations to the DoF, including the establishment of the turtle hatchery and management centre at Padang Kemunting in Pengkalan Balak, the only marine turtle and terrapin egg depository for incubation in Melaka. The Centre was established in 1990 by DoF and the Malacca State Government.

A paper published in 2006 examined the failures and lessons learned from 40 years of turtle conservation in Malaysia (Ibrahim and Sharma, 2006). Key lessons learned include:
1) The need for strong political support for protected areas.
2) Egg exploitation must stop and loopholes allowing eggs to be sold in neighbouring states must be closed.
3) Hatchery performance must be standardized and closely monitored.
4) In-situ incubation should be encouraged as it develops better sex ratios and stronger hatchlings.
5) Malaysia needs to join in regional conservation activities.
6) Information and education must be improved as past efforts suffered from insufficient fund allocations.
The paper was delivered at a multi-stakeholder conference to build a National Plan of Action for Marine Turtle Conservation. This is an important step towards greater harmonization of effort and collaboration.

It is estimated that Malaysians derive between 20% (WRI 2006) and 60% (FAO 2001) of their annual protein consumption from fish. Fisheries contributed 1.73% of Malaysia’s GDP in 2004. Despite having very few independent assessments of fisheries status in the country, papers issued by staff of the DoF show a need to restore depleted resources and protect more habitats.

Until now WWF Malaysia has had very little engagement with fisheries management and conservation in Peninsular Malaysia. However, there is a good relationship with the DoF from previous work on marine parks and previous collaboration on turtles.


Scale up efforts to bring about a broader impact on Malaysia’s marine environment and turtle populations while contributing to the Smart Fishing and Coral Triangle Network Initiatives. Marine turtles will be highlighted as a flagship species for a healthy marine environment, producing benefits for biodiversity and people.

Specific objectives

Module 1
Viable and healthy eggs. By 2020, more, healthier and naturally balanced sex-ratio hatchlings of turtles leave Malaysian beaches.
1. State governments legally protect all turtles and turtle eggs by 2011.
2. Federal government adopts legislation for protection of turtles and bans sale and consumption of turtle eggs by 2017.
3. Enforcement agencies improve monitoring and enforcement of illegal trade, egg collection and illegal egg consumption.
4. Significant reduction in egg consumption at 2 key sites.
5. Turtle hatcheries adopt and implement best practice.
6. Department of Fisheries takes lead in-situ egg incubation at key sites.

Module 2
Turtle-friendly beaches. By 2020, at least 2 additional beaches have better protection status and are conducive to turtle nesting.
1. State governments formally protect at least 2 nesting beaches by 2015.
2. Relevant authorities adopt and implement management plans for at least 2 protected beaches by 2018.
3. Relevant state government agencies incorporate turtle needs into land-use planning in critical areas by 2015.
4. At least 2 tourism operators implement turtle-friendly practices by 2011.
5. Businesses operating near critical turtle nesting beaches implement measures to reduce adverse effects on turtles by 2012.

Module 3
Turtle-safe seas. By 2020, marine turtle habitats in the waters of Peninsula Malaysia are better protected and showing signs of recovery from 2008 baseline.
1. Relevant stakeholders understand turtle at-sea habitat uses by 2010.
2. Department of Fisheries and fisheries industry adopt measures to mitigate incidental catch of turtles by 2015.
3. Malaysian government signs/becomes party to regional turtle protection conventions and collaborates with turtle range state neighbours on turtle conservation by 2010.

Module 4
Healthy and productive seas. Malaysian fisheries, including aquaculture, are managed for sustainability of catches, habitats and species by 2020.
1. Department of Fisheries adopts ecosystem-based management for captured fisheries and aquaculture as management principle by 2012.
2. A common vision for representative marine protected areas comprising 20% of Peninsular Malaysia seas by 2012.

Module 5
Fundraising. By 2011, a mechanism for regional fundraising is in place for the western Coral Triangle Programme.
1. Corporate marketing teams in regional WWF offices collaborate to raise funds regionally.
2. Potential corporate donors in Southeast Asia give generously to marine turtle conservation.


WWF Malaysia’s marine turtle conservation and fisheries management programme will capitalize on existing opportunities and work with partners to make new opportunities. Existing opportunities include the multi-stakeholder process to develop and implement a national action plan for marine turtles, review of the federal fisheries act, and upcoming formulation of the 4th national agricultural plan.

5 modules, based on threat categories to turtles and fisheries in Malaysia, will structure this programme. A final communications strategy for each module within the programme will be produced upon commencement of the project.

The modules are the following:
1. Viable and healthy eggs.
2. Turtle-friendly beaches.
3. Turtle-safe seas.
4. Healthy and productive seas.
5. Coordinated regional turtle fundraising.

State (Malacca and Terengganu) and federal governments will be one of the primary target groups of this programme. It is intended that these 3 target groups will change their policy and legislative environments to protect turtles fully and completely, providing full protection against trade and consumption of some turtle parts. Additionally, fisheries management practices will be targeted through the DoF to protect more habitats in an effort to focus on whole ecosystems.

Industry group targets include the tourism industry in Malacca and Terengganu. Their beach activities and development plans need to change in order to be more turtle friendly and ensure that there is some economic benefit from having turtles landing on beaches in those 2 states. Other industries to be targeted to change specific practices include egg collectors, commercial fisheries, and a few large industries with operations along important beaches in Terengganu.

Licensed egg collectors will be encouraged to leave the practice or to adopt best possible practices to protect turtles. Egg consumers throughout urban areas in Malaysia will be targeted to stop consumption of eggs. Fish consumers will be encouraged to make decisions about their fish consumption based on sustainability criteria.

Priority turtle model sites
Located in the middle of Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, Terengganu has long beaches, offshore islands and large turtle populations. Large numbers of giant leatherback turtles used to nest on the beaches around Rantau Abang. Now that the leatherbacks are largely gone, green turtles are the biggest turtle population in Terengganu. Some of the offshore islands and the mainland beaches around Kerteh town are the biggest nesting beaches remaining. Many other beaches in the state have several nestings each year. Kerteh is also the centre of Terengganu’s oil and gas industry - on the doorstep of the biggest refinery and petrochemical complex in the country is the Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary.

On the shores of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, lies the ancient city of Malacca. Despite being squeezed between the heavy shipping traffic and a bustling city, the beaches around Malacca continue to harbour Peninsular Malaysia's largest population of hawksbill turtles. The remaining beaches, however, suffer from erosion and poor coastal management. Some beaches have good potential for protection, some are afforded de facto protection from an adjacent army camp, and some are impacted by tourism. This population and success in Malacca are a key part of the programme strategy.

WWF Malaysia’s vision for the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea is to have, by the year 2020, a healthy marine and coastal environment characterized by high biodiversity, thriving populations of species and their natural habitats that provides benefits to present and future generations of people, who are empowered to make informed decisions on the welfare of their environment and lives.

The programme will be conducted through 3 4-year phases. This project details the first phase.

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