Students dive into project to save sharks

Students dive into project to save sharks
(From left) Pam Wan, who is the senior assistant manager of Singapore Management University’s (SMU) centre for social responsibility, Keith Leow, Theodore Pung, Crystle Wee and Kelvin Leong are part of the project team diving into a shark conservation project in the Philippines. The project, Reef Alert is an annual marine conservation initiative based at SMU and the eventual goal is to save the thresher shark.

SINGAPORE - For four months, 15 budding marine conservationists devoted one night a week to the study of fish and coral.

The undergraduates pored over colourful images, studied facts about marine creatures, and took lessons on how to survey them - all in preparation for a shark conservation project in the Philippines last month.

The project is called Reef Alert, an annual marine conservation initiative based at the Singapore Management University (SMU).

The eventual goal is to save the thresher shark.

Project head Keith Leow, 22, said: "Having spent most of my life interacting with the ocean through sailing and scuba diving, I've realised the damage caused by careless human behaviour has become increasingly visible."

The thresher shark, known for having a tail that is as long as its body, is listed as a vulnerable species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

It is an oceanic species, and the underwater Monad Shoal, near Malapascua island in the Philippines, is the only place in the world where the elusive shark can be reliably sighted, said Dr Simon Oliver of the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project (TSRCP), the non-profit partner of Reef Alert 2014.

Thresher sharks regularly show up at the shoal's natural cleaning station, Dr Oliver added. Such stations are typically found on coral reefs and are where marine animals such as sharks and manta rays go to have parasites removed from their skin by cleaner fish.

Dr Oliver said: "Cleaning stations control up to 90 per cent of species that visit reefs, and 50 per cent of the species that reside there." Reef Alert 2014 was partially funded by the National Youth Council.

Its spokesman said: "The long-term research facilitated by Project Reef Alert will have a positive impact in helping prevent potential damage to the sea."

To prepare for their project, the 15 student participants also spent a night on board a dive boat anchored off Singapore's "ghost island" in October last year.

During that time, they descended some 5m into the waters around Pulau Hantu to identify and quantify the marine creatures on the seabed.

Their efforts culminated in a two-week adventure in Malapascua island last month, where they dived at the Monad Shoal.

The students - 14 from SMU and one from the National University of Singapore - collected data on the marine life at the shoal.

Describing their work as invaluable, Dr Oliver said: "The students helped us understand the community composition of cleaning stations... the more we understand a species, the better able we are to address related conservation issues."

The data, he said, will be used by TSRCP to "develop, implement and maintain Monad Shoal as a marine protected area with World Heritage potential".

The students also conducted programmes for the local elementary school pupils to educate them on the perils of rubbish in the marine environment.

NUS student Crystle Wee, 20, who led the education team, said: "We wanted to educate them about the rich biodiversity they have, and how trash such as plastic wrappers can affect the marine animals."

This article was first published on January 8, 2015.
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