EXPEDITIONS: Green sea turtles around the Scarborough Shoal are gentle, majestic, and endangered. But there’s hope…

The West Philippines Sea is home to the Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocks and reefs that boasts a rich and diverse marine ecosystem. The area is a habitat for a wide range of marine life, including fish, corals, and sea turtles. The shoal serves as a crucial breeding ground for many fish species, which makes it an essential part of the marine environment in the region.

Unfortunately, the Scarborough Shoal has become a source of contention among countries with claims to the area, such as China, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Despite the ongoing territorial disputes, it is essential to protect the shoal’s unique biodiversity, no matter who ultimately gains control over the area.

One of the primary reasons why the Scarborough Shoal is significant in terms of biodiversity is because it is located within the Coral Triangle. The region spans the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, and is renowned for its incredible marine biodiversity. More than 3,000 species of fish and 75% of the world’s coral species can be found in the Coral Triangle.

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As part of this ecosystem, the Scarborough Shoal plays a vital role in providing a habitat for many species of fish and other marine life. The shoal’s population of yellowfin tuna, in particular, is an essential commercial species. Moreover, the shoal serves as a breeding ground for groupers, snappers, and mackerels. These fish are not only crucial for the local ecosystem, but they are also an important source of food for people living in the region.

The Scarborough Shoal is also home to a diverse range of corals. These corals provide habitats for many different species of marine life, including invertebrates, mollusks, and crustaceans. Additionally, they help protect the coastline from erosion and storm damage, making them a critical component of the coastal ecosystem.

One of the singular species that can be found in the Scarborough Shoal is the green sea turtle, which is listed as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. The shoal is among the few remaining nesting sites for this species in the West Philippines Sea. Therefore, protecting the shoal is vital for the survival of this essential species.

“One of the biggest threats to marine turtles is the destruction of their nesting habitats,” says Sharah Baredo, a Project Officer with Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE). “Coastal development, such as the construction of resorts and other tourism-related infrastructure, often takes place on or near beaches where marine turtles’ nest. This can cause erosion and can destroy nests, while artificial lighting can disorient hatchlings and lead them away from the ocean.”

The green sea turtle is a species of turtle found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. It is a large species, with adult individuals typically measuring between 3 and 4 feet in length and weighing up to 350 pounds. The green sea turtle is named for the green color of its fat, which is caused by the turtle’s herbivorous diet of seagrasses and algae.

One of the most distinctive features of the green sea turtle is its life cycle. Like all sea turtles, green sea turtles return to the beach where they were born to lay their own eggs. After hatching, the young turtles must make their way to the sea and fend for themselves. They are vulnerable to predators, such as birds and crabs, as they make their way to the water.

One of the biggest threats to marine turtles is the destruction of their nesting habitats

Sharah Baredo, Project Officer at LAMAVE.

Green sea turtles are also known for their ability to migrate long distances between their feeding and nesting grounds. Some individuals have been known to travel up to 1,400 miles between their nesting sites and feeding grounds. This is an impressive feat for a species that spends most of its life in the water.

“Marine turtles such as the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle migrate long distances to the West Philippine Sea to lay their eggs on its sandy beaches,” says Baredo. “The warm sand helps incubate the eggs while the shallow water helps the hatchlings swim to the surface more easily to breathe. Additionally, the area is rich in food sources that marine turtles rely on, including seagrass, seaweed, and jellyfish, which are abundant due to the presence of nutrient-rich currents.”

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A peculiar aspect of the green sea turtle is its diet. Unlike other sea turtles, which are primarily carnivorous, the green sea turtle is mostly herbivorous. They feed on a variety of seagrasses and algae, which can be found in shallow waters and in estuaries. The green sea turtle’s diet plays an important role in maintaining the health of seagrass beds and other coastal ecosystems.

The green sea turtle’s appearance is noteworthy. Its carapace, or upper shell, is typically dark green, brown, or black, while its skin and underside are typically pale yellow or white. The turtle’s head and limbs are also covered in greenish scales, which help to camouflage it in its seagrass habitat.

Despite the Scarborough Shoal’s importance, there are many threats to its biodiversity. Overfishing is one of the most significant threats. The shoal has been a popular fishing ground for a long time, and many fish species have been overexploited. This has an impact not only on the fish populations themselves but also on other species that rely on them for food.

Pollution is also a significant threat to the shoal. The West Philippines Sea is one of the world’s most heavily polluted bodies of water, and this pollution can have a devastating impact on marine life. Plastic pollution can entangle and kill sea turtles, while oil spills can destroy coral reefs and kill fish.

Climate change is yet another significant threat to the biodiversity of the Scarborough Shoal. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification can negatively impact coral reefs, while changes in ocean currents and weather patterns can affect the breeding patterns of many fish species. With climate change accelerating, the biodiversity of the shoal is likely to come under even greater threat.

The Scarborough Shoal stands as a vital pillar in the West Philippines Sea’s marine ecosystem. The Scarborough Shoal stands as a vital pillar in the West Philippines Sea’s marine ecosystem.

Poaching represents yet another major challenge. Sea turtles are often caught and killed for their meat, their shells, and their eggs.

According to Baredo, the Philippines government has taken some steps to protect the sea turtles around Scarborough Shoal. 

“The Philippine government established several Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Sulu and West Philippine Sea to conserve marine biodiversity, including marine turtles,” she says. “These areas are designated as no-take zones, which means that fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited to protect the marine ecosystem. At the same time, recreational activities such as boating, swimming and diving are regulated.” 

Unfortunately, efforts to protect the sea turtles habitat have been hampered by the ongoing dispute over the shoal. On top of that, the shoal’s rocks are slowly being eroded by waves and are not able to support as many sea turtles as they once did.

Losing the sea turtles in the West Philippine Sea would be incredibly harmful to the ecosystem. 

“Marine turtles play an important role in the West Philippine Sea ecosystem, both as predators and prey,” Baredo explains. “They graze on seagrass, algae, and sponges and help keep these plant populations in check and prevent overgrowth that can negatively affect other marine species. In turn, marine turtles are preyed upon by several predators, such as sharks, sea birds and monitor lizards, which helps keep the balance of the food chain in the ecosystem.”

They are also important cogs in nutrient cycling in the West Philippine Sea by dispersing nutrients throughout the ecosystem, redepositing nutrients on the seafloor, and creating habitats for other marine organisms.

When sea turtles feed, they consume a variety of marine organisms, including algae, seagrasses, and invertebrates. These organisms are rich in nutrients, and when sea turtles defecate, they release these nutrients back into the water. This helps to fertilize the water and promote the growth of other marine organisms.

When sea turtles die, their bodies sink to the seafloor. As they decompose, they release nutrients back into the water. These nutrients can be used by other marine organisms, such as fish and coral reefs.

Sea turtles often nest on sandy beaches. When they do, they create mounds of sand that can provide habitat for other organisms, such as crabs, worms, and insects. These organisms can help to break down organic matter and release nutrients back into the water.

In the end, the future of the sea turtles around Scarborough Shoal is uncertain. The shoal is an important habitat for these animals, but it is also a site of conflict. The Philippines government, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have competing claims to the shoal. This dispute makes it difficult to protect the sea turtles and their habitat.

Still, protecting the Scarborough Shoal’s biodiversity is crucial, given its importance to the marine environment in the West Philippines Sea. Organizations like LAMAVE have a number of ongoing projects such as The Rapid By-catch Assessment project and the Marine Turtle Nesting Beach Monitoring project which involves patrolling nesting beach areas with local community members to deter poaching and safeguard nesting turtles, while also protecting them from natural predators.

The Scarborough Shoal stands as a vital pillar in the West Philippines Sea’s marine ecosystem. It is a testament to the region’s incredible biodiversity, playing host to a plethora of unique species including fish, corals, and the remarkable green sea turtles. Each species, whether it is the economically important yellowfin tuna or the herbivorous green sea turtle, plays a significant role in maintaining the intricate balance of this aquatic ecosystem.

However, this richness is under serious threat and it is our collective responsibility to ensure the protection and preservation of this ecologically important area. The Scarborough Shoal is not just a piece of territory—it is a home for thousands of species, a breeding ground, a source of livelihood for local communities, and a vital cog in the broader ecosystem of the West Philippines Sea and beyond.

Efforts from organizations such as LAMAVE and the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by the Philippine government indicate that steps are being taken towards conservation. However, given the magnitude of the challenges, more extensive and coordinated efforts are needed. The Scarborough Shoal’s dispute further complicates these efforts, and a diplomatic resolution could provide a better platform for effective conservation measures.

Protecting the biodiversity of the Scarborough Shoal isn’t just about saving sea turtles, fish, or coral reefs. It’s about preserving a world beneath the waves that plays a vital role in the planet’s overall health. It’s about safeguarding an ecosystem that fuels economies, feeds millions, and fosters unique, irreplaceable forms of life. This is not just a regional or national task—it is a global one. And it is our moral obligation to protect and preserve the biodiversity of the Scarborough Shoal for generations to come.

WORDS: Marc Landas.

IMAGE CREDIT: mjmasangkay; P.Lindgren; Bernard Dupont; National Marine Sanctuaries; Stefan Hunt; Bernard Spragg.

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