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Diversity and Distribution of Marine Mammals in Tun Mustapha Park, Kudat, Sabah, During the Tun Mustapha Park Scientific Expedition 2017

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A 7-day survey for marine mammals in Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), Kudat, Sabah, was held 11-17 May 2017 during the Tun Mustapha Park Scientific Expedition 2017. Search effort totaled 27.3 hours and 424.9 km, and yielded a total of four sightings across three genera and three species of cetaceans. These were Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) (n = 2 sightings), Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) (n = 1 sighting) and Indo-Pacific finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides) (n = 1 sighting). Dugongs were not sighted, despite their known presence around Pulau Banggi and Pulau Balambangan. The encounter rates of sightings for all species sighted were low. Most of the cetacean groups that were sighted exhibited evasive behaviour. The sighting of humpback dolphins during this survey confirms the presence of this species in TMP where it had not been previously reported. Other marine megafauna that were sighted are green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), mobulid rays (Mobula spp.) and a marlin (Family Istiophoridae). The paucity of marine mammals within TMP are likely due to a combination of impacts from anthropogenic activities (e.g., overfishing, fish bombing) in the many years prior to the gazettement of TMP. However, with TMP now gazetted, there is hope and opportunity for marine mammal populations to recover over time.
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Sabah Parks Nature Journal Vol. 11 (2018) 35 - 46
Diversity and Distribution of Marine Mammals in
Tun Mustapha Park, Kudat, Sabah, During the Tun
Mustapha Park Scientific Expedition 2017
Ponnampalam, L. S.*1, Kuit, S. H.1,2 and Ng, J. E.1
1The MareCet Research Organization, 40460 Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia
2Institute of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia
*Corresponding author: louisa.ponnampalam@gmail.com
Summary. A 7-day survey for marine mammals in Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), Kudat, Sabah, was held
11 17 May 2017 during the Tun Mustapha Park Scientific Expedition 2017. Search effort totaled 27.3
hours and 424.9 km, and yielded a total of four sightings across three genera and three species of
cetaceans. These were Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) (n = 2 sightings), Indo-
Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) (n = 1 sighting) and Indo-Pacific finless porpoises
(Neophocaena phocaenoides) (n = 1 sighting). Dugongs were not sighted, despite their known presence
around Pulau Banggi and Pulau Balambangan. The encounter rates of sightings for all species sighted
were low. Most of the cetacean groups that were sighted exhibited evasive behaviour. The sighting of
humpback dolphins during this survey confirms the presence of this species in TMP where it had not
been previously reported. Other marine megafauna that were sighted are green sea turtles (Chelonia
mydas), mobulid rays (Mobula spp.) and a marlin (Family Istiophoridae). The paucity of marine
mammals within TMP are likely due to a combination of impacts from anthropogenic activities (e.g.,
overfishing, fish bombing) in the many years prior to the gazettement of TMP. However, with TMP
now gazetted, there is hope and opportunity for marine mammal populations to recover over time.
INTRODUCTION
Tun Mustapha Park (TMP) is Malaysia’s largest marine park to date, located at the northern tip of
Sabah. It was gazetted on 19 May 2016 as a multi-use and conservation area, and has an area of
898,762.76 hectares, an expanse covering more than 50 islands and islets located across Kudat, Pitas
and Kota Marudu districts. The TMP is also part of the Kudat-Banggi Priority Conservation Area within
the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion and the Coral Triangle (Jumin et al. 2017), being one of the top
priority sites for the latter (Beger et al. 2015). To date, information on the occurrence and distribution
of marine mammals within TMP and its adjacent waters in northern Sabah remain scattered and scant,
deriving mainly from anecdotal reports and a handful of sighting and stranding records in published
and grey literature (Beasley & Jefferson. 1997; Dolar et al. 1997; Jaaman et al. 2000; Jaaman & Lah-
Ponnampalam, L. S., Kuit, S. H. and Ng, J. E.
36
Anyi. 2003; Jaaman. 2004; Rajamani. 2009; Ponnampalam. 2012; Porter. 2013). Notarbartolo di Sciara
et al. (2016) stated that place-based conservation approaches can serve as effective tools for the
protection of marine mammal populations that are threatened. As such, the existence of TMP now is
not only a boost for the conservation of the marine resources in the area, but also for charismatic
megafauna such as sea turtles and marine mammals which are totally protected by law under the
Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997. In addition, the presence of marine mammals in an area is a
suitable indicator for ecosystem recovery as these animals are sentinels of ocean health, being at the top
of the marine food web (Bossart. 2011). In April May 2017, the Board of Trustees of the Sabah Parks
(hereafter referred as Sabah Parks) organized a scientific expedition with the main aim of recording and
creating an inventory of the biodiversity found within TMP, assess their statuses for conservation as
well as to assess their potential for economic development for the local communities. The outcomes of
the expedition were intended to assist Sabah Parks with better conservation and management of TMP.
In view of the Park now gazetted, it was therefore valuable to collect data on the presence and
distribution of marine mammals in TMP, which can serve as baseline for future monitoring of
disturbances and/or trends in their occurrences, data of which will subsequently inform management
and conservation action and/or management review exercises. This paper reports the findings of a week-
long boat-based survey of marine mammals in TMP during the Tun Mustapha Park Scientific
Expedition 2017 and includes sightings of other marine megafauna that were sighted incidentally.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Boat-based surveys were conducted on 11 17 May 2017 during the Tun Mustapha Park Scientific
Expedition 2017 organised by Sabah Parks. As the survey duration was brief and was the first of its
kind within TMP since its gazettement in 2016, distributional line transects surveys to document species
occurrence and encounter rates were conducted using zigzag pattern transect lines to optimize area
coverage and survey effort (Figure 1). Observations for marine mammals were made mostly from 0730
to 1300 hours from the 8-m long vessel, FRIGATE 8, and in sea states of 3 or less on the Beaufort scale.
The boat travelled on the pre-determined transect lines at a speed of not more than 17 km per hour. Two
primary observers scanned the area forward of the bow to 90˚ port and starboard sides respectively for
marine mammals by alternating between using Nikon 7х50 CF WP binoculars and unaided eyes. When
a sighting cue was detected, a Global Positioning System (GPS) waypoint was immediately recorded
using a handheld Garmin GPSMAP 78SC unit before the observers left the transect line to approach
the dolphin group to identify the species, its group size and composition, behaviour, presence of human
activities, and to take photographs of the group and of the left and right sides of the dorsal fins of
individual dolphins (for future work on abundance estimation and movement using mark-recapture via
photo-identification). Environmental parameters such as water salinity, sea surface temperature, pH and
dissolved oxygen were recorded at the start and end of each transect line and at the location of each
sighting using a YSI 556 MPS Multiparameter Instrument while water depth was measured using a
handheld depth sounder. Weather conditions were also recorded at the start and end of each transect
line or when it changed while a transect line was underway. A log of activity and effort was kept during
each day’s survey in order to be able to distinguish between the times spent ‘on effort’ searching for
cetaceans and times spent ‘off effort’ during other activities such as sampling stations or other breaks,
moving in transit above search speed or observing and photographing a group of cetaceans. The
presence of other marine megafauna such as sea turtles or large rays was recorded when sighted.
Although four sets of transect lines were planned, this survey only managed to achieve partial
Diversity and Distribution of Marine Mammals in Tun Mustapha Park, Kudat, Sabah, During the Tun Mustapha
Park Scientific Expedition 2017
completion of each set due to a combination of poor weather days, limited time due to distance from
the base camp in Kudat to the start of most of the transect lines, and security restrictions in certain parts
of TMP’s waters.
RESULTS
A total of 27.3 hours and 424.9 km was spent ‘on effort’ searching for marine mammals in the Tun
Mustapha Park between 11 and 17 May 2017. The breakdown of survey effort according to sea state is
presented in Table 1. The survey yielded a total of four sightings across three genera and species,
comprising Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) (n = 2; Encounter rate = 0.47 groups
per 100 km, 0.07 groups per hour), Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) (n = 1; Encounter
rate = 0.23 groups per 100 km, 0.04 groups per hour) and Indo-Pacific finless porpoises (Neophocaena
phocaenoides) (n = 1; Encounter rate = 0.23 groups per 100 km, 0.04 groups per hour) (Figure 1, Table
2). The bottlenose dolphins were sighted in deeper (> 30 m) blue water away from the coast off the
northeast and west of Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, the pair of finless porpoises were sighted close to
the mangrove coast at Tanjung Layak Layak, while the pair of adult and sub-adult humpback dolphins
were sighted in the southwest of Pulau Mandi Darah (Figure 1). The first group of 52 bottlenose
dolphins that were sighted were traveling in a tight group but were largely evasive, whereas the second
group of three bottlenose dolphins sighted were likely to be foraging as the animals were observed
following behind trawlers. The sighting of the finless porpoises was too brief to determine their
behaviour, while the humpback dolphins were observed to be foraging when first sighted but eventually
became evasive of the research vessel, resulting in the animals moving away from Pulau Mandi Darah
toward the eastern coast of the TMP. Other megafauna sightings recorded during the survey were green
sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) (n = 6; 1 mating pair), mobulid rays (Mobula spp.) (n = 2) and a marlin
(Family Istiophoridae) (n = 1) (Figure 2).
DISCUSSION
Only cetaceans were encountered during this brief survey of the TMP Scientific Expedition 2017. The
species diversity and encounter rates were low, despite considerably large and varied areas of TMP that
were searched. Dugongs (Dugong dugon) were not sighted on this survey, despite their known presence
and that of seagrass within TMP, especially around Pulau Banggi (Jaaman & Lah-Anyi. 2003;
Rajamani. 2009; Rajamani & Marsh. 2015; Ponnampalam, unpublished data). Comprehensive and/or
systematic line transect baseline data on marine mammal occurrence and distribution starting from 2003
when the Sabah Government first approved the intention to gazette TMP (Jumin et al. 2017) seems
largely unavailable, with the exception of the one-off survey by Dolar et al. (1997). Rather, most
previous in-depth studies have either been species-specific (e.g., Rajamani. 2009) or not largely based
on at-sea surveys (e.g., Jaaman 2004; Jaaman & Lah-Anyi. 2003; Jaaman et al. 2008, 2009). As such,
it is difficult to make a comparison on species occurrences and encounter rates in TMP between pre-
and post-gazettement periods. Nonetheless, Jaaman et al. (2009) reported that most fishermen who were
interviewed in Sabah claimed that the number of marine mammals had declined significantly over the
years. In addition, the survey by Dolar et al. (1997) did not yield any sightings of marine mammals
within the boundaries of the present day TMP while a survey by Porter (2013) in the same area yielded
only one sighting of a mixed group of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and spinner dolphins (Stenella
Ponnampalam, L. S., Kuit, S. H. and Ng, J. E.
38
longirostris). Combined with this survey here, it is likely that marine mammals within TMP are not
abundant or commonly present, and the low encounter rates we observed are less likely linked to
unfavourable sighting conditions, i.e., sea state, as most search effort were made in sea states of 1 and
2 on the Beaufort Scale (Table 1).
Prior to its gazettement as a marine park, research showed that the area had undergone years of
exploitation of its fisheries resources (e.g., Teh et al. 2005; Teh & Sumaila. 2007) and that fish bombing
was and still is a widespread method of destructive fishing that is practiced by local fishers (Chou. 1998;
Praveena et al. 2012). It is likely that the combination of continuous impacts and threats from
anthropogenic activities such as intensive commercial fishing, high reliance of coastal communities on
marine resources and fish bombing over the years in pre-gazettement TMP are contributing factors to
the paucity of marine mammal presence within present day TMP. Studies on common dolphins
(Delphinus delphis) in the central Mediterranean revealed that a decline in the population was most
likely linked to overexploitation of their prey (Bearzi et al. 2006, 2008). In the waters surrounding Phu
Quoc Island, Vietnam, where fisheries activities have been intense for years (see Smith et al. 1997),
systematic line transect surveys in 2015 yielded just one sighting of cetaceans (Ponnampalam, pers.
obs.), similar to the paucity of sightings observed almost a decade before by Smith et al. (1997). Fish
bombing remains a major conservation threat to Sabah’s coastal marine ecosystems and biodiversity
throughout its waters (Jakobsen et al. 2007; Reef Check Malaysia. 2016), and marine mammals within
TMP are no exception to the exposure of this threat. As marine mammals rely heavily on sound to
communicate, navigate and hunt prey, the loud sounds resulting from fish bombings have the ability to
interfere or damage the animals’ audio-sensory organs, leaving the animals exposed to greater risk of
untimely mortality. There is evidence that the loud shock waves from a fish bomb can cause brain
damage and other internal haemorrhaging in marine mammals by way of sudden increases in
cerebrospinal fluid pressure (Ketten. 1995). Pacini et al. (2016) found that fish bombing activities had
caused hearing loss in two species of cetaceans that had stranded in the Philippines due to the said
destructive fishing method. In Tanzania, where blast fishing was recently discovered to be widespread
along the country’s coastline, scientists expressed that the impacts are highly likely to be substantial for
its populations of endangered coastal cetaceans (Braulik et al. 2015). An amalgamation of overfishing
and impacts of underwater noise pollution and blasts presents a high likelihood of causing marine
mammals to move out of the area, which may also explain the low encounter rates of marine mammals
within the TMP. Additionally, the evasive behaviour of the dolphins observed during this survey, and
similarly reported in Porter (2013) are possible indicators of the resultant impacts of long-term
anthropogenic activities (including intensive fisheries resulting in bycatch) in the area.
In terms of species diversity, the likely reasons for not sighting dugongs during the survey here are a
combination of the species’ inconspicuous behaviour, low density, and occurrence mainly around the
nearshore coasts of Pulau Banggi and Pulau Balambangan (Rajamani. 2009; Jumin et al. 2012) where
we did not spend much survey effort in its nearshore areas (Banggi) and did not survey (Balambangan)
(Figure 1). Dugongs are confirmed to still be present within TMP waters, based on a confirmed third
party report (supported by video) of a live stranding of a dugong at Pulau Tigabu in early 2017 which
the first author (LSP) had received from a local non-governmental organization. That dugong, which
looked healthy, was successfully released back to the sea (Ponnampalam, pers. obs.). Minton et al.
(2016) reported an apparent absence of humpback dolphins in Kudat based on the findings of Dolar et
al. (1997) and Porter (2013), however the sighting of that species during this survey confirms its
presence within TMP waters. Additionally, humpback dolphins were reported by Jaaman et al. (2009)
Diversity and Distribution of Marine Mammals in Tun Mustapha Park, Kudat, Sabah, During the Tun Mustapha
Park Scientific Expedition 2017
to be one of the most commonly reported species by fishers in the ‘northeastern region’ in Sabah
(defined as Sandakan, Beluran, Pitas, Kota Marudu and Kudat, of which the latter three falls within
TMP), but did not provide specific place names of those sightings. Historically, there was a sighting
record of humpback dolphins near Pulau Jambongan, approximately 40 km south of Pulau Malawali
and just outside the southeastern-most boundary of the TMP (Beasley & Jefferson. 1997; Dolar et al.
1997). It appears that, through a combination of literature and sighting and stranding records found in
online sources (i.e., news and social media) that are supported by photographic or video evidence, TMP
and its adjacent waters host a considerable diversity of other cetaceans comprising Irrawaddy dolphins
(Orcaella brevirostris), rough-toothed dolphins (Steno bredanensis), spinner dolphins, false killer
whales (Pseudorca crassidens), short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), pygmy killer
whales (Feresa attenuata), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius
cavirostris), blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and Bryde’s whale (B. edeni) (Jaaman et al. 2000,
2009; Ponnampalam. 2012; Porter. 2013; Ponnampalam, pers. obs.). Other deep-water species such as
Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus), dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima), Fraser’s dolphins
(Lagenodelphis hosei) and pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) have been recorded from
the adjacent waters around the continental slope of the southern Sulu Sea in the Philippines, a short
distance east of TMP’s eastern boundary (Dolar et al. 1997). As most of the TMP is contained within
waters measuring less than 100 m water depth and the water depths drop significantly just outside
TMP’s boundaries, it is another consideration factor in the low species diversity of cetacean sightings
inside TMP, in view of many of the confirmed sighting and stranding records being of deep and open
water species.
As TMP develops into a mature marine park over the next few years, it would be important to keep
monitoring the presence of marine mammals. Being large in size and at the top of the marine food web,
marine mammals are obvious indicators of the health of the area and/or changes to the environment
(Bossart 2011). Future surveys on marine mammals in TMP should include not only boat-based visual
surveys, but incorporate acoustic surveys to detect animals acoustically as well as to understand the
impacts of underwater noise, especially that of fish bombs, to those animals (e.g., Baumann-Pickering
et al. 2013). Capacity building for community-based research on dugongs and feeding trails around
known dugong areas in the TMP will be valuable in the regular monitoring of the said elusive species.
While marine mammals in the TMP are likely impacted by the years of anthropogenic activities and
exploitation of marine resources in the area, the presence of TMP now provides hope that their
populations can recover over time (Notarbartolo di Sciara. 2016).
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We would like to express our immense appreciation to Sabah Parks for extending the invitation for us
to participate in the TMP Expedition 2017. Thank you to the Expedition Secretariat for all their
logistical assistance. It was a great pleasure having Captain Nik as our survey skipper and we thank
him. Our gratitude also extends to Mr Daren and Ms Veron of Sabah Parks for their help throughout
our survey. Appreciation goes to Fairul Jamal for providing valuable feedback to improve this
manuscript.
Ponnampalam, L. S., Kuit, S. H. and Ng, J. E.
40
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Diversity and Distribution of Marine Mammals in Tun Mustapha Park, Kudat, Sabah, During the Tun Mustapha
Park Scientific Expedition 2017
Figures
Figure 1. Survey track lines where search effort was expanded and distribution of marine mammal
sightings observed during the TMP Expedition 2017, 11 17 May 2017
Figure 2. Survey track lines where search effort was expanded and distribution of other megafauna
sightings observed during the TMP Expedition 2017, 11 17 May 2017
Ponnampalam, L. S., Kuit, S. H. and Ng, J. E.
44
Tables
Table 1. Survey effort according to sea states during the TMP Expedition 2017, 11 17 May 2017
SEA STATE (BEAUFORT SCALE)
SURVEY EFFORT (KM)
0
0.0
1
84.3
2
212.2
3
128.4
TOTAL EFFORT
424.9
Table 2. Details of marine mammal sightings recorded during the TMP Expedition 2017, 11 17 May
2017
DATE
TIME
SIGHTED
GROUP
SIZE
WATER
DEPTH
(M)
SEA SURFACE
TEMPERATURE
(°C)
SALINITY
(PPT)
13/05/2017
11:06
52
43.5
25.9
34.6
16/05/2017
11:05
2
7.7
26.3
34.4
16/05/2017
11:51
2
21.6
26.2
34.1
17/05/2017
11:07
3
39.8
26.4
32.5
... While there has been a great deal of research done on the living marine resources within the waters of Sabah, particularly in the field of coral reef ecosystems (Kassem et al., 2012;Montagne et al., 2013;Ponnampalam et al., 2018;Waheed et al., 2015), there is still a dearth of data concerning jellyfishes in particular, despite these organisms receiving ever greater attention in the public eye due to the occurrence of blooming events during the period between March and July (Sim et al., 2019, pers. obs.). ...
Article
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