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  Battling the Curse of Marine Litter
International Coastal Cleanup Singapore
The Curse of Marine Litter | Situation in Singapore mangroves | What the data tells us | Want to help?

The formidable inheritance in Singapore mangroves
In the late 80s, I worked in the mangroves with a team led by Prof DH "Mangrove" Murphy, plotting vegetation cover, mapping mangroves or searching for strange and new animals. Frequently bypassing the trash lines, we often commented on the extent of the rubbish accumulated over decades. I was reminded of a famous pair of beach-combers in a Lewis-Caroll poem., Prompted by the copious amount of sand on the beach, they discussed,

"If seven maids with seven mops,
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
'That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it, " said the Carpenter
And shed a bitter tear.

The trash line at Kranji
Like the pair, we shook our heads at the spectacle and snorted that the crazy people we had heard of who cleaned beaches should come and try this for size. It turned out to be prophetic. In 1997, Kate Thome, then the ICCS coordinator with the Nature Society (Singapore), had a passion for mangroves. She hunted me down with the help of Subaraj Rajathurai, and in that 6th year of the ICCS, I found myself coordinating the mangrove cleanup. I had only thought I was to be a guide, but the NSS committee that ran the massive beach cleanup was only made up of a few individuals! So I roused current and former biology students from NUS and became one of the crazy ones.

Since the mangrove operation was new, in an attempt to be quantitative, we marked out 10m by 10m quadrats. We had an exciting interlude when Alvin Wong dived into the sea to drown the rain of ants that had showered down from the Sea Hibiscus to chew up his scalp! We plotted just six quadrats at Mandai Kechil in 1997, and two to three people were allocated to each quadrat - it turned out to be very hard work.

A team at work: one member is a data recorder
The 2001 challenge - Kranii mangroves
By 2001, the exercise had enough experienced people in the team to grow to 24 quadrats and three sectors (larger measured areas) in the Kranji-Buloh mangroves. The cleanup had to be run like an army operation, with guides holding appointment titles reflecting the various tasks - a little humourous at times since some held the incongruous title of Trash Weighing I/C.

Careful measurements
for future calculations

It was a truly hectic time. Despite my familiarity with the site from years of research trips, it was the first time students would be brought to this site on a cleanup operation. More than 10 field trips were conducted to recalibrate the map, work out the procedure, plan and try out various routes and points, allocate sites, set up safety ropes for the water crossing, test stream depths and water flow, work out the safety and communications with safety drivers and ham radio operators from the Singapore Amateur Radio Transmitting Society (SARTS) and train guides.

Timothy Pwee, a long-time participant, would later say that with any more planning, he would expect to see helicopters air-lift us out!

Instead, as Kranji site was too far away to haul the heavy trash out, sea scouts from Tao Nan School came to the rescue. They were part of the "wet-ops" team: their canoes and larger craft from Raffles Marina ferried trash bags out to Kranji Reservoir Park.

It was a short wheelbarrow ride from there to the road by a team that included the bunch of primary school scouts from Tao Nan. A team from Altavater Jakob later made several trips to ferry the trash away to the dump site.

Loading up the trash bags on the canoes was hard enough work. This was made all the more interesting when the very thin garbage bags began to break under the weight. This was worsened as we carried them in waist-high water to the boats and canoes by seawater that leaked in. Eventually, we frenziedly double-bagged everything to prevent the entire trash load from breaking out and floating away.

Guess what is on the top of my shopping list for this year's cleanup...

Designated Quadrant 40W

Delivering trash bags to canoes

Loading canoes with trash bags

Loading boats with heavy bags
of trash at Kranji

Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve (SBWR) has run the cleanup in park environs since the second year of the mangrove exercise. Their participation has been spearheaded by Linda Goh, who is now the Acting Park Manager. She participated as a volunteer in the first cleanup at Mandai Kechil in 1997, and brought the programme over to SBWR thereafter. Since the trashlines are mostly outside the park boundary, SBWR staff help by coordinating the areas adjacent to the park as well, provide support during planning and operations and a base station for the entire mangrove operation.
Last year, the mangrove participants had a pleasant surprise. DOW Chemical provided sponsorship through NSS, and hungry kids after the cleanup devoured pizza after their tiring day.

Additionally, all the school children at beach cleanup sites were provided with heavy duty gloves. This was certainly greatly appreciated. On beaches, volunteers have to keep a lookout for needles that are sometimes found in the sand. The gloves were washed and recycled, so will last for some years at least.

Washing gloves for future use

Collecting and summarising the data in record time
As the students streamed in after the exercise for a wash down, data fact sheets were submitted to Airani Ramli, stationed at the Visitor Centre. She collated all the data on a notebook computer, summarised and posted it all up on the Internet the same day. Kate Thome was overjoyed and met the guides just as they finished transporting the last of the trash bags for pickup.  

Reporting in data to the data manager
Digital photos went up the web within days and we also received the beach data quickly. Within two days, we were able to collate about 90% of the data for submission - a new record.

Missing the point
When I cycled down to the East Coast during the beach cleanup, many students whom I talked to, working in some little bays, had no idea that they were part of a larger effort, locally and internationally. They were unaware of the results of the previous years, how the data would be used, or that Singapore still had marine life like turtles, dugongs, and dolphins offshore. They listened with mouths agape as they heard the stories, and in my mind I realised what we would have to address the following year - disseminating the stories about the cleanup, how data is used and the wonder of our marine life to school children who participate. We managed to provide for that for most of the mangrove participants, but with more than 1,200 beach participants, it will be a challenge.

We are thus looking to train volunteers for this aspect - being a school contact means you tell stories to the students about the cleanup and marine life before the exercise, work with them at the beach sites, collect their data cards and keep them informed of the results. join us, and like me, you will get to rub shoulders with a truly inspiring group of people - the reward I have found of working on this project.


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