Our Projects

COVID-19 and Research Fieldwork: Marine Research Foundation (MRF)


Under its Environment pillar, Yayasan Sime Darby’s partnerships with Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), Marine Research Foundation (MRF) and PONGO Alliance are aligned with its aim to support world-class scientific research to translate results into action, while developing highly skilled local scientists, researchers and custodians. However, pandemic restrictions have caused challenges such as dwindling research and travel funds, stresses of working from home and also upended researchers’ data collection activities.

To understand the key challenges and opportunities faced by researchers involved in fieldwork in these pandemic times, YSD interviewed MRF Founder and Executive Director Dr. Nicolas J. Pilcher.

Dr Pilcher (left) started the TED programme in 2007 with fishermen in Sabah. In this pre-pandemic photo, he works with a fisher representative from Kudat to build a TED.

What are some of the highlights of your partnership with YSD in the financial year 20/21?

MRF has been in an enviable position of being able to complete a substantial portion of our planned activities since July 2020, as a large part of the project component did not really entail taking the fishermen away from their jobs and further impacting their livelihoods. Even with COVID-19 travel restrictions, we have been able to get out and service the time-lapse cameras that we are using to document bycatch events around Sabah, that will be used to develop fishery management measures.

Unfortunately, our work with Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) had to take a back seat for the time being as fishers slowly get their lives back on track following the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns. We felt it would be improper to make demands on them that might impact their livelihoods at such a delicate time. Luckily YSD has been very understanding of the need to reschedule some of our activities due to the pandemic, and we have been making plans to get the TED back on track as soon as we can. Our workshop planned at the end of April in Sabah, represented our ‘getting back to normal’ turning point.

What were the challenges you face in the field before COVID-19?

The largest challenge is probably getting the Government’s buy-in to the work we do, and the reasons we do it. As a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) we walk along a very delicate path. We want to help the Government and the people of Malaysia achieve a better life via sustainable fisheries. But the very concept of sustainable fisheries and active management and monitoring of fisheries activities have been hard to get across to our Government counterparts. Not so much at the individual or personal level, but at the organisational and National programme implementation level. A way to think of this is every new programme we devise can be seen as an added workload and responsibility for our Government counterparts, who are already working with limited budgets and heavy workloads. But our vision for a better and brighter future is the right thing, we know this, and so we continue to push our agenda and do our best to get the Government agencies to come on board.

How has the pandemic changed the obstacles you face as a wildlife conservation researcher working on the ground?

There have been some challenges to be sure. We have been limited in our ability to get out into the field, and a lot of our work entails working with large groups of fishers at the same time, so we have had to put these activities on hold during the pandemic. Because we have not been able to run our usual training and demonstration workshops, we have had limited contact time with Government officials who otherwise would have been championing the cause for sustainable fisheries when they return to the office.

We have also had limited opportunity to meet with senior officials at the State and Federal Departments of Fisheries given the travel restrictions and the work-from-home orders, and if we do not get leadership support, our efforts on the ground are less effective.

What are the changes in strategies you employed to navigate the challenges brought about by the pandemic?

Strategy number one was a shift in focus from the TED work to the time-lapse camera work, as this did not require interaction with large groups of fishers. We were also forced to limit our activities to a few ports in the early months when inter-district travel was prohibited. We set up meetings with our Government counterparts to delay some of our work and come up with alternative plans for project implementation.

At the end of the day, we think that the pandemic has set us back by an entire year, and in the coming years, we will be increasing our workload to compensate for the decrease in activities during the pandemic. Another strategy was to focus our time on developing materials that could be used once the pandemic limitations were lifted and expanding our network of contacts and donors in anticipation of better days to come.

Have there been any silver linings for field researchers during these uncertain times?

Speaking for ourselves here at MRF, we have become closer as a team, and learnt to adapt to new work styles as well as limitations. I think this has taught us a lot about how we used to do things and how we might be doing it in future. It has taught us a lot about the value of human contact, so future events will be designed to be far more meaningful and productive. We found that being a small team we were able to return to work earlier than many of our peers and could undertake fieldwork that others might not have been able to do.

Indeed, we have had many comments from people who were amazed at the amount of work we were still able to do during the pandemic. But I think for myself, maybe more so than the rest of the team, it has given me some time to sit back, plan and strategise better than I did in the past. I found during pre-pandemic days that I spent much of my time reacting to the world around me, while now I have found that I have time to plan for the future, develop some long-term ideas and work on MRF’s resilience towards uncertain times such as these.

Despite all the tough challenges, what keeps you motivated to carry out your work with MRF?

My motivation comes from my family, my MRF team, and the goal of seeing Malaysia embrace sustainable fisheries and protect endangered species in the process. I would imagine that many people go through life doing the same old job day after day and get to the end of it all and wonder what changed. In my case, this is the farthest thing from my thoughts. Each day I see my team grow in ability, thinking, philosophies, and character. I see us increasingly better at influencing policy. Imagine a small NGO like ours made TEDs come true in four Malaysian states already, saving hundreds of sea turtles every year. That is what drives me: the ability to know first-hand that we are having a positive impact.

What are a few of your favourite facts/attributes about the sea turtle and why is it important to protect the species?

Possibly the best way to explain my love for sea turtles is how I came to work with them in the first place: I was working alone on a beach some thirty years ago when a turtle came up to lay eggs. Keeping quiet to a side I waited, but she abandoned several nests in a row. Creeping up behind her I found she was missing a rear flipper and could not construct the nests, so I reached it with my hand and became that ’second flipper’. She would dig, then so would I, over and over again until she finally laid eggs. Three more times that year she emerged to lay eggs, and each time I was waiting on the beach for her to help be that second back flipper. Two years later, she was back again, and so was I.

To this day I am a sea turtle person, and I will do what I can to save them. Turtles are unique marine animals: every question we answer leads to ten new ones, and to think that they have been on this planet since the days of the dinosaurs, and survive to this day, means evolution has left them perfectly adapted to surviving in the natural world - until mankind came along, that is. I see my role as being that of making sure the impacts of mankind are lessened to where turtles can continue to play the meaningful ecological roles for which evolution has predisposed them.

What progress do you hope to see made in marine conservation as the world recovers from the pandemic?

I think there are going to be some major changes in the world as we recover from the pandemic. Just as we are seeing the discussions on racial equality, and gender equality, and globally become more accepting of climate and its impacts, I think the marine world will also see areas of optimism. Marine plastics is already one of these: The world has woken up to the impacts of micro plastics, of the impacts these have on marine life, and of the need for change. If we can address plastics, and promoting more sustainable fishing practices, and supporting our local fishers and fishery agencies in this goal, then I think the oceans have a very blue future indeed.

Dr Pilcher (top left) leading a virtual discussion on "Assessing the Risk of Turtle Extinction in the Pacific to Inform Regional Conservation Approaches” on behalf of the Pacific Island nations in November 2020.

MRF project coordinator Liyana Izwin Khalid assisting fishermen to install TEDs into trawl nets in Kota Kinabalu.

(Pre-pandemic photo) Liyana (far right) attaching an underwater camera system at the back of a TED to record how the TED works underwater.

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Last Updated:
27 Aug 2021
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