A fresh start in the Philippines

By James Hehre

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Sitting on the bow of the outrigger canoe I can feel the staccato thump of the engine through the hull as it skims across the water toward a small island in the distance. From here you can only see a thin green line of mangroves on the horizon. It’s a perfect day, warm and cloudless.

Long ago these islands in the central Philippines must have been paradise. I wonder what they would have looked like to the very first people who settled here. At first glance from a distance everything looks so pristine, but that’s an illusion. To really understand what is going on you have to look under the water, and that’s why I’m here.

I should start by saying that to the best of my knowledge there is no history of mental illness in my family. I say this because my decision to quit my job at the age of 40 and move myself, my wife, and brand new baby to another country to pursue a PhD in Conservation Biology has been characterized by some within my circle of friends and family as less than sane. 

After more than a decade in the ecotourism business, I wanted to DO something. Something that would make a difference. Something, ideally, that would illuminate how one small piece of the world works and help people to protect the environment.

The project I chose involves trying to figure out whether seaweed farming has an impact on the coral ecosystems that form an important part of coastal marine habitats. If it does, can the impact of seaweed farming be measured? I want to know whether seaweed farming creates new habitat for fish, and can therefore help the environment, or whether it damages the environment by killing corals. 

Seaweed farming is a major global industry that is growing incredibly fast. Yet most people are unaware that seaweed is even farmed at all.  Seaweed is used in too many consumer products to count: everything from food and diet soda, to make-up and toothpaste, to industrial lubricants and medicine. The list goes on and on.

Seaweed farming a big deal in the Philippines, where my project is based. The shallow coral reefs that surround the hundreds of islands in the Central Visayas are ideal for growing just the right type of seaweed for export, which is why this region is one of the biggest producers on the world. As fish and other sealife have begun to disappear, thanks to overfishing and pollution, more and more families rely on seaweed farms to earn a living. The problem is that nobody really knows what all of this farming will do to the reef ecosystems. Over the next few years that’s exactly what I’m going to try to figure out.

So here I am, sitting in the prow of a canoe, halfway around the world from home, wondering how I’m going to pull this off. I’m feeling some pressure to succeed, for the sake of my wife and baby, for my advisor who believed me when I said that I could do this, and for my own sake. I’ve done my homework and I have a plan.  Yet a part of me can’t help but think that maybe I am a little crazy.

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. You can follow his ongoing adventures in the Philippines on this blog.