Seahorses by night with lantern fishers

By Tyler Stiem

Every night, local fishers paddle their tiny outrigger boats from Jandayan Island, on a remote part of Danajon Bank. With only the glow of a lantern to illuminate their way, they slip into the black water in search of seahorses and other small fishes. If they’re lucky, a night’s work will yield a single seahorse among their catch, which they’ll sell to traders.

Expedition photographers Thomas Peschak and Luciano Candisani spent two nights with a lantern fisher, documenting a traditional local technique of catching seahorses and other small fishes in the dark waters above the reef.  Seahorses are skittish, so lantern fishing requires patience and skill. Using a pair of kerosene lanterns fixed to the prow of their boats, the fishers get just enough light to find their quarry without scaring them into hiding among the corals.

On this night, after a few hours’ search, the fisher discovers a tiger-tail seahorse on a holdfast. In the lantern-light, it glows bright yellow against the brown and olive green corals. For tonight, at least, the seahorse is safe. The fisher has agreed not to catch the animal. The photographers take a few photos, careful not to disturb the seahorse, and they follow the fisher on his search for other prey.  

A few seahorse colonies are thriving in marine reserves created by local communities in collaboration with Project Seahorse, but they are heavily overfished. It used to be that lantern fishers could make a good living catching only seahorses. As recently as the 1970s and 80s, they caught scores of seahorses in a single night, sometimes more. 

That would be difficult to imagine today. Dwindling populations of seahorses and other reef fish on Danajon Bank mean that lantern fishers must fish for whatever they can catch — on this particular night, the fisher’s entire haul consists of a few small squid. 

Still, seahorses are in important supplement to their income. Fishers can sell their catch for about $1 per animal, or the equivalent of a kilogram of rice — a significant amount of money in this impoverished region of central Philippines. The seahorses end up on display in aquariums, as dried specimens in traditional Chinese medicine, and as curio souvenirs for tourists around the world. 

Though seahorse fishing is illegal in the Philippines, small-scale fishers here and in other developing countries contribute to the global wild seahorse trade, which exceeds over 15 million animals per year. 

Rather than pushing to ban seahorse fishing outright — which has the effect of driving the practice further and further underground, making it impossible to know its extent — Project Seahorse is working with fishers, traders, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to make the trade sustainable

Watch this space for more stories and early photos from the expedition, and stay tuned for news about our upcoming Expedition: Danajon Bank exhibits.