Interview with Dr. Nick Hill, expedition scientist

By Tyler Stiem

Dr. Nick Hill has spent many years working on some of the most beautiful and some of the most degraded coral reefs in the world. Having started his professional life as an ecologist, Nick became increasingly interested in the socioeconomic dimensions of conservation. As a researcher with Project Seahorse, he investigated the livelihoods of people on Danajon Bank. 

Nick now works with the Zoological Society of London, one of Project Seahorse’s key partners, where he manages one of the “good news” projects for Danajon Bank. Net-Works, as the pilot is known, is helping to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic waste by recycling discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles. 

Nick is the lead field scientist on the expedition to Danajon Bank. 

Nick, why do we need to protect coral reefs?

For all the talk in the media about how coral reefs are being destroyed all over the world, what’s sometimes lost is just how incredibly valuable they are. They’re not just beautiful — globally, coral reefs provide US $30 billion every year in coastline protection, food, tourism and other livelihoods. Hundreds of millions of people depend on reefs and other coastal marine ecosystems for their survival!

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, at least 30% of reefs and 40% of other vital coastal habitats have been degraded or destroyed worldwide. In the Caribbean, for example, reef coverage has shrunk from 50% to 5% since the 1960s. The numbers are similar for the Indo-Pacific and other regions. 

Why Danajon Bank?

Simply put, Danajon Bank captures the global story of coral reefs. It’s thought to be a cradle of biodiversity for the Pacific Ocean, meaning that many species may first have evolved here. It’s also economically important. Many, many people depend on it for their survival, so it faces many of the pressures reefs all over the world face. Overfishing, population pressure, destructive fishing practices like blasting, where they use dynamite to catch the fish, and pollution, to list a few examples. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Danajon Bank is one of the most threatened coral reefs in the world. Decades of overfishing and destructive fishing practices have taken their toll. If we don’t scale up protections soon, it really could be too late to save the reef. The challenge, here and all over the world, is striking the balance between human need and ecological protection. 

What is needed to protect Danajon Bank?

In terms of conservation, we need to increase legal protections for Danajon Bank — a marine reserve designation for the entire ecosystem being the goal. 

There are scores of small marine reserves all over the Bank, but a reserve-by-reserve approach offers a limited amount of protection, and depends entirely on the vigilance of the communities that run the reserves. If the whole reef were designated by law as a marine reserve, it would be easier to protect against large-scale exploitation while continuing to regulate local, small-scale fishing.

Can you talk about Project Seahorse’s work in the region?

Project Seahorse has a long history in Danajon Bank. We’ve been doing research and conservation work here for nearly twenty years. We’ve worked closely with local communities to establish 35 marine reserves. Over the years we’ve seen badly overfished areas of the reef slowly recover, which is heartening. Even more heartening is the positive perceptions within local communities and the social capital that has been built through these marine reserves.

Our conservation work is based on robust biological and socioeconomic research. For as long as we’ve been working in Danajon Bank, we’ve been sending our scientists here to study everything from seahorse biology to the impact of seaweed farming, to the effectiveness of marine reserves. Our cutting-edge research informs conservation work in the Philippines and all over the world.

ZSL is working closely with Interface, a company that specializes in sustainable carpet products, on an exciting pilot project that will turn discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles, providing local fishers with income in return. We hope to make some exciting announcments about this project very soon.  

What are your hopes for the expedition? How do you think Expedition: Danajon Bank can make a difference to this threatened reef?

I hope we get some incredible images! 

The problem is that, in spite of its ecological and economic importance, Danajon Bank is barely known within the Philippines, let alone around the world. So, for starters, we need to change that. We need to get the word out. This is the purpose of Expedition: Danajon Bank — to bring some badly needed local, national, and international attention to this badly threatened ecosystem.  

Legal protections are only one part of the equation. We also need to change hearts and minds. There are scores of local communities that are totally committed to protecting the reef, just as there are others that continue to fish here in unsustainable ways. The better people understand the threats and the ecological and economic importance of the reef, the more likely they are to do their part to conserve it.  

I hope, too, that by bringing the story of Danajon Bank to the rest of the Philippines and to the world, we can inspire similar change elsewhere.