By Kyle Gillespie
Something exciting happens when the sun goes down in the central Philippines. I'm not talking about the karaoke bars or the evening basketball games. Shortly after dusk, the reefs become flooded with fantastic and exotic creatures. It starts as a trickle.
As the last rays of sunshine disappear below the horizon a few crabs scurry from out of crevices. The trickle quickly becomes a torrent as basket stars unfurl their arms, snails with shells the size of grapefruit begin to hunt, and squid and octopus dance past flashing brilliant colours and patterns. The parade of creatures lasts until dawn and this past summer I had front rows seats here in at the epicentre of ocean biodiversity.
It's hard to believe that fish represent only about 5% of all the animals on coral reefs while an astonishing 95% of reef biodiversity is made up of spineless creatures, or invertebrates. And they are absolutely fascinating: Cuttlefish are intelligent, vicious hunters; decorator crabs wear elaborate costumes and tube worms use intricate, umbrella-like structures to filter food from the water. In many regions of the Philippines they make up a quarter to a half of fisher catch, sold to local and distant markets or consumed as important protein source for fishers and their families.
In spite of their importance to humans, invertebrates are nearly always overlooked in marine ecological and conservation science. We do know that they are vitally important for the proper functioning of marine ecosystems, but when it comes to how they structure our oceans and how we can best conserve them, there are many more questions than there are answers.
As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I’m trying to answer some of these questions so we can better tailor our conservation programmes to the reality of marine ecosystems and the fisheries that depend on them. Only by taking a holistic approach, one that takes invertebrates as well as fish into account, can we develop truly effective conservation solutions to some of conservation’s most intractable problems.
In 2013, for the fieldwork component of my research, I traveled from Vancouver to Danajon Bank in the central Philippines where Project Seahorse has worked for the past two decades. If you’ve been following our work, you might already know that this 130-km double-barrier reef off the north coast of Bohol Province is considered by scientists to be the cradle of marine biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean. Many species found all over the Pacific are thought to have first evolved here. During our time here, Project Seahorse has helped establish 35 community-run marine protected areas (MPAs) on Danajon Bank.
For four months I dived every night inside and outside of these MPAs, spoke with fishers about the importance of invertebrates to their livelihoods, and assessed how well managed and enforced the reserves are. During my field season, I was able to see many different and fascinating creatures, and spend time with some of the warmest people I have ever met.
Over the next few months I’ll be blogging in this space about some of these incredible invertebrates, their roles in marine ecosystems, and their importance to small fishing communities. Stay tuned!