An ocean full of dragons and mermaids

By Jennifer Selgrath

Phoenix by Sonja Cox

Phoenix by Sonja Cox

Dragon by Sonja Cox

Dragon by Sonja Cox

Historical map makers – who worked before the world was fully explored – drew dragons and mermaids at the edges of the known world. Today these mythical creatures have vanished from our maps; the world has been mapped by waves of explorers, surveys, and satellites. We have grown incredibly precise at mapping features as diverse as ocean temperatures, aquifers, and ocean habitats. Yet much remains unknown. We need other methods to map features and human activities that are too small or too ephemeral to be measured by current technology.

In conservation, maps of human activities, such as fishing, and of ecological features, such as habitats, can provide a clearer understanding of where and how humans affect ecosystems and species. Maps that document changes in activities over time can therefore provide a strong foundation for understanding modern-day ecosystems, and the distribution of species and habitats that those ecosystems contain. There has been a growing effort to map fisheries, with most of the success being focused on mapping industrial fisheries that use large, highly mechanized fishing gears. 

For small-scale fisheries, there are relatively few maps documenting where people fish and how that has changed over time. These fisheries – generally characterized by small boats and basic technologies – tend to be poor, marginalized, and often are found in developing countries with relatively small budgets for conservation and management. However, understanding the history of these fisheries is incredibly important because globally they provide an important source of protein and livelihoods for half a billion people. We can learn from the effects of fishing in the past how to better manage fisheries in the future. I like to think of oceans with undocumented fisheries as oceans full of dragons and mermaids – realms that are just waiting to be mapped.  

So I set out to find small-scale fishers and to map where they went, how often they fished there, and what kinds of fishing practices they used. Did they fish with nets or traps? Dynamite or diving? Did they fish in the same places for decades or change where they fished over time? What habitats were located in their fishing grounds?  Corals? Seagrasses? And ever so many more questions about perception and use of the ocean…

Making maps with fishers is tricky – though the reasons seem to vary in different places. In the rural Philippines, where I work, people use maps only rarely. (I’ve written about how hard it was to even find accurate maps of village locations). Most fishing villages I visited boasted a single map of their streets that was hand painted on a wooden board. However, people rarely worked with maps in an interactive way. So before asking fishers to make maps, we needed to provide some lessons in mapping. 

Training fishers and then drawing fishing maps with them was a process that I undertook with a team of local research assistants. We worked with maps that incorporated SPOT-5 satellite images. After scouring the malls of Cebu City to find a large format printer and laminator, I superglued these laminated maps to thin art canvases with hard backs. Flat surfaces were rare in these villages – tables were built from the large round bamboo stalks that Bohol is famous for – so the maps had to serve as a flat surface and base-map at the same time. We placed tracing paper over the base-map when we drew fishing grounds. From the satellite image it was possible to see natural features in the shallow reef areas – grooves and spurs of the coral reef, seagrass beds, mangrove forests – as well as man-made features such as piers and large towns. Since the satellite image was a special kind of picture, some of the coloring was funny – particularly plants on land which showed up as red. We explained these features to the fishers. By pointing out where we were on the map  and how relationships on the map corresponded to relationships in the world around us, fishers started to get the hang of it. 

I’d been warned how hard it would be so I was pleasantly surprised at how readily the fishers became oriented to the map. As with any good lesson, we also tested that the fishers were truly oriented to the map before we turned to mapping where they fished. There was always a great “aha!” moment when they realized that the map they were looking at was actually a funny-colored picture of the place that they lived. During one of our first interviews, at low tide we sat by the coastline looking across the silty reef flat and calm channel to two mangrove-shrouded islands. When the respondent figured out where he was – and that the red areas on the map were the same place as the mangroves across from us – he got very excited and started pointing between what was around us and their location on the map. 

Even after figuring out where things were on the map, most of the fishers were uneasy drawing on the maps. Our strategy to work with this was to draw fishing grounds ourselves, with the fishers acting as the directors through detailed pointing and explaining. Through this method we obtained hundreds of maps of peoples’ fishing histories. 

Here’s an example of what we managed to create.

This became part of our newest scientific paper about mapping coral reef habitats for conservation.  This paper provides guidelines for effective mapping based in coral reefs on conservation priorities. The mapping we did is also part of an ongoing project to evaluate how fishing pressure in the Danajon Bank has changed in time and space – more on this to follow! And these maps have brought us one step closer to brushing away the dragons and mermaids from the edges of what we know.