Expedition: Danajon Bank

"What is a Danajon Bank?"

By Michael Ready

This week over on the Huffington Post, photographer Michael Ready reflects on Expedition: Danajon Bank. You can read the original post here.

In April, after four planes, a ferry, and two outriggers, I arrived at Handumon, a remote village and field station on Jandayan Island in the Philippines. As I lay down the first night under a mosquito net, wiped out and bit disoriented, I took in the nocturnal forest sounds. That's when I heard it: an impressive rendition of Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks" amidst the din of tree crickets and the occasional bark of a tokay gecko.

Karaoke, or "videoke" as it is known in the Philippines, is a national pastime, even in isolated Handumon. At breakfast the next morning, Dr. Nick Hill, a scientist with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), assured me that at some point we would all participate in this tradition. I laughed, though my pulse gave a panicked throb as I am far more afraid of a solo singing performance than anything I could ever encounter underwater.

And that's why we, four underwater photographers from the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), were there -- to get in the water. iLCP had teamed up with Project Seahorse and sent us to document the Danajon Bank. Claudio Contreras-Koob, Thomas Peschak, Luciano Candisani, and I traveled from Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and the US, respectively, to photograph this little known but extremely important place. 

When I first learned of plans for this iLCP expedition I asked what most anyone would ask -- What's a Danajon Bank? Though I've traveled throughout Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, the area was a complete unknown. For most of the world, and even within the Philippines, this unique biological treasure is unfamiliar -- but it shouldn't be.

Danajon Bank (Da-na-haun) lies in the central Visayas region of the Philippines. Spanning 97 miles along the islands of Bohol, Cebu, Leyte, and Southern Leyte, it is one of just six double barrier reefs in the world. Not only is Danajon Bank a rare geologic formation, it is considered one the richest areas of marine biodiversity anywhere, the place from which almost all Pacific marine life evolved.

As iLCP photographers, we were there to not only document the beauty and richness of Danajon Bank, but also the destruction of this biologically sensitive and threatened seascape. The resulting images would help Project Seahorse and other conservation partners inform and inspire the world to care about the ecology and culture of this region.

For two weeks, our daily schedules were packed: rise at 3 a.m., pack the boats, depart at 4 a.m., shoot topside at first light, shoot underwater until sundown, night dive, return to camp, eat dinner, download images, charge batteries, sleep for two or three hours, repeat. Someone once told me that if I wanted to sleep in, I should have been a writer.

Coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass biomes are vital habitats that are in global decline. Danajon Bank is no exception and is a perfect example of the fragility of these systems. Sadly, much of the reef system is a mere relic of Danajon's booming primordial past and in the water, I was immediately struck by the absence of fish. Compared to the colorful and lively reefs I am used to seeing in tropical southern seas, the Danajon reefs and lagoons are devoid of larger species. As a result, top predators like reef sharks have ceased to hunt these depleted grounds.

Overfishing and destructive fishing methods are to blame. Blast fishing, using explosives to instantly kill sea life, has long been practiced in this area. Although dangerous and illegal, it continues on a secretive yet devastating scale. This quick-catch method and indiscriminate bottom trawling have ravaged sea life, and nearly 200 species are threatened. Indeed, it was not difficult to find examples of dead or dying reefs - submerged like eerie, aquatic ghost towns. I felt like an archaeologist who has discovered the sad fascinating remains of a lost civilization.

Not surprisingly, human encroachment, population growth, pollution, and climate change pose additional pressures on this vast ecosystem and the people it supports. An estimated one million people depend on the Danajon's waters for their livelihoods and no one is more aware of the diminished fish stocks and paucity of large fish than these locals. Meager catches of just a handful of small fish -- an entire night's work -- were a common sight on the islands that we visited.

The issues here are complex, as are the answers. However, thanks to Project Seahorse and other groups, there is reason for hope. Remarkably, their work within the past decade has resulted in the establishment of 34 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) among Danajon Bank islands.

Our dives in these MPAs were a different experience entirely. Within the protected boundaries, biodiverse ecosystems are rebuilding. In some cases, the contrast was downright stunning as in the Bilangbilangan MPA where seemingly endless fields of hard corals cover the shallow sea floor. In deeper waters, enormous sea fans (gorgonians) and sponges rise into the current. Even endangered branch corals (Anacropora sp.) are making a comeback.

Though large fish remain uncommon, these vibrant reefs are home to many smaller species of fish and invertebrates. The expected denizens like anemonefish, parrotfish, angels, and wrasses, and surprise discoveries, like a juvenile blue-edged sole (Soleichthys heterorhinos) and a troop of messmate pipefish (Corythoichthys intestinalis), made photographing inside the MPAs a pleasure and hinted at the myriad of life forms that once sprung from this area.

Though all the data is not yet in, many local fishermen believe that the MPAs are having a positive effect on their catches. Whole villages have embraced the concept as some have taken it upon themselves to police the boundaries or man guard towers to track potential poachers.

The people of Danajon are gradually moving to more sustainable fishing methods and looking for alternatives, like seaweed farming. Other ecologically sound practices are being developed, including a collaborative project between ZSL and Interface, a carpet manufacturer, where fishers are paid for their used fishing nets. These nets are unfortunately very abundant and detrimental when left in the local biomes. Yet through this program, they are collected, cleaned, bundled and exported to be upcycled into carpet tiles. With efforts like these, and additional and expanded MPAs, perhaps large fish and sharks will one day return.

When I travel to developing areas I am reminded that for some, conservation may seem a luxury. I'm grateful for those groups working towards lofty conservation goals, while still providing sustainable livelihood options for the people who depend on the reef. I am also reminded of our shared humanity and the many ways in which we are connected. My new Danajon Bank friends made me feel right at home, so much so that I spent my last night happily partaking in their cherished videoke. I sang my heart out!

Photo of the week: Mighty mangroves

By Tyler Stiem

 From  Expedition: Danajon Bank : Mangrove forest kissed by sunlight on Danajon Bank, Philippines.  Did you know?  Mangrove forests not only support a huge diversity of marine life, they protect coastal communities from the elements. During India's 1999 "supercyclone," mangroves are calculated to have saved nearly two lives per village.  Photo: Michael Ready/iLCP

From Expedition: Danajon Bank: Mangrove forest kissed by sunlight on Danajon Bank, Philippines. Did you know? Mangrove forests not only support a huge diversity of marine life, they protect coastal communities from the elements. During India's 1999 "supercyclone," mangroves are calculated to have saved nearly two lives per village. Photo: Michael Ready/iLCP


Photo of the week: Lantern fisher

By Tyler Stiem

 From  Expedition: Danajon Bank : A lantern fisher begins a long night of fishing. One of the oldest techniques still used in the Philippines, it is also one of the most sustainable, involving only small homemade spears. It requires incredible patience and skill. As the supply of fish on Danajon Bank has dwindled in recent decades, traditional lantern fishers struggle to make a living. A 120hour trip will yield a catch worth about US $2.50 on average.  Photo: Luciano Candisani/iLCP

From Expedition: Danajon Bank: A lantern fisher begins a long night of fishing. One of the oldest techniques still used in the Philippines, it is also one of the most sustainable, involving only small homemade spears. It requires incredible patience and skill. As the supply of fish on Danajon Bank has dwindled in recent decades, traditional lantern fishers struggle to make a living. A 120hour trip will yield a catch worth about US $2.50 on average. Photo: Luciano Candisani/iLCP


Exhibition launch in Chicago

By Tyler Stiem

 A trio of black-axil chromis ( Chromis atripectoralis ).  Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob/iLCP

A trio of black-axil chromis (Chromis atripectoralis). Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob/iLCP

It's been awhile since we've posted about Expedition: Danajon Bank, our photographic collaboration the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Since the expedition ended in late April, the team has been hard at work sifting through thousands of images, editing and curating them down to a select few for our conservation photo exhibition that will travel the world. 

First up, we're proud to say, is John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The exhibit opens to the public on Friday, August 9th and will be on display for 12 months. If you’re in the city, be sure to visit!

Stay tuned for more news and features, including some fantastic photo essays on blast fishing, seaweed farming, and more, as well as sneak peeks at future exhibits in Manila, Hong Kong, and London.

In the meantime, we’ll be posting amazing new photos from the expedition in this space.

Picturing the people of Danajon Bank, part three...

By Tyler Stiem

 Wearing a homemade mask, a boy searches for gastropod eggs.

Wearing a homemade mask, a boy searches for gastropod eggs.

 Prized possession.

Prized possession.

 A fisher shows off his catch. Many fishers wear masks and gloves to protect against jellyfish stings.

A fisher shows off his catch. Many fishers wear masks and gloves to protect against jellyfish stings.

 A boy and his family's catch.

A boy and his family's catch.

 Outrigger fishing boats and marine protected area guardhouse in the distance.

Outrigger fishing boats and marine protected area guardhouse in the distance.

Underwater investment banks

By Dr. Nick Hill

 A seaweed farmer pulls his crop into an outrigger boat.

A seaweed farmer pulls his crop into an outrigger boat.

As the island village of Guindacpan slides into view, we see raised bamboo platforms tumbling out from shore. Squatting and seated cross-legged atop these platforms are men and women, young and old. They sort huge piles of straggly red and green “weeds” to dry in the sun. This is seaweed – currently one of the most important economic resources for people on Danajon Bank.

We’re immediately surrounded by children who’ve spotted Claudio’s and Mike’s cameras. They’re incredibly excited by the prospect of getting their photo taken and strike instinctive poses. If we were here to document only the people of Danajon Bank, our job would certainly be very easy! Too bad the fish don’t pose so easily.

It’s mesmerizing to watching the villagers deftly sort the seaweed. The plants grown here unusual-looking, more like a branching gelatinous substance that easily snaps in your hand than the tough fronds that most of us are used to. But we’re more familiar with the species grown here than we may think. Once sun-dried, it’s sold to local traders who ship it to Cebu City, where in large factories it’s turned into a substance called ‘carrageenan.’

 Inspecting the harvest.

Inspecting the harvest.

But something tells us that won’t be a problem. With a price of around P10-50 per kg (depending on species), even the smallest frond is valuable. Everything is gathered up and sold. Seaweed is an important source of income for fishers who these days, thanks to overfishing, often struggle to catch enough fish for their families that day.

As we explore the seaweed farm, we notice loads of small to medium sized danggit and kitong hanging around near the seaweed farmers, grazing on whatever comes their way. These rabbitfishes (family Siganidae) are a locally very important foodfish that have been heavily exploited. But in these de facto marine protected areas the juveniles appear to be thriving.

 Entire communities, including children and the elderly, work together to sort the seaweed crops.

Entire communities, including children and the elderly, work together to sort the seaweed crops.

Carrageenan used an ingredient found in all sorts of products that we use daily: cosmetics, food and drinks (including some of the local Filipino beers we’re keen on), pharmaceuticals, shoe polish, and pet food, along with hundreds of other products. Seaweed farming began here on Danajon Bank back in the 1970s, and has been an important and growing livelihood ever since, thanks to global demand for carrageenan. For many years, Philippines was the world’s largest producer of seaweed, and Danajon Bank one of the most productive areas. Now, Indonesia takes the crown.

To understand how the seaweed grows and where it comes from, we travelled on to Taglibas, an area of reef used by the people of a neighbouring village of Hambungan (we visited Hambungan earlier in the week). It’s difficult at first to spot the seaweed farm from the water, but a cluster of boats and a stretch of styrofoam gives the location away. Men and women on two boats are working hard to pull in the seaweed, trying to shake off some of the epiphytes as they work. It’s clear they’re nearing the end of their day’s labour, so we plunge straight into the crystal clear water and get to work.

Instantly we’re hit by two things. First, the sheer quantity of the seaweed, which sways in rows of long straggly pillars. Second, the amount of fish life hiding in and around the seaweed. As a farmer in goggles and wooden fins handles the crop, fronds break off and fall to the coral reef below. If too much seaweed ends up on the reef, blocking the sun, the corals will suffer.

 Fronds covering corals beneath a seaweed farm. Left there, the plants can kill the corals by preventing sunlight from reaching them. 

Fronds covering corals beneath a seaweed farm. Left there, the plants can kill the corals by preventing sunlight from reaching them. 

And it isn’t just rabbitfishes that are hiding away in here. As Claudio and Mike carefully navigate their way through the maize of fronds to position themselves for the best shots of the seaweed farmers at work, we see parrotfishes, batfish, cardinalfish and a host of small juvenile fish scatter and regroup under different fronds.

Seaweed farming can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s an important livelihood; on the other, careless farming can damage the reefs below, with issues such as trampling and shading threatening benthic habitat. However, our overwhelming impression is that it is better than many of the destructive practices in use on Danajon Bank – especially blast fishing. At least there is life here! What we need is to improve planning of seaweed farming to ensure environmental impacts are limited.

 A diver secures seaweed to a line.

A diver secures seaweed to a line.

The sheer quantity of seaweed on the two boats and the frenzied work of the seaweed farmers point towards the economic importance of seaweed. Fishing is like a cash machine in the sea – providing opportunities for instant cash returns. But with the high population densities and declining catches, it rarely provides enough income for a daily basis, and certainly no opportunities to build savings. Whereas seaweed farming functions more like an investment account.

The crop takes 40-50 days to grow, and growth is exponential. Assuming that there are no problems (e.g. typhoons, stealing), they aren’t plagued by a disease called ice-ice (baby), and they have the guts to leave it the full 40-50 days, returns on investment can be substantial. There are some very successful seaweed farmers here!

Not surprisingly, commercial companies have, on occasion, attempted set up operations on the reef. So far, none has been approved, and for good reason. The presence of large-scale operators would threaten the livelihoods of local people and likely result in even more overfishing. Increased protections for the whole of Danajon Bank will prevent this grim possibility, and give the people at least some security.

Picturing the people of Danajon Bank, part one

By Tyler Stiem

 Children diving for gastropod eggs at low tide.

Children diving for gastropod eggs at low tide.

Over half a million people call Danajon Bank home. They live in coastal villages and on the tiny, teeming islands that dot the bank. All, or nearly all of them depend on the reef for food and income. It’s not an easy living. Overfishing is a problem, and over the years it has become harder and harder for people to catch enough food to eat and sell.

Out of necessity, fishers get creative. Some resort to fishing practices that can harm the reef, such as blasting, cyanide fishing, and trawling. Others find ways to live sustainably off Danajon Bank. Every community fishes, but some have adopted seaweed farming or established no-take marine reserves, practices that can (but, it has to be admitted, don’t always) reduce human impact on the ecosystem. Project Seahorse and other, local organizations have been working for years with communities to establish new reserves and sustainability in general.

One thing’s for certain: The communities of Danajon Bank are as vibrant as any coral reef. A great time to visit is at low tide, usually around dusk, when families go out together on the hunt for treats left behind when the water retreats from shore. Mainly it’s mothers and children, but fathers sometimes join too. They search the tidal pools and dig up the wet sand in search of crabs, gastropods, and other small, delectable sea creatures.

 A woman gleans for shellfish

A woman gleans for shellfish

Expedition photographers Mike Ready, Claudio Contreras Koob, and Luciano Candisani spent days with the fishing villages of Danajon Bank. They documented this practice, which is known as gleaning. They visited seaweed farmers and marine reserves, they met net fishers and free divers and everyone in between. Here are a few of their photos: 

 A fisher shows his catch. Dwindling fish stocks means fishers must catch smaller and smaller fish.

A fisher shows his catch. Dwindling fish stocks means fishers must catch smaller and smaller fish.

 A boy wears a homemade mask. 

A boy wears a homemade mask. 

 A fisher mends his net.

A fisher mends his net.

From Danajon Bank to aquariums all over the world

By Tyler Stiem

 Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

The tiny island of Hambungon looks like a typical Danajon Bank fishing village. Ramshackle houses spill onto the beach and outrigger boats bob over the blue shallows just beyond. Women mend nets in the bright morning sun.Dogs bark, roosters crow, and kids chase each other across the sand. What sets Hambungon apart from other villages is that it’s home to a thriving — and, unusually, sustainable— trade in aquarium fishes.

This week, the expedition team paid a visit to Hambungon’s barangay captain, or elected chief. “Max,” as he calls himself, runs a small but important community fishery that targets reef fishes and invertebrates for sale to exporters in nearby Cebu City. Unlike many fishers in Danajon Bank, Max’s team of divers only collects species designated as sustainable by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) of the Philippines.

 An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

Max leads us to a covered space. He’s a friendly middle-aged man, quick to make a joke. When he laughs, which is often, his deeply tanned faces wrinkles with amusement. Here, twenty-five or thirty basins are fed by water pipes. Each contains something different. We see anemonefishes, colourful nudibranchs, small jellyfishes, a pair of electric blue mandarinfishes. Max picks out an eel and, gently lifting it out of the water, lets it slither through his fingers back into the basin.

“Moray,” he says. “Juvenile.”

He explains that his divers, a team of village boys aged 15 to about 25, have been trained by MAC to identify and avoid marine species vulnerable to overfishing, and to catch their target species in such away as to avoid serious harm.  

 Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

 Our tour’s piece de resistance is a scorpionfish. The craggy, brown-and-orange-flecked scorpionfish is famous for two things: One, its ability to blend in among corals and on the seabed, and two, its excrutiating venom. Max very carefully ‘milks’ the fish by pressing on its venom duct. A blueish white substance jets out from one of its spiky protrusions. He jumps back.

“You do not want to step on that fish!” he says, laughing.

The divers soon arrive on a pump-boat, carrying their morning catch. Clad in balclavas and long shirts to protect them from jellyfish stings, they look like a clan of soggy ninjas. Their catch buckets brim with silvery baggies filled with fish. The animals are catalogued and dumped into the basins. There are anemone fishes, mystic ras, boxfishes, a lionfish, nudibranchs, a frogfish, another scorpionfish, a long-snout butterflyfish, and more.

 An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

The animals will be sold to a distributor in Cebu for anywhere between 10 and 100 pesos, or about $0.25 to $2.50 each. Compared to the retail prices the animals can fetch — a blue mandarinfish that sells for less than a dollar here can eventually be resold in stores for up to US $100 — it doesn’t seem like much. But the sustainable aquarium trade provides an important source of income for the fishers, and, even more importantly, an alternative to other, more destructive kinds of fishing. 

Whether the divers always follow the sustainability guidelines is another question. We spot a tiger-tail seahorse, a threatened species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, in one of the catch buckets. When Luciano points it out, a diver quickly returns the seahorse to the sea. But given how valuable seahorses are — a single animal is worth the equivalent of a kilogram of rice, enough to feed a family for a few days — you can imagine how difficult it would be for fishers to resist temptation now and then.

The following day, expedition photographers Tom Peschak and Luciano Candisani return to Hambungon before dawn to document the divers at work on the reef a few hundred meters beyond the village. It quickly becomes clear why it’s a young man’s game: Aquarium fishing is hard work.

 Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Everyone freedives using only homemade wooden flippers, swimming down as far as seven meters to reach the reef. Small, weighted nets are set near coral heads on the one dive, and on the next, fish are coralled into the mesh. Next, the net is scooped and closed and prized species are transferred into baggies. In between the divers jet to the surface for lungfuls of air.

One diver proudly brandishes his catch for Luciano. You can see the smile in his eyes through his mask. The baggie shines like quicksilver in the sunlight seeping down through the blue water. A large anemone fish squirms inside. The day’s first iconic photo.

 This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

After four or five hours, the day’s work is finished, and the aquarium fishers say goodbye. They chug off in their pump boat, destined for home.“Unbelievable,” Luciano says, shaking his head. “Tom and I were swimming with professional gear and we couldn’t keep up with those guys. I’m in good shape, but compared to them, no way.”

Picturing biodiversity, part two

By Tyler Stiem

 Humbug damselfish

Humbug damselfish

More photos of Danajon Bank’s wild array of reef fishes from expedition photographers Michael Ready and Claudio Contreras. Today the duo is headed out to explore the seagrass beds and mangrove forests that circle some of the tiny islands on the inner part of the reef.

Watch this space for more great biodiversity as well as stories by the entire team on community-run marine protected areas, the sustainable aquarium trade, and blast fishing, where fishers using dynamite to blow up sections of the reef for larger catches.

 Pufferfish

Pufferfish

 Pajama cardinalfish

Pajama cardinalfish

 Three-spot damselfish

Three-spot damselfish

 Unidentified crab species

Unidentified crab species

Picturing biodiversity, part one

By Tyler Stiem

 Crocodile flathead.

Crocodile flathead.

Threatened though it may be, Danajon Bank is home to many hundreds of fish species and many more corals, invertebrates, and other marine life. One of the purposes of the expedition is to capture the reef’s impressive but dwindling biodiversity before it’s too late. Food security is a pressing issue here, which means that, as a matter of survival, local fishers will target just about any sized fish. The animals are captured for food or for the international aquarium trade.

This week, photographers Michael Ready and Claudio Contreras Koob are putting in 16-hour days on the reef. They dive before dawn and come back to shore after nightfall in order to document everything from the otherworldly menace of the crocodile flathead to the regal beauty of the mandarin fish.

Here are a few of their early shots:

 Winged pipefish.

Winged pipefish.

 Mandarinfish

Mandarinfish

 Nudibranche

Nudibranche

 Copper-banded butterflyfish

Copper-banded butterflyfish

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.

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. 

Meet Claudio Contreras Koob, expedition photographer

By Tyler Stiem

 California sea lion swimming in a kelp forest.

California sea lion swimming in a kelp forest.

For the second in our series of Expedition: Danajon Bank photographer profiles, we spoke to Claudio Contreras Koob, a Mexico City-based photographer and naturalist. 

Claudio studied biology in the National Autonomous University of Mexico but decided to work as a nature photographer instead. He has spent the last 23 years travelling and documenting nature and wildlife in Mexico. During that time he has become ever more involved in conservation-related projects both in his home country and abroad. He joined iLCP in 2009 were he is currently an associate fellow. Also works as a picture editor for conservation and nature-related books.

Claudio, what made you decide to join Expedition: Danajon Bank? 

 Close-up of an octopus.

Close-up of an octopus.

As a teenager I became involved with the science faculty diving group in my university. Part of our duties were to gather scientific data in the field that in time translated into the scientific information used to establish marine protected areas we now have in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. So I do understand the power of this team effort and more recently I have been able to see the power that photography has to advance important conservation causes like the Danajon Bank. It’s a privilege to be a part of this effort with Project Seahorse and iLCP.

What are some of the challenges of nature photography?

Salt and humidity kills the electronics of the equipment, and bugs and other little critters make it hard sometimes to maintain sanity… but sadly in more recent times the hardest thing to overcome is the fear of human violence we are experiencing in Mexico.

 Military macaws in flight. Tehuacan, Mexico.

Military macaws in flight. Tehuacan, Mexico.

Tell us the story of getting one of your favourite images.

Well, the photo of the military macaws made some time ago is still probably my most well-known image. It was a runner-up in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Back then this place [Tehuacan Valley, Mexico] was completely unknown and macaws had just started to be monitored by biologists. Although inside a Natural Protected Area, there was a risk that these creatures could be lost to pet traders. I was sent there to document them and our work aimed to promote awareness and protection to the site. 

Standing at the edge of the cliff as macaws passed flying by with their raucous voices was an unforgettable moment, I’ve never been back to that canyon but as far as I know, the nearby community has taken pride of their macaws and have established ecotourism visits to view the macaws.

How have you seen your past work make a difference to conservation? 

 Sacred Headwaters, Northern British Columbia.

Sacred Headwaters, Northern British Columbia.

I participated in the iLCP’s Sacred Headwaters RAVE expedition in northern British Columbia, Canada. It’s a sacred place to many First Nations people. It is also the region were three undammed salmon-bearing rivers are born.

Wade Davis made a book with the images we were able to obtain and handed a copy to all the members of the Canadian Parliament. It was just one more step in the hard struggle that local people and NGOs  are making to protect that prisitine region they call home. 

What are you most looking forward to about the expedition?

I sincerely hope that as a team we will be able to produce a portfolio strong enough to convince the Filipino government of the need to increase protections for Danajon Bank.

To see more of Claudio's photos, visit http://www.claudiocontreras.com.