Guest Blog

Turtle in a bucket

By Dr. Nick Hill

Dr. Nick Hill is a former Project Seahorse researcher and currently a project manager in the Marine and Freshwater Conservation Team at the Zoological Society of London. In this guest post, he talks about the conservation challenges facing the fishing communities of Danajon Bank, Philippines.

There's a beautiful white beach here, somewhere. Discarded plastic bottles, biscuit wrappers, Styrofoam and fishing nets are piled above head height in places.  You can smell this tiny island before you can see it.  I tread carefully through the minefield left by over 2,000 people that have neither a bin collection nor a sewerage system.  The occasional coconut palm and gnarly mangrove tree jut through, memoirs of a former paradise.

I consider taking a swim to escape the carnage. But the idea evaporates with one glance at the crystal clear water – devoid of life except for a thick green carpet of sludge on the seafloor.  Can you get typhoid from seawater?  Not a risk I'm willing to take.

As the setting sun casts a beautiful pink glow overhead, some Filipino fishers prepare for a night on the water.  There's normally excited anticipation before a fishing trip.  But not in this part of the Philippines.  There's some general chatter, the hissing of kerosene pressure lamps and the occasional whoosh as they're lit.  

Water sloshes around the legs of fishers as they wade out to their narrow outrigger canoes and fix the lamps in place over the bow.  Then the first of the modified pump engines that will power them to their fishing grounds shatters the relative tranquillity of the evening.  As they disappear into the distance and darkness descends, a generator splutters to life behind me and the street karaoke begins.

Iunderstand the fishers' lack of enthusiasm.  I joined one of them last night.  It's hard work, swimming all night, towing your boat with only a faint circle of light cast by the lamp to first spot and then spear your quarry.  Without a wetsuit, it doesn't take long before the tropical waters feel chilly, while invisible jellyfish leave their marks on your skin.

In the morning the returning fishers have barely enough catch to fill half a small bucket.  A lucky fisher proudly shows me his haul.  A pufferfish, still fully inflated, is his largest prize.  He grins as he tells me that many parts of this fish will kill you if eaten. But with so few fish left the fishers increasingly take the risk.  I watch as he deftly skins it and removes the poisonous internal organs, hoping he hasn't missed any.  

His most valuable catch is less obvious.  A pair of seahorses barely four inches long, still snapping their heads upward – the limited movement their stiff bodies allow.  The fisher proudly holds them up.  "China – expensive," he explains.  Behind him, the day-shift fishers busily prepare boats and long nets.

It's little wonder that many fishers are looking for new sources of income.  Seaweed farming is becoming increasingly common — where once there were fish, people now exploit the empty space to grow algae that feeds our insatiable demand for gels and cosmetics.  I wonder whether this shift in focus will allow the fish to recover.  

"It's because of the illegal fishers who use dynamite, cyanide and trawling," my guide informs me.  "If we can stop the illegal fishers then the fish will return."  And how will that happen?  "The government needs to increase enforcement," he explains.

By the afternoon I'm back on the mainland and being led along a rickety narrow walkway made of bamboo.  I reach a makeshift hut built over the sea.  Five or six gruff men sit in the shade, their boats tied up nearby.  

"These are my fish wardens," explains the Coastal Resource Manager.  "We have this hut as a look-out, so we can catch the illegal fishers."  There seems to be an awfully large area of sea and many islands out there.  Can they really spot illegal fishing from here?

In the corner, a big blue bucket catches my attention.  "Turtle," explains the manager.  

"The fishers caught it and brought it to us."  A large green turtle lies very still, just submerged, unable to turn around in its blue confines.  "We feed it fish that we catch, and we'll release it when we have money for fuel to take it to the deep sea, past the islands.  The fishers don't like it because it can eat their seaweed."  The turtle raises its head to breathe.

I'm surprised to see this turtle.  But why should I be?  Probably because it's alive.  Most of the animals I've seen here are destined for the pot.  But it also makes me think of what this place might once have been like.  When this sea was teaming with life, fishers could fill their buckets, turtles were numerous, and the island beaches were a tropical paradise.  This turtle in a bucket — a fragile vestige of better times.

Re-posted with permission from the Marine Reserves Coalition.

Spearfishing on Danajon Bank

By Adam Cormier

Project Seahorse friend and colleague Adam Cormier recalls a recent excursion with spearfishers in Danajon Bank, Philippines, where our researchers work with local communities to make fishing sustainable. We’ve helped establish 34 marine protected areas in the region so far.

Mangrove trees press in thick on both sides of our little outrigger canoe as we ride out into the open ocean. As the sun begins to set and the motor coughs to life the world becomes a palette of red, orange, blue and black. 

The sun sets quickly in this part of the world and the sky soon turns grey and then black. The only light comes from Gerry’s flashlight as he sits on the prow of the boat, scanning the water for coral. From time to time he points one way or the other and his brother Edward, seated behind me, steers us accordingly. Gerry and Edward have agreed to bring me spearfishing with them. They’re friends of Project Seahorse.

After about 20 minutes Gerry makes a signal and Edward cuts the motor. I’m handed a homemade spear gun and a flashlight that I strap to my head. Gerry takes a minute to add socks and tattered ski-mask to his outfit of jogging pants and sweatshirt. He looks like Spiderman after a battle with The Lizard (if Spiderman was Filipino and always smiling). I guess when you spearfish for a living you get pretty serious about protecting yourself from jellyfish and sea urchins and such.

Jerry asks me if I’m ready. I try to act all macho and say, Of course. Truth be told I’m pretty nervous. I can’t see land or what’s under the water I’m sliding into. I’m a good swimmer, and comfortable in the ocean, but a five-hour swim in the dark is a bit of a stretch. 

As soon as we’re in I can see that the bottom is only about ten feet away. Every shape and size of coral imaginable is illuminated by the circle of light from my headlight. Gerry quickly calls me to his side. Right there he says, pointing to a cluster of coral, a rabbit fish. I don’t see anything. Right there, he says again. I dive down, still only seeing layer after layer of coral. Finally Gerry fires his spear into the exact place he pointing, coming up with a wiggling rabbitfish. He deposits this into the mesh bag at his waist. 

Over the next while this same scenario plays itself out again and again, Gerry pointing out fishes I can’t see for the coral. Finally he leaves me to it and he gets down to his night’s work. After losing and finding the boat a couple of times in the dark I quickly learn to always keep it in sight as Gerry tows it behind him. 

I fall into a rhythm, deep breath, dive, see nothing but beautiful coral, come up, find the boat, repeat. It really is an incredible experience. The night is quiet and the sea is calm, the only sounds are splashes and snorkels being cleared. We travel along a ridge back towards land. On one side the coral falls away into inky blackness, on the other there is a forest of it. Hundreds of tiny wiggling fish seem drawn to the gleam of my flashlight and they spend the night dancing around my head.

Finally, on one dive I see a fish! It’s round and yellow, the exact same color as the round and yellow coral it’s perched on. I fight the current and twist towards him, aiming my spear gun and pulling back on the thick elastics. My spear shoots out wide. I realign myself for a second shot as my lungs begin to remind me that I am not a fish. Miss again. I come up for air and when I return the fish is gone.

Spearfishing is really, really hard. It’s like playing darts underwater while holding your breath, only the dart board moves quickly and blends into the multi-coloured background as needed. Gerry and Edward and many of the communities living on the Danajon Bank — a rare and biodiverse double-barrier reef off the coast of Bohol Province, Philippines — make their living this way. It’s not easy. In recent years, dwindling resources has meant that fishers must travel further out to sea to find enough to catch. The challenge is striking a balance so that the fishing they do is sustainable for generations to come. Which is why Project Seahorse has teamed up with the communities to establish marine protected areas (no-take zones where fish stocks can replenish) around the Danajon Bank. 

After my yellow friend gets away I decide to stop trying so hard and just enjoy myself. The sky is clear and holds more stars then I’ve ever seen. I also begin to lose all track of time and start to get tired. Gerry and his brother continue to dive, coming up with fish more often than not. I try to ignore the aches in my back and arms and continue to paddle along behind the canoe. Any fish I do see seems too beautiful and too quick to try and catch.

Finally Gerry calls out to me and says it’s time to go home. I haul myself into the boat, bone-tired and actually cold for the first time since I stepped off the plane in Cebu. Both Gerry and his brother have a mesh bag full of fish. I guess they were there, hiding in plain sight for someone who knows how and where to look. As we putter back to Batasan and slide back trough the mangroves I have a new appreciation for the people who provide me with my breakfast every day. I can’t imagine a harder way to make a living then as a spearfisher. Gerry and Edward wishes me a good night and I head back through the village to the guest house where we’re staying. I’ll never look at my breakfast squid the same way.