Notes from IMCC 2011

First Nations Stories about the Sea

By Jennifer Selgrath

At the International Marine Conservation Congress a couple of weeks ago, I met Charles W. Elliott, the First Nations artist who created the gorgeous print on the right that was used as the conference logo. I'm fascinated by the way stories connect people to their marine environment, so I was excited to talk to him about Coast Salish stories from British Columbia.

Here are the two that Charles shared with me:

Salmon lived in longhouses, similar to people in Saanich communities. In one community, there was a salmon who loved to complain. He annoyed the gods. To stop him, the gods sent a bald eagle down who picked up the salmon and carried him far up in the sky. From that great height the eagle dropped the salmon. When he hit the ground he landed so hard that his body was flattened. He became the fish now known as flounder.

I love this story because it gives personality to fish from the ocean. It tells about their creation in a way that gives them personality and character.

The other story was about the time when the Saanich people set out to travel across the deep ocean. By beating on their drums, they called the orcas (killer whales) to join them. The whales travelled with the boats, making the ocean safer by breaking the large waves in front of the boats and guarding the boats on both sides. It's an incredibly visual story! I love the idea of orcas as shepherds of seafaring people — guiding and guarding them.

Maybe we can draw upon the magic and wonder of such ideas when we are working to connect people to the ocean. All around the world, the ocean takes on different forms, from wild, pounding wave on open coasts, to calm, clear water in island archipelagos. Inside these different parts of the ocean, there are diverse neighborhoods of creatures and landscapes. Finding and sharing stories about them seem like a powerful way to inspire people about conservation.

Jenny Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. 

Success stories from Hawaii

By Iain Caldwell

Thinking back to my recent experience at the IMCC, there is one session in particular that stands out in my memory: “Lessons from the control of invasive species on coral reef ecosystems in Hawaii.”

It seems like doom-and-gloom stories are all too common in conservation and I was buoyed by the positive messages coming out of this series of talks. The first speaker, Jonathan Blodgett from Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, talked about how the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources has gained a foothold onAvrainvillea amadelpha, an invasive algae species in Kaneohe Bay, using a giant underwater vacuum cleaner and sea urchins. 

The vacuum cleaner (playfully termed the “super-sucker”) is used by scuba divers to suck up the vast tracts of the algae that have invaded the bay. While the super-sucker is good at removing the algae, the area can become re-invaded quite quickly. This is where the cleaner urchin come in. Once the invasive algae has been removed, these native urchins have been successful at keeping at least small areas clear of new algae. The technique is certainly not perfect as the urchins need to be “herded” to areas that need to be cleaned, but it appears to be a step in the right direction.

The second speaker, Eric Conklin of the Nature Conservancy, shared some lessons from his work co-operating with local organizations to rid Oahu’s shore of the same invasive algae species. The lesson he shared that stayed with me was that starting small can make big things possible. Eric showed an aerial photo of Manalua Bay after a group of volunteers had made a first attempt at removing the invasive algae. The algae carpets the bay from one end to the other and a group of local volunteers was only able to clear a tiny square on the map. 

As Eric said, it would be very easy to look at the photo and think that their efforts were for nothing. However, that small step inspired a partnership between the Nature Conservancy and a local people’s organization called Malama Maunalua, which has attracted more funding and support. The result? Over 23 acres (almost three million pounds) of the invasive algae have been cleared to date.

The third presentation was a tag-team effort by Russell Sparks and Darla White, both of the Hawaii State Division of Aquatic Resources, who have tackled the algae problem in Maui by protecting key herbivorous fish from overfishing. These native fish eat the algae and help to keep the invasion in check. The Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area was established in 2009 and has gained local support even within fishing communities — probably partly because fishing of non-herbivorous fish is still allowed.

The final presentation, by Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawaii and the USGS, addressed the problem Hawaii faces from an invasive fish known as roi. This grouper species was initially introduced in the 1950’s as an additional source of food because of the dwindling number of native fish. Ironically, it has since been linked with ciguatera poisoning, making its consumption questionable. It is now blamed for the further decline of native species. 

Spearfishing groups have been organizing “roi roundups” to try to rid reefs of the perceived threat of these species — without enough information about the actual threat or how effective this intervention can be. Using a suite of experimental techniques, Alan and his colleagues at the University of Hawaii and the Nature Conservancy have been working with local fishing communities to determine what effects roi is having on the native fish community and whether their short term removal is an effective long-term solution.

Even though the five speakers were from a variety of backgrounds (NGO, government, and academic) they all had a relaxed and conversational tone, which made the session feel more like a town hall meeting or a department seminar than a formal presentation at an international conference. It probably helped that the room was small and the dress was casual — the speakers donned Hawaiian shirts for the occasion — but I think any audience would have been engaged. 

To me this refreshing and informative session demonstrated that good science can be entertaining and conservation can use positive messages to inspire.

Iain Caldwell is a Ph.D candidate with Project Seahorse.

The Whitley connection

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

I was delighted this week to have a chance to meet two other conservationists who have won Whitley Awards for grassroots nature conservation: Deepak Apte from India and Rachel Graham from Belize.  

Having won the first of these awards in 1994, back in the mists of time, I have a strong interest in everybody who has won since. They always make me grateful that I applied before they were quite so well-known and competitive.  

Deepak won the award in 2008, for his work to developing the capacity of Lakshadweep islanders to lead on conservation and secure their livelihoods, partly by developing enthusiasm for India’s first interconnected network of marine protected areas. He is Assistant Director with the Bombay Natural History Society.

Rachel won her award this year for her “work to protect Belize's sharks, crucial to healthy seas and for the country's economically important tourism industry." She is director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gulf and Caribbean sharks and rays programme and a member of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.

We are now discussing getting a list of all Whitley people who focus on marine issues, as a first step towards seeing what we might all achieve collectively. We are a pretty determined bunch so I have high hopes of the synergies that should emerge.

The pros and cons of social media at scientific conferences

By Dr. Phil Molloy

Today I was sitting in a great talk about how heavily overfished species in Hawaii bounce back when fishing stops. A good friend of mine was wildly prodding his iPhone. I initially thought he was texting, which surprised me not only because the talk was gripping and colourful but also because my friend is typically very polite. Curiosity got the better of me and I snuck a peek. He was tweeting the main results being presented by the speaker.

I’ve noticed a few other people tweeting in talks. This is probably the first conference at which I’ve noticed an obvious social-media presence and it has got me thinking.

On one hand, it’s becoming clear that social media is a hugely powerful tool for marine conservationists to reach more people than ever before. For example, where I work in the Philippines almost everyone uses Facebook; even if they don’t have internet access, they connect to Facebook on their phones.

At home in Vancouver, just about everyone I know under 25 uses Facebook and Twitter, and tell me how often they LOL, that they’ll BRB, and “OMG <3” this, that and the other! My nephews will probably laugh at me simply for the fact that I’m even writing a blog about how innovative social media can be. Clearly social media has and will continue to play a huge role when it comes to engaging people about environmental problems and building support for conservation. Definitely a plus.

On the other hand, I — and many of my colleagues — use conferences to discuss new ideas and results. But the ideas we share here are not always our final say; often they’re part of the long thought process that goes on behind the scenes in research.

Unless I’m presenting work that has been or is about to be published in a scientific journal, my conclusions could change. (Even after they have been published, new evidence may change our conclusions — that’s how science works.) It might sound odd to a non-scientist that I present preliminary results, but it’s actually very common.

Scientists often use conferences such as IMCC to showcase hot-off-the-press results. We do so either in the spirit of collaboration or to remain cutting-edge. Presenting preliminary results, as we call them, allows us to tap the wealth of knowledge available at conferences before we go to press. You should rest assured, though, that whenever scientists do present preliminary work, we say so. My concern is that when such preliminary results are tweeted, this context is lost.

So, I guess the bottom line is, does it matter if tweets misrepresent results? Probably not in most cases. First, the nature of Twitter is such that the half-life of any given tweet is miniscule; moments later another tweet arrives about something totally unrelated and audiences move on. In rare cases, a conclusion may be totally misrepresented and trigger misdirected gossip. I imagine such misunderstandings would resolve themselves after even the smallest amount of digging. Nevertheless, the use of real-time communications tools at scientific gatherings raises some interesting questions.

Online social media are profoundly useful tools to help all scientists but particularly conservationists to communicate to an incredibly diverse group of people (and by god do we need help communicating); that much is clear.

I’ll end with three words of advice: 1) For those presenting at conferences, be aware that giving a talk at a conference now means giving a talk to a massive social network; 2) Tweeters, be aware that your posts will be read out of context and results can be easily misunderstood; and 3) Twitter followers — take posts about conferences with a pinch of salt.

Dr. Phil Molloy is a post-doctoral research associate with Project Seahorse.

Some thoughts on CITES

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

So, how can we ensure that the commercial trade of marine life doesn’t damage wild populations? I am writing this while sitting in a discussion group with a bunch of other scientists, most of whom who have spent years working with CITES, a UN convention that controls exports of species that are — or could become — threatened by international trade.

It follows on from a symposium (co-organized by Project Seahorse’s Dr. Sarah Foster) that laid out the case studies on CITES and seahorses, sturgeons, sharks, queen conch, and tuna. Exports of the first four are regulated under CITES while proposals to control international trade in Atlantic bluefin tuna were defeated last year amid great controversy.

The general consensus in the room is that we want to focus broadly on achieving conservation goals, not just on establishing trade controls per se. Even so, we really do wish that CITES’ Parties would get past their anxieties about listing marine fishes of commercial importance. After all, the point of CITES regulations is simply to ensure that marine fish exports are sustainable. How can that be problematic?

Yet a significant minority of the 175 countries that are signatories to CITES continues to argue that other intergovernmental agencies ought to be left to manage fisheries, even though (or especially because?) no other agreements have the necessary teeth to secure action. In effect, they deny that marine fishes are wildlife, too.

One university scientist asks us, very reasonably, what good has come of CITES controls on the marine fish trade: Are fish populations healthier as a result?  He is new to the process and perhaps slightly daunted by the rapid exchange of acronyms and political processes in our discussion.  More to the point, he really does need to know what CITES can do and whether he should give time and expertise to supporting it. All such policy work is, after all, voluntary for university academics.

Everybody marshals their thoughts and we begin to recount some positive stories: the CITES listing of queen conch has led to much more sustainable trade; CITES listing of seahorses has led to a much healthier aquarium trade in these fishes; CITES listings have generated plans of action for shark species; CITES listing has generated management measures for the Napoleon wrasse.

Even tuna, which CITES voted not to control, has benefited from subsequent tighter quotas by their management organization.  All this upbeat sharing of stories runs contrary to the mood at many CITES meetings, and somewhat surprises a colleague who actually works for the Convention.

We all leave the room more positive and enthusiastic about the prospects of CITES becoming an effective tool for marine conservation. I think we amazed ourselves by how many good things we could report, and were re-energized for our work with this valuable, if flawed, UN Convention. Personally, I felt the familiar buzz that comes from tackling real issues in marine conservation with exciting colleagues.

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the director of Project Seahorse.

Making connections

By James Hehre

The first three days here at the IMCC have been absolutely crazy. My time has been divided between volunteering at the conference, helping out at our Project Seahorse booth, and dashing between a variety of different focus groups and lectures. Like most delegates, I took the time to find the talks related to my own research.

Yet it seems the best connections I’ve made here have come from random introductions and talks I hadn’t planned to attend. For instance, yesterday evening I dropped in to a discussions about plant species that have invaded Hawaii’s coral reefs. What at first seemed unrelated to my own work was in fact relevant in unexpected ways. Researchers from the Nature Conservancy are investigating how plant-eating fish can be used to manage invasive algae that are threatening to consume a reef off the coast of Maui. 

My project looks at how seaweed farming in the Philippines may actually be subsidizing the diet of rabbitfish, an algae-eating reef fish. I plan to use stable isotopes to find out if the fish are eating farmed seaweed and if so, how much. It sounds complicated but it’s actually relatively straightforward: certain types of elements called isotopes are distributed differently throughout the environment and by measuring them in the muscles of the fish, we can tell whether they have been eating the seaweed. The isotopes act like a natural dye marker.

And then I find myself in a room with scientists who are working investigating seaweed, seaweed-eating fish, and are using stable isotopes. The acquaintances I’ve made here will probably be very important to my project.

It’s these surprising, unexpected connections that make conferences such as the IMCC so worthwhile.

James Hehre is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse.


Conservation through the back door

By Jennifer Selgrath

Day two of the International Marine Conservation Congress found me speaking about my Philippines-based research. I was sandwiched in a session of talks between Nishan Perea,  a Project Seahorse researcher based in Sri Lanka, and Felicity Burrows from The Nature Conservancy’s Bahamas’ office.  

All of us work on different aspects of sustainable fisheries and it was fascinating to compare notes from around the world. To set the scene, Nishan has been investigating how changes in Sri Lankan policy have influenced seahorse fishing and trade. Felicity spoke about the Bahamas’ effort to make their lobster-tail fishery sustainable. I study how fishing – legal and illegal — shifts across space and scale, in order to make management and conservation more effective. 

In Sri Lanka and the Bahamas, conservation has been happening in unexpected ways. The changes have been largely driven by seafood exporters with a financial stake in change  – conservation is a side-effect.  The Sri Lankan seahorse fishery has become illegal, and in countries with a thriving black market, that would simply drives the trade in seahorses underground. But in one part of Sri Lanka, an exporter got into the legal, captive-bred seahorse market and decided he made better money selling the seahorses he raised than the ones that he caught illegally in the wild.

In the Bahamas, the exporters decided to certify their fishery as sustainable through the Marine Stewardship Council – a move largely inspired by the European Union’s decision to import only sustainable seafood. Exporters started refusing to buy undersized lobsters, and dinged the fishers with steep fines if they tried to sneak undersized lobsters by.

I am inspired by these tales from other parts of the world!

Jennifer Selgrath is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse.

IMCC 2011: The view from the registration table

By Danika Kleiber

Day one of 2011 International Marine Conservation Congress and I hit the volunteer jackpot. The IMCC put me on registration, letters R-Z.  I spent four hours looking up people's names, telling them about their drink ticket for the reception in the evening, and giving them their goodie bags. When I wasn’t busy searching for tote bags, I spent some time matching faces to the names I know from scientific journals: "Why hello Anne Salomon, here is your conference tote, and make sure to find the Guylian chocolate at the bottom." 

But perhaps the best thing about volunteering is that it saved me during the reception later on that night.  I generally dread receptions.  I was expecting to stand in a corner peering over my free drink and carefully piled plate of food (a survival skill of many graduate students). I was just beginning this ritual when another student recognized me from the registration table and we had a fascinating discussion about the potential of dynamic marine protected areas.

A significant portion of the talks at the conference are devoted to marine protected areas (MPAs).  People are examining how big we should make them, what rules we should use to regulate them, how they change the way people fish, and so on.  MPAs are often stationary no-fishing zones, which we know can help increase fish abundance and diversity, not to mention in some cases save habitat from destructive fishing practices. But we can always think of ways to make them better!

As the conference gains momentum, our team will be reporting on the debate about MPAs as well as many other hot-button marine conservation issues. 

Danika Kleiber is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse.