When I left for the CITES CoP, I told my 5 year old son that I was going to a meeting where all the world’s countries were coming together to make sure that all the animals and plants around today would be around when he grew up – and I left South Africa still convinced that this is exactly the best way to describe the CoP.
Am I really a conservationist?
As a young marine biologist, I’m kind of ashamed to confess that I had never bothered to ask myself that question until last April, after I started fieldwork to initiate seahorse conservation in China. I took it for granted that I was.
Despite the importance of biodiversity conservation, Project Seahorse has made me realize how little I had learned about it in high school.
In this four-part blog series, Project Seahorse MSc student Clayton Manning ponders the question: "Hey, I'm in Australia doing seahorse research - How did I end up here?"
By Clayton Manning
Over the past year-and-a-half I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up and thought, “how the hell did I get here?” Not just geographically, but intellectually, too.
In November 2012, entirely for fun, I started a volunteer research project with a biologist at the University of Calgary who I had met during my undergrad. In that project I took thousands of photos of bumblebee wings, then digitized and analyzed them. I was investigating how bumblebee morphology (the shape and form of their bodies) affected the characteristics of their wings, and the work couldn’t have been more terrestrial.
Only a few months later, in February 2013, I caught a flight from Calgary to Tokyo, Japan. It was the first time I'd ever left North America. I was moving to a country that I knew nothing about, where I knew nobody, and where I knew absolutely none of the very unique local language. I spent the next 20 months teaching English and immersing myself in Japanese culture.
Now I’m now living in Vancouver and a graduate student with Project Seahorse, an organization whose work couldn't be any farther, in a physical sense, from the stuff I've been doing. Instead of looking at blown-up pictures of bumblebee wings on a computer screen, I will be diving to investigate the trophic behavior of seahorses. If variety is the spice of life, someone must have hit me in the face with a rack of it.
Some would argue that because my research background has been largely microscopic and land-based, I’m not suited to do research on marine fishes. Before bumblebees I studied mountain pine beetles, where I showed that the amount of monoterpenes (a vaporous chemical) a pine tree releases affects the ability of the females beetles to lay eggs. And before that I worked in Alberta rivers, and revealed how solar radiation is a more important killer of fecal (poop) coliform than water pH. But I would argue it is the breadth of my research base and my recent personal past that will allow me to conduct successful research.
Conservation is a tricky corner of science, where you need to employ a wide range of skills and learn many of those you don’t. It is an intricate mixture of ecology and social sciences, with a dash of physical sciences such as chemistry that is churned by economics. If you look at it from only an ecological perspective, you will completely miss the human-related reasons for why some communities are forced to exploit a resource.
But if you look too closely at the human side of things, you may miss the potential biological reasons for declining species populations such as trophic cascades or invasive species (such as mountain pine beetles). If that isn’t difficult enough, every day the impacts of climate change on conservation are becoming more and more prominent. Conservationists are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, adaptive and creative problem-solvers.
It could therefore be a positive that I’ve needed to figure out how to build a water-bath that keeps poop bacteria at a constant temperature. Who knows, maybe during my thesis I’ll need to be able to build a cage for seahorses that regulates the size of the zooplankton (a tiny organism seahorses feed on) that is allowed to enter. Or maybe my painful 36 consecutive hours of peeling pine tree logs to find pine beetles I had implanted a week before will allow me to more effectively conduct early-morning fisher interviews, all-day visual census dives and late-night data entry for weeks on end. It is also possible that my year and half of learning how to communicate effectively in a broken foreign language will give me a leg up when conducting field work in another new country.
Although the last two years have been a trip for all of my senses, and although I find myself face-to-face with a brand new challenge, it is the diversity of my research and recent life experiences that I will look upon to complete my Master’s degree. Whether it be on fish or insects, in forests or oceans, one’s ability to do good science is dependent on problem-solving and resourcefulness. This especially so in conservation, when all elements of the human and natural environment may be at play.
So when, inevitably, the day comes that I need to overcome some strange, unforeseen issue in the waters of a faraway land… you can bet I’ll be thinking about either beetles or poo.
By Riley Pollom
As the plane touched down on Haida Gwaii, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. In preparation for the trip I’d devoured all the material I could find on the establishment of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Marine Conservation Area and Haida Heritage Site, a conservation success story if there ever was one. Established in 1988 on the southern part of the archipelago, Gwaii Haanas protects some of Canada’s greatest biological and cultural treasures. Even so, I was astonished by what I saw over the next two weeks.
My partner and I started the trip at Rose Spit on Graham Island. According to Haida tradition, it’s here where life on earth first began. It was here that Raven, a trickster figure in Haida cosmology, opened the clamshell to release the first people. The creation legend is famously portrayed by Bill Reid in his 1980 sculpture, The Raven and the First men, housed at the UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. We hiked from Tow Hill, the highest point on the northern part of the island, down along the rocky and aptly-named Long Beach. Along the way we encountered the many signs of marine life lapping onto the beach — dungeness crab molts, giant kelp stalks, and the shells of countless mollusks. We also encountered many locals harvesting razor clams at low tide, a practice that has gone on sustainably for thousands of years. The spit itself was quite a sight – picture two perpendicular coasts meeting, with a long, tapering stretch of land jutting into the strait.
From there we visited Tlell, home of the Edge of the World Music Festival, and then the ancient village of Tanu for an ecological and cultural tour with Haida guides. We started out in Queen Charlotte, a logging town that became the largest settlement on the islands, and then zipped across glass-smooth water to Skedans on Louise Island.
Skedans is an abandoned Haida village, one of the many that flourished for centuries, until the nineteenth century. The village’s 200-year old totems are slowly returning to Mother Nature, as the remaining Haida elders wanted it. Central to every aspect of life for the Haida, including village life, hunting and fishing, and even in determining who could marry whom, the totems are a stark reminder of how this community once thrived.
Life here was disrupted by a smallpox epidemic that took decimated the local villages, reducing a population of 20,000 to a few hundred people. As large portions of each village succumbed to the disease, it was decided that the survivors would congregate in two villages – Skidegate and Masset – the only Haida villages still inhabited. As a result of the epidemic, the Haida lost valuable traditional knowledge, along with the governance structures that helped them manage their forest and ocean resources effectively. In their absence, commercial fishing and extensive old-growth logging took hold on the islands for many decades, badly damaging the ecosystems that the remaining Haida communities depended on for survival.
But today it was hard to see any sign of these past hardships. The new management plans instituted as part of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement — which gave the Council of the Haida Nation a direct stake in the park — are clearly working. In Skedans, ocean and forest were both teeming with life. I struggled to grasp how such a place of abundance could have once suffered such cataclysmic losses, human and animal. As we departed Skedans, en route to the more southerly village of Tanu, we came across a large pod of humpback whales feeding near Moresby Island. A huge adult humpback leapt completely out of the water within 100 metres of our boat, sending our jaws to the floor. What a sight! Our guide, on the job for 20 years, had never seen such a complete breach, or one so close.
Tanu was another sight to behold, with large hemlocks, cedars and firs growing up out of ancient Haida totems and longhouses. Although many of their ancestors and cultural traditions lied buried there, there’s a sense of comfort that comes out of the fact that these remnants are giving way to new life.
On our last day in Haida Gwaii we ventured through Skidegate Inlet to the west coast of the islands to see the salmon – some of the largest in the world — that make Haida Gwaii so popular with sportsfishers. As our aluminum boat bounced out over the Pacific chop, I told our guide that we would be unable to ship our catch home (we had a three-day train ride to Vancouver awaiting us), and so we were okay with catch-and-release. “The Haida never play with their food,” he said, teasing me. To our amazement (and regret) we caught large coho and chinook salmon with in a few minutes. The biggest was 30 pounds! An abundance of boats, both Haida and charter, bobbed along the steep cliffs of the islands catching as many as we did, revelling in the abundance of such magnificent creatures.
And so the Haida go on. Fishing and living off the ocean as they always have. I returned to Vancouver convinced that, under the right conditions, both human societies and biodiversity can recover from unspeakable hardship and degradation and even flourish. The thriving ecosystems and animal populations of Gwaii Haanas are a thrilling testament to this.
By Jennifer Selgrath
“Capes on everybody, it's time for some #OceanOptimism!"
At her IMCC plenary talk last month, Project Seahorse co-founder Dr. Heather Koldewey encouraged everyone in attendance to think about what kind of super hero we want to be. As marine conservationists, she said, we should always think about our scientific work in terms of how it changes the world for the better. Now more than ever, we need to get on with conservation.
Just as importantly, however, we need to communicate our successes. We need to share our stories with the world. Because, as Dr. Koldewey pointed out, the media’s coverage of ocean conservation focuses almost exclusively on the negative. In her talk she drew a parallel between media coverage of human health and coverage of the health of our ocean. In the headlines of stories about cancer and other serious diseases, for example, positive words like “hope” and “cure” are common. Not so with stories about ocean conservation. The headlines tend to be doom-and-gloom.
The problem with that, she said, is that “scary messages without solutions don't motivate people!" What motivates people is hope.
Which is why, just in time for World Ocean Day in June 2014, Dr. Koldewey and her colleagues launched the Twitter hashtag #oceanoptimism to highlight all that is going right with marine conservation and encourage the wider public to get involved. To date, over 1.8 million twitter users have been reached with inspiring stories of hope and change.
Dr. Koldewey shared a few of them in her speech.
She talked about iSeahorse, our program that turns seahorse enthusiasts into citizen scientists and the data they collect into conservation action.
Another was Net-Works, a project she oversees in her role as the head of the Zoological Society of London’s Global Conservation Programmes. An innovative public-private initiative with floor tile manufacturer Interface, Net-Works turns old and worn-out fishing nets into eco-friendly carpets. You can watch a short video about it here.
This program has a special place in my heart because they collect nets in many of the fishing villages where I do research. I feel full of optimism watching how this program is helping to reduce ‘ghost fishing’ — where abandoned nets float in the ocean, inadvertently catching and drowning sea life. It does this by repurposing discarded nets, bringing a sustainable source of revenue to the impoverished communities, and creating community-based banking programs. To date the program has converted 40 metric tons of fishing nets into carpet.
She also spoke about Project Ocean, an awareness-raising campaign with Selfridges that marries marine conservation with high fashion. Selfridges has eliminated shark by-products from their beauty line, stopped selling endangered fish in their food court, and had fashion models wearing balloons to look like plankton all to encourage consumers to make their shopping habits more sustainable.
There are many, many more examples. Just search Twitter using #OceanOptimism. And please share your stories, too!
Jennifer Selgrath (@JennySelgrath) is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.