coral reefs

The night life in the Philippines is truly wild

By Kyle Gillespie

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Something exciting happens when the sun goes down in the central Philippines. I'm not talking about the karaoke bars or the evening basketball games. Shortly after dusk, the reefs become flooded with fantastic and exotic creatures. It starts as a trickle.

As the last rays of sunshine disappear below the horizon a few crabs scurry from out of crevices. The trickle quickly becomes a torrent as basket stars unfurl their arms, snails with shells the size of grapefruit begin to hunt, and squid and octopus dance past flashing brilliant colours and patterns. The parade of creatures lasts until dawn and this past summer I had front rows seats here in at the epicentre of ocean biodiversity.

It's hard to believe that fish represent only about 5% of all the animals on coral reefs while an astonishing 95% of reef biodiversity is made up of spineless creatures, or invertebrates. And they are absolutely fascinating: Cuttlefish are intelligent, vicious hunters; decorator crabs wear elaborate costumes and tube worms use intricate, umbrella-like structures to filter food from the water. In many regions of the Philippines they make up a quarter to a half of fisher catch, sold to local and distant markets or consumed as important protein source for fishers and their families. 

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

In spite of their importance to humans, invertebrates are nearly always overlooked in marine ecological and conservation science. We do know that they are vitally important for the proper functioning of marine ecosystems, but when it comes to how they structure our oceans and how we can best conserve them, there are many more questions than there are answers. 

As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I’m trying to answer some of these questions so we can better tailor our conservation programmes to the reality of marine ecosystems and the fisheries that depend on them. Only by taking a holistic approach, one that takes invertebrates as well as fish into account, can we develop truly effective conservation solutions to some of conservation’s most intractable problems.

In 2013, for the fieldwork component of my research, I traveled from Vancouver to Danajon Bank in the central Philippines where Project Seahorse has worked for the past two decades. If you’ve been following our work, you might already know that this 130-km double-barrier reef off the north coast of Bohol Province is considered by scientists to be the cradle of marine biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean. Many species found all over the Pacific are thought to have first evolved here. During our time here, Project Seahorse has helped establish 35 community-run marine protected areas (MPAs) on Danajon Bank. 

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

For four months I dived every night inside and outside of these MPAs, spoke with fishers about the importance of invertebrates to their livelihoods, and assessed how well managed and enforced the reserves are. During my field season, I was able to see many different and fascinating creatures, and spend time with some of the warmest people I have ever met.

Over the next few months I’ll be blogging in this space about some of these incredible invertebrates, their roles in marine ecosystems, and their importance to small fishing communities. Stay tuned!

Ten amazing facts about coral reefs

By Tyler Stiem

Photo: Guido Borgenon/Guylian Seahorses of the World

Photo: Guido Borgenon/Guylian Seahorses of the World

As we prepare for our expedition to Danajon Bank double barrier reef in the Philippines, we’ll be sharing some key facts and stats about corals, coastal habitats, and conservation. Here are 10 amazing things you probably didn’t know:

500 million

Number of people who live near coral reefs and depend on them for food, livelihoods, and well-being.

30 billion

Value, in US dollars, of coastline protection, tourism, and food provided by coral reefs every year.


Average number of lives saved per coastal village during India’s 1999 “supercyclone,” thanks to the wave-dampening effects of mangroves and coastal marine habitats. 


Proportion of the world’s fisheries yields that come from waters less than 200 m deep.


Proportion of coral reefs that have been degraded or destroyed globally.


Number of marine reserves in the world, for a total of 4.2 million square kilometers, as of 2010.


Proportion of our oceans protected by marine reserves.

135 km

Length of Danajon Bank, a rare and threatened double-barrier reef in central Philippines, and the focus of our expedition. The total area of the reef is 234,950 sq hectares.


Number of threatened species that depend on Danajon Bank for their survival.


Number of marine protected areas established on Danajon Bank by expedition partner Project Seahorse in collaboration with local communities.

Help us protect Danajon Bank and send an ocean conservation message to the world! You can receive gorgeous, gallery-quality photo prints, a book about the expedition, postcards, and much more in exchange for your support.

How do you make conservation more effective?

By Dr. Phil Molloy

When I tell people that I do coral-reef conservation, they usually tease me about the tough life I must lead, spending all that time in the sea, sun, and sand. If only it were so relaxing! In fact, my work tracking the changes in fish populations starts with days of poring over species identification guides, shifting dive gear on and off boats, making seemingly endless forays to and from field sites, and spending hours underwater, wishing I’d gone with the 5 mm wetsuit instead of the 3 mm one.

Don’t get me wrong: I love it. I wouldn’t be doing reef conservation if I didn’t. But the widely unrecognized reality is that marine conservation fieldwork is time-consuming, physically demanding and, critically, expensive. Yet it is work that must be done carefully and accurately. Without accurate studies of the impact of external pressures on marine ecosystems, or the effectiveness of marine protected areas, we wouldn’t be able to create better conservation tools.  

So, as marine conservationists, we are under considerable pressure to develop quick and cheap methods that allow us to get in the water, collect the data we require and get back to terra firma.

To this end, I’ve been exploring ways to streamline the methods used to detect changes in coral-reef fish populations over time. Can we, for example, obtain meaningful results even if we reduce the frequency of visits to each study site or the amount of replication required each visit, or by considering just a handful of fish species?  In particular, we were hopeful that we could detect general changes in fish populations using a subset of locally fished species or those whose names make them particularly easy to identify (like the blackfin barracuda — a barracuda with, you guessed it, black fins).

By re-analyzing an existing dataset, we found that we could still detect changes in the number of fish and the number of species if we visited sites every other month (instead of monthly), or by halving the amount of replication done each visit. Most interestingly, we also found that we could detect these changes by only considering three-quarters of the locally fished species or all easily identified species. Still with me?

What this means is that we don’t need to count every fish species to detect changes in the overall fish populations on the reef. By using commonly fished species as indicators, conservationists can reduce the amount of time and money needed to train research volunteers — and they can more easily involve local fishers in their fieldwork, making it faster and more effective!

This is good news all around. Our results mean that we’ll have more time to do more conservation, and maybe, just maybe, a little more time to enjoy that fabled sea, sun, and sand!

Dr. Phil Molloy is a postdoctoral fellow with Project Seahorse. Learn more about this research in “Frugal conservation: What does it take to detect changes in fish populations?” published in the November 2010 issue of Biological Conservation