danajon bank

An ocean full of dragons and mermaids

Historical map makers – who worked before the world was fully explored – drew dragons and mermaids at the edges of the known world. Today these mythical creatures have vanished from our maps; the world has been mapped by waves of explorers, surveys, and satellites. We have grown incredibly precise at mapping features as diverse as ocean temperatures, aquifers, and ocean habitats. Yet much remains unknown.

Danajon Bank, three months after the earthquake

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes.  Photo: ZSL

Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes. Photo: ZSL

Last weekend I visited some of our project sites hit by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). This weekend I am visiting sites hit by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Bohol in October. 

As we land in Tubigon dock on Bohol I see the power of yet another of nature’s forces — this time a massive earthquake. I’ve entered a wonky, cracked, rubbly world, slowly being patched and filled. As we get a tricycle, I am stunned to see the municipal offices — the dominant building in central Tubigon — is torn apart by huge cracks on one side, while the other side has completely collapsed. I’ve had many meetings in those very offices with the mayor and officials and it’s normally bustling with activity so it feels all wrong to see it that way. Close by, the historic church and school are crumbled ruins, with the only consolation that it was a national holiday when the earthquake happened. Otherwise the casualties would have been so much higher.

We are heading to Matabao, the location of the marine protected area (MPA) we implemented as a result of Project Ocean — a wonderful and unlikely joint ZSL initiative with Selfridges department store. The road to Matabao is bumpier than before as sections have dropped and cracks have been temporarily filled. Tents line sections of the road and it’s great to see Shelterbox — a fantastic Cornish charity based near to where I live in the U.K. — have provided temporary housing to the most needy. There are houses that have completely collapsed, while others have spiderwebs of fresh concrete as people have made running repairs. Others look just fine, until you realise they are leaning at a rather unnatural angle and the tents in the garden confirm that these homes are no longer safe.

Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor.  Photo: ZSL

Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor. Photo: ZSL

We drop our bags at the little hostel we stay at near the water. The doors to our rooms won’t open fully now because, thanks to the quake, the rooms themselves have shifted and dropped below the path outside! At the highest tides, they now flood (luckily not today!) and rebuilding has already started. This is nothing compared to the situation reports we hear from some of the outer islands. Batasan, which is home to another Project Seahorse-supported MPA, dropped about a metre during the quake. In fact, our team was there at the time with international volunteers conducting surveys and were lucky to live through that terrifying experience. Now, the island floods every high tide and up to a metre at the highest tides. A detailed assessment will be done by experts this week, but it seems that the most likely option is to relocate that entire community — practically and emotionally a very difficult task.

We hold a community meeting with the members of the MPA Management Council and discuss this year’s plans. The mayor, engineer, and municipal agricultural officer from Tubigon also attend the meeting. They share some great news as they are able to allocate a fuel allowance and boat maintenance costs for the new ‘Selfridges’ patrol boat. They are grateful to have additional enforcement power in the area and we agree to set a co-ordinated enforcement plan with the larger Seaborne Patrol vessel that runs day and night throughout Tubigon’s municipal waters. The village captain confirms that he too has allocated funds this year from his budget to support the running of the MPA, in spite of the earthquake and the fact they couldn’t spare any funds last year. It’s encouraging to see — as with the ZSL Philippines mangrove sites — that environmental protection remains a priority in these communities, even after experiencing such major calamities, and testament to our local team for helping instil those values.

The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon.  Photo: ZSL

The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon. Photo: ZSL

We discuss the equipment they need and how to support that with the Selfridges’ MPA budget this year. Although I’m sure the fish wardens could do some damage with some Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag, we go for the slightly more practical option of binoculars, torches and mobile phones so they can communicate with the Seaborne Patrol!

The yellow patrol boat — painted in Selfridges’ statement colour — takes us out to the MPA after the tide comes in later that afternoon. The MPA guardhouse has adopted a jaunty angle after the ‘quake and the engineer has come up with a repair plan. I’m relieved we can get it operational again in the next month. As we pull up alongside it, we see very clearly why. There is a huge crack below the surface that snakes away from the guardhouse. These underwater cracks remain a real concern for the local fishers and who are very anxious, in many cases choosing not to fish in spite of the need for income and food. I put on my mask and snorkel and swim along the crack. It's really quite extraordinary to see the huge changes in the underwater topography. The crack is over five metres wide in places and ranges from a shallow drop to deep chasms. After a few hundred metres I find myself swimming over a drop-off, a steep wall with the sea disappearing below me. I only remember this area being a reef flat and seagrass bed and am confused. Back on the boat, Angie, our senior biologist, and the local fish warden confirms that there was no drop-off before.

Heather, Marisa, and village official in damaged MPA guardhouse.  Photo: ZSL

Heather, Marisa, and village official in damaged MPA guardhouse. Photo: ZSL

Next week, the team start our bi-annual underwater surveys of our MPAs to establish their impact on improving fish and habitats. This time, we will also be working with Filipino scientists to document the physical changes resulting from the earthquake. The communities are desperate to find out how their MPA and surrounding fishing grounds have changed. And, of course, they want to know whether it’s safe to go out on the water.

Ironically, the earthquake seems to have reduced fishing pressure on these impacted reefs as most fishers did not go out for about a month after it hit. The earthquake has shown the importance of diversifying livelihoods, not just to take pressure off the oceans, but also to build resilience in these communities against such catastrophe. The ZSL-Interface Net-Works project seems to be doing just that, with net collection rates remaining consistent or even increasing in the months after the earthquake, indicating this initiative is able to provide valuable income at a time when there are so few other options. Never has there been a better time to emphasise that we need conservation for development if we are truly going to achieve a sustainable future.

For more Project Seahorse coverage of Typhoon Haiyan and last October's earthquake in Bohol Province, Philippines, click here and here

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Project Seahorse's Co-Founder and Field Conservation Manager, and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London.

More photos from the relief efforts

By Regina Bestbier

Our relief efforts continue in the devastated communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank where no other external help is available. To date we've reached eleven communities, delivering emergency packs and other assistance to 1,600 households.  This past week we delivered rice, canned fish and drinking water to four communities in Panay (ZSL mangrove conservation project sites) that lost 75% - 100% of their homes.

Here are some images taken during a two-day relief operation to Bantayan and Hilantagaan Island in Cebu.  All photos taken by Steve de Neef.

 

Typhoon Yolanda affected many fishermen in the Visayas. On the way from Hagnaya to Bantayan there where a lot of damaged and some sunken boats.  Photo by Steve de Neef

Typhoon Yolanda affected many fishermen in the Visayas. On the way from Hagnaya to Bantayan there where a lot of damaged and some sunken boats. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People on Bantayan Island are collating anything they can to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Yolanda's wrath.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People on Bantayan Island are collating anything they can to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Yolanda's wrath. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People gathering around the ZSL/Project Seahorse relief truck in Bantayan Island.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People gathering around the ZSL/Project Seahorse relief truck in Bantayan Island. Photo by Steve de Neef

 Relief goods being offloaded and distributed in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island to victims of Typhoon Yolanda.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 Relief goods being offloaded and distributed in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island to victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People waiting in line in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan to receive relief goods. This can take hours.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People waiting in line in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan to receive relief goods. This can take hours. Photo by Steve de Neef

 Distributing emergency supplies in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 Distributing emergency supplies in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan. Photo by Steve de Neef

Hope.  Photo by Steve de Neef

Hope. Photo by Steve de Neef

Update from Danajon Bank

By Tyler Stiem

As mentioned previously on this blog, one of the areas that has been mostly overlooked in the post-Haiyan relief effort is Danajon Bank in northern Bohol Province, Philippines. Last month the area was badly damaged by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that destroyed over 2,000 houses and left many thousands of people homeless. 

Since then, this rare and threatened double-barrier reef and many of coastal and island communities that depend on it for food and livelihoods have been further affected by aftershocks as high as 5.1 on the Richter scale (over 3,000 so far) — as well as by the typhoon itself. 

This week, ZSL and Project Seahorse delivered emergency aid to 1,250 households in seven different towns and villages in the area. These are communities near and dear to our hearts, communities we have collaborated with on conservation programs for many years. 

Our local staff report that people are doing as well as can be expected. Thanks to the hard work of local People’s Organizations and other community-based groups, the emergency packs consisting of food, clean water, hygiene products, and essential medicines are quickly reaching the neediest people. 

Here are a few images from this latest two-day operation:

Food and other emergency supplies arrive by outrigger boats and by truck to remote Danajon Bank communities.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Food and other emergency supplies arrive by outrigger boats and by truck to remote Danajon Bank communities. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Volunteers unload the supplies. 

Volunteers unload the supplies. 

People wait patiently to receive emergency relief packs containing clean water, food, hygiene products, and essential medicine.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

People wait patiently to receive emergency relief packs containing clean water, food, hygiene products, and essential medicine. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Registering for emergency relief assistance.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Registering for emergency relief assistance. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A woman opens one of the packs for her young child.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A woman opens one of the packs for her young child. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Smiling faces.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Smiling faces. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Members of a local Peoples' Organization (PO) pose for a team photo. PO's are an essential part of relief operations, often drawing their volunteers from the affected communities.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Members of a local Peoples' Organization (PO) pose for a team photo. PO's are an essential part of relief operations, often drawing their volunteers from the affected communities. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The ZSL/Project Seahorse pause for a photo during a long day of relief work.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The ZSL/Project Seahorse pause for a photo during a long day of relief work. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

First photos from Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank

By Tyler Stiem

Thanks to the intrepid work of our field team, we can finally bring you images from Bantayan and Panay, two of the areas badly hit by Typhoon Haiyan, along with some photos of the earthquake damage to Danajon Bank. As mentioned in our previous post, several thousand homes have been destroyed in the coastal villages along Danajon Bank, and at least 75% of homes in Panay are gone. An update on the relief effort will follow later today. In the meantime, please share this post widely!

Fishing boats destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda). Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Fishing boats destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda). Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

A family stands outside the tent they've set up amid the rubble of their home. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

A family stands outside the tent they've set up amid the rubble of their home. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Kids rest on a knocked-down tree outside their village. Bantayan, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Kids rest on a knocked-down tree outside their village. Bantayan, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Fishing boats destroyed during the storm near Bantayan, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Fishing boats destroyed during the storm near Bantayan, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Ruined building, Bantayan, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Ruined building, Bantayan, Philippines. Photo: Chai Apale/PSF

Village houses shaken off their foundations during last month's 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol Province. Buenavista, Danajon Bank, Philippines.  Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Village houses shaken off their foundations during last month's 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol Province. Buenavista, Danajon Bank, Philippines. Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Houses knocked down by last month's earthquake.  Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Houses knocked down by last month's earthquake. Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Over 2,000 homes in the Danajon Bank region of the Philippines have been damaged or destroyed by last month's earthquake and last week's typhoon. Pictured here is a makeshift encampment where displaced families are sheltering.  Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

Over 2,000 homes in the Danajon Bank region of the Philippines have been damaged or destroyed by last month's earthquake and last week's typhoon. Pictured here is a makeshift encampment where displaced families are sheltering. Photo: Brian Saunders/Project Seahorse

"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