It's time for some #OceanOptimism

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. 

Beyond marine protected areas

By Jennifer Selgrath

If you want to save money, you can invest in a blue-chip stock and it might grow. But a financial advisor would suggest that you improve your returns by diversifying your portfolio. We might take a similar, diversified approach to managing fisheries so that they are sustainable.

Just like your savings, the marine ecosystems that fisheries depend on need to be managed in order to ensure a healthy, productive future. But researchers working on small-scale fisheries have most often recommended one tool: marine protected areas, or MPAs. So at IMCC3 in Glasgow this August, my colleague Kyle Gillespie and I organized a symposium to broaden our view of the diverse tools and approaches which can support sustainable small-scale fisheries.

Small-scale fisheries employ about half of the world’s fishers and are critically important for food security. But many are in trouble due to overfishing and ecosystem degradation. MPAs, or no-fishing zones, are the management option that is most frequently recommended for these fisheries. MPAs are an important part of the marine conservation toolbox. Project Seahorse has helped fishing communities establish many MPAs over the years. We also, however, want to make sure that we are making fishing sustainable in the 99% of the ocean that remains “unprotected.”

Our IMCC symposium — Complementing MPAs in the Management of Small Scale Fisheries: Other Tools and Approaches — opened with talks by me, Dr. Marcia Moreno-Baez from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and Dr. Gabby Ahmadia from WWF. We spoke about our experiences with small-scale fisheries in the Philippines, Mexico, and Indonesia, respectively. The small-scale fisheries in these three countries are quite diverse. For example fishers in Mexico use modern boats that allow them to travel far offshore while the fisheries in the Philippines use boats that are similar to outrigger canoes, keeping them closer to their coastal villages. Our talks included discussions about management tools ranging from modifying fishing nets to increasing membership in sustainably-minded fishers organizations.

After the talks, we held a discussion about successful – and unsuccessful, but interesting – tools and approaches for managing small-scale fisheries. For the discussion, we were joined by researchers who work in many other parts of the world, but who are addressing surprisingly similar challenges. Through our discussion it became clear that there was no tool could act as a magic bullet to make small-scale fisheries sustainable.

But, importantly, our discussions led us to see that there were commonalities in the approaches that worked for many participants. For example, we agreed that it was important to start any conservation program with clearly articulated goals that are integrated with local and scientific knowledge and values. When researchers or resource managers are developing conservation programs to meet these goals, it’s also important to consider the local culture’s relationship to their fishing practices. Communities’ relationships with fisheries include both social and financial arrangements. For example, fishers may prefer fishing with specific gears and such preferences are important to understand.

On a pragmatic note, many researchers found that it was helpful to start with small conservation projects that have a good chance of success. When this happens, fishing communities can see the relationship between the changes that they make to their fisheries and the improvements in biodiversity and/or catches. This helped the communities to trust larger-scale, longer-term management measures whose impact isn’t as immediately obvious. Another bit of advice was that it is important to have regular feedback between research and fishers. This feedback is important, even before we have perfect knowledge. Overall it was a lively discussion that gave all of us a broader understanding of approaches that have a chance of success in making these diverse fisheries sustainable.

Getting on with marine conservation

By Julia Lawson

Dr. Amanda Vincent at IMCC.  Photo: D. Curnick

Dr. Amanda Vincent at IMCC. Photo: D. Curnick

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) is the biggest global event of its kind, an opportunity to engage with some of the brightest minds in marine science and hear some of the big, inspirational ideas in conservation today. As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I was excited to attend this year’s event.

To kick off the conference, our own Dr. Amanda Vincent delivered a plenary talk that got the conference delegates buzzing. The thrust of her talk, which will be familiar to Project Seahorse supporters, is that we need to get on with marine conservation even if the science isn’t perfect (while collecting more information as needed). Ocean ecosystems are declining at such a rapid rate that research must always be geared toward action. “Do not end your [conference] talks with ‘we need more research,’” she implored the audience. “Instead, tell me what you’re going to do.”    

Many were inspired by Amanda’s fiery call to action. A number of delegates told me during the conference that they’d begun to rethink the future of their own work, changing the final message in their talks from “we need to gather more data” to “let’s get a move on with what we have.” During Rebecca Weeks and Bob Pressey’s connectivity and marine conservation planning symposium, on the last day of IMCC, several marine ecologists closed their talks by mentioning what they termed “the Amanda Vincent approach” – getting a move on with what data they had in hand. 

As you might expect, approval was not universal.  Some marine conservationists in the audience feared that moving on limited data might create more problems rather than solutions. One person commented that “the ‘just get going approach’ is why we have thousands of poorly designed, ineffective and unenforced marine protected areas.”

Hearing Amanda - and seeing the generally excited response to her talk - made me reflect on what I’ve learned during my time with Project Seahorse. I began my Master’s degree firmly believing that the role of a scientist was to conduct objective research and disseminate that research to decision-makers. I believed at the time that we must avoid activism at all costs as it compromises our scientific integrity. However, during my time with Project Seahorse my views shifted. While I still believe strongly in scientifically grounded advice, I awakened to the reality that everyone has core beliefs on the topic they study, even seemingly objective scientists. The best thing we can do is to be honest about those beliefs — with ourselves and our target audiences — when we share our work.

In the words of Amanda: “you are either an activist or an in-activist.”

Julia Lawson is a graduate student with Project Seahorse.

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 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.