jennifer selgrath

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.

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. 

Putting seahorses on the map

By Jennifer Selgrath

Researcher Jenny Selgrath mapping a rare coral reef with local fishers.  Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse

Researcher Jenny Selgrath mapping a rare coral reef with local fishers. Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse

If I asked you to map the location of, say, your local aquarium, you would whip out your smart phone and Google would tell you where it is. But what if I asked you to map the location of corals and other important habitats in the Danajon Bank, a coral reef ecosystem in the central Philippines and within the global center of marine biodiversity? You would have had trouble because that map did not exist — until now.

I moved to the Philippines to work on conserving coral reef ecosystems and seahorses, but I could not find an accurate map of things as simple as where different villages were located. I took a few trips to local government offices where friendly staff showed me the maps that they had on their walls. With that information and a bit of computer time I made a digital map of the villages I was going to do research in. A first step. But the next step was to make a map of coastal habitats (including the underwater ones), and that was going to more complicated.

Why map ocean habitats when I work for Project Seahorse? Seahorses are the most charming fishes in the sea, but a lot of seahorse populations are threatened. One major threat to seahorses is the loss of their habitats. In tropical oceans, seahorse habitats include corals, seagrass and mangroves. These connected habitats provide shelter for seahorses, and they also support a lot of other biodiversity.

But these habitats can be seriously degraded by overfishing, coastal development, pollution and climate change. An important step in protecting seahorses — and other amazing marine wildlife — is to know where their habitats are and how healthy those habitats are. To do this we need good maps.

Mapping things that are underwater is challenging, but I wanted to compare how useful two approaches were for conservation. One approach for making maps involved using satellite images and remote-sensing software. This is cutting edge because, for a number of technical reasons, like the sections of the light spectrum that satellites photograph, it’s been hard see what was underwater from space. New satellites have fixed some of these problems, opening up this possibility.

To make satellite-image-based maps, I did snorkeling surveys and took coordinates of the habitats I found. Those surveys helped identify color, texture and location patterns specific to each habitat in the satellite image. I made the remote-sensing maps in collaboration with Chris Roelfsema at the University of Queensland.

The second approach involved making habitat maps by interviewing local fishers to map the habitats that are in their fishing grounds. I interviewed approximately 250 fishers from 21 villages located in different regions of the Danajon Bank. Then I combined the maps each fisher drew into one map representing local knowledge about habitats. This is a lot less technical and expensive, and it can get fishers excited about protecting important habitats.

 

Remote-sensing map

When I compared these two approaches, both maps were fairly accurate, but each approach had different strengths for conservation programs. The remote-sensing map was slightly more accurate and did a better job of showing fine-scale details, such as indicating the amount of habitat edges present. This is important because some fishes, along with invertebrates such as scallops and lobsters, are strongly affected by habitat edges. Other species, however, such as highly mobile fishes, are not affected by habitat edges. Conservation programs focusing on them do not necessarily require such finely detailed maps.

Fisher map

The map I constructed with fishers was better at documenting habitats that were in murky waters (which the satellite-image map missed) and was informative about coarse habitat patterns. But the fisher maps were blank in places where the fishers did not fish, such as local marine protected areas (MPAs).

Because there are benefits to both techniques, at Project Seahorse we are planning to combine both maps to use in upcoming conservation projects. We recommend that conservation programs that are planning to make marine habitat maps identify their goals (i.e., what they are going to use the map for) early in the process so that they can make an informed decision about the best mapping approach to use.

If you want to learn more about the Danajon Bank, you can check out the iLCP photo exhibition in the Wild Reef exhibit at Shedd. And if you want to get involved with mapping and help protect seahorses, check out iSeahorse.org. iSeahorse is a new citizen science initiative that allows people to upload information and photos whenever they see seahorses in the wild. Information you provide will help us make maps of where seahorses are located around the world and will help us improve seahorse conservation.

Jenny Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. Follow her on Twitter @JennySelgrath.

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.

Sustainability at Shedd Aquarium

By Jennifer Selgrath

Two baby leafy pipefish are zooming around a tank. I try to take pictures and they come out looking like blurry toothpicks. Blimey! They are totally unlike their parents, who hover gently over rocks in the tank just above — cool, calm, and unhurried. I guess some things don’t change between species.  I am in Chicago visiting the John G. Shedd Aquarium, and their aquarist, Erika Lorenz, is kindly giving me a tour. Erika specializes in seahorse husbandry (i.e. feeding, breeding, and caring for seahorses) so she is full of information about seahorses and just about everything else. The Shedd Aquarium is a long-time partner of Project Seahorse, so it is lovely finally be here, seeing their work in action. 

One of the reasons these baby leafy pipefish are so exciting is that the Shedd is committed to exhibiting animals they have sourced sustainably. Seahorses are one species with which they’ve had a lot of success. We walk past tanks that house hundreds of babies. Seahorses are notoriously difficult to rear in captivity, so the birth of these new seahorses counts as a major success. Erika boxes some of the animals in a special container to be shipped to other aquariums around the world. Shedd’s collection includes a number of different species, including spiny, tigertail, and long-snouted seahorses (H. barberi, H. comes, and H. reidi). 

Sourcing fish and other marine and freshwater critters in sustainable ways is incredibly important. Aquarium- and aquaculture-bred animals have a much higher survival rate in captivity than animals that are caught in the wild for captivity. And if too many fish are caught, then the aquarium fishery can have devastating effects on local populations. My friend Malin Pinsky did his PhD research studying clownfish (think “Finding Nemo”) and found that their populations were almost locally extinct close to cities where there were aquarium fisheries.

Shedd sources their leafy pipefish and other species from Australia’s sustainable fisheries. There, one person is allowed to catch three males per year right before they give birth (seadragons, like seahorses, have male pregnancies).

The fisher is allowed to keep and sell the babies – some of which, like the ones I see at Shedd, are raised to adulthood – but he must return the fathers back into their homes in the ocean, thereby maintaining the local population, too. It’s fantastic to see what is possible when an aquarium integrates conservation into their mission.

Jennifer Selgrath is a PhD 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. 

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.