nick hill

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.

Interview with Dr. Nick Hill, expedition scientist

By Tyler Stiem

Dr. Nick Hill has spent many years working on some of the most beautiful and some of the most degraded coral reefs in the world. Having started his professional life as an ecologist, Nick became increasingly interested in the socioeconomic dimensions of conservation. As a researcher with Project Seahorse, he investigated the livelihoods of people on Danajon Bank. 

Nick now works with the Zoological Society of London, one of Project Seahorse’s key partners, where he manages one of the “good news” projects for Danajon Bank. Net-Works, as the pilot is known, is helping to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic waste by recycling discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles. 

Nick is the lead field scientist on the expedition to Danajon Bank. 

Nick, why do we need to protect coral reefs?

For all the talk in the media about how coral reefs are being destroyed all over the world, what’s sometimes lost is just how incredibly valuable they are. They’re not just beautiful — globally, coral reefs provide US $30 billion every year in coastline protection, food, tourism and other livelihoods. Hundreds of millions of people depend on reefs and other coastal marine ecosystems for their survival!

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, at least 30% of reefs and 40% of other vital coastal habitats have been degraded or destroyed worldwide. In the Caribbean, for example, reef coverage has shrunk from 50% to 5% since the 1960s. The numbers are similar for the Indo-Pacific and other regions. 

Why Danajon Bank?

Simply put, Danajon Bank captures the global story of coral reefs. It’s thought to be a cradle of biodiversity for the Pacific Ocean, meaning that many species may first have evolved here. It’s also economically important. Many, many people depend on it for their survival, so it faces many of the pressures reefs all over the world face. Overfishing, population pressure, destructive fishing practices like blasting, where they use dynamite to catch the fish, and pollution, to list a few examples. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Danajon Bank is one of the most threatened coral reefs in the world. Decades of overfishing and destructive fishing practices have taken their toll. If we don’t scale up protections soon, it really could be too late to save the reef. The challenge, here and all over the world, is striking the balance between human need and ecological protection. 

What is needed to protect Danajon Bank?

In terms of conservation, we need to increase legal protections for Danajon Bank — a marine reserve designation for the entire ecosystem being the goal. 

There are scores of small marine reserves all over the Bank, but a reserve-by-reserve approach offers a limited amount of protection, and depends entirely on the vigilance of the communities that run the reserves. If the whole reef were designated by law as a marine reserve, it would be easier to protect against large-scale exploitation while continuing to regulate local, small-scale fishing.

Can you talk about Project Seahorse’s work in the region?

Project Seahorse has a long history in Danajon Bank. We’ve been doing research and conservation work here for nearly twenty years. We’ve worked closely with local communities to establish 35 marine reserves. Over the years we’ve seen badly overfished areas of the reef slowly recover, which is heartening. Even more heartening is the positive perceptions within local communities and the social capital that has been built through these marine reserves.

Our conservation work is based on robust biological and socioeconomic research. For as long as we’ve been working in Danajon Bank, we’ve been sending our scientists here to study everything from seahorse biology to the impact of seaweed farming, to the effectiveness of marine reserves. Our cutting-edge research informs conservation work in the Philippines and all over the world.

ZSL is working closely with Interface, a company that specializes in sustainable carpet products, on an exciting pilot project that will turn discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles, providing local fishers with income in return. We hope to make some exciting announcments about this project very soon.  

What are your hopes for the expedition? How do you think Expedition: Danajon Bank can make a difference to this threatened reef?

I hope we get some incredible images! 

The problem is that, in spite of its ecological and economic importance, Danajon Bank is barely known within the Philippines, let alone around the world. So, for starters, we need to change that. We need to get the word out. This is the purpose of Expedition: Danajon Bank — to bring some badly needed local, national, and international attention to this badly threatened ecosystem.  

Legal protections are only one part of the equation. We also need to change hearts and minds. There are scores of local communities that are totally committed to protecting the reef, just as there are others that continue to fish here in unsustainable ways. The better people understand the threats and the ecological and economic importance of the reef, the more likely they are to do their part to conserve it.  

I hope, too, that by bringing the story of Danajon Bank to the rest of the Philippines and to the world, we can inspire similar change elsewhere.

Turtle in a bucket

By Dr. Nick Hill

Dr. Nick Hill is a former Project Seahorse researcher and currently a project manager in the Marine and Freshwater Conservation Team at the Zoological Society of London. In this guest post, he talks about the conservation challenges facing the fishing communities of Danajon Bank, Philippines.

There's a beautiful white beach here, somewhere. Discarded plastic bottles, biscuit wrappers, Styrofoam and fishing nets are piled above head height in places.  You can smell this tiny island before you can see it.  I tread carefully through the minefield left by over 2,000 people that have neither a bin collection nor a sewerage system.  The occasional coconut palm and gnarly mangrove tree jut through, memoirs of a former paradise.

I consider taking a swim to escape the carnage. But the idea evaporates with one glance at the crystal clear water – devoid of life except for a thick green carpet of sludge on the seafloor.  Can you get typhoid from seawater?  Not a risk I'm willing to take.

As the setting sun casts a beautiful pink glow overhead, some Filipino fishers prepare for a night on the water.  There's normally excited anticipation before a fishing trip.  But not in this part of the Philippines.  There's some general chatter, the hissing of kerosene pressure lamps and the occasional whoosh as they're lit.  

Water sloshes around the legs of fishers as they wade out to their narrow outrigger canoes and fix the lamps in place over the bow.  Then the first of the modified pump engines that will power them to their fishing grounds shatters the relative tranquillity of the evening.  As they disappear into the distance and darkness descends, a generator splutters to life behind me and the street karaoke begins.

Iunderstand the fishers' lack of enthusiasm.  I joined one of them last night.  It's hard work, swimming all night, towing your boat with only a faint circle of light cast by the lamp to first spot and then spear your quarry.  Without a wetsuit, it doesn't take long before the tropical waters feel chilly, while invisible jellyfish leave their marks on your skin.

In the morning the returning fishers have barely enough catch to fill half a small bucket.  A lucky fisher proudly shows me his haul.  A pufferfish, still fully inflated, is his largest prize.  He grins as he tells me that many parts of this fish will kill you if eaten. But with so few fish left the fishers increasingly take the risk.  I watch as he deftly skins it and removes the poisonous internal organs, hoping he hasn't missed any.  

His most valuable catch is less obvious.  A pair of seahorses barely four inches long, still snapping their heads upward – the limited movement their stiff bodies allow.  The fisher proudly holds them up.  "China – expensive," he explains.  Behind him, the day-shift fishers busily prepare boats and long nets.

It's little wonder that many fishers are looking for new sources of income.  Seaweed farming is becoming increasingly common — where once there were fish, people now exploit the empty space to grow algae that feeds our insatiable demand for gels and cosmetics.  I wonder whether this shift in focus will allow the fish to recover.  

"It's because of the illegal fishers who use dynamite, cyanide and trawling," my guide informs me.  "If we can stop the illegal fishers then the fish will return."  And how will that happen?  "The government needs to increase enforcement," he explains.

By the afternoon I'm back on the mainland and being led along a rickety narrow walkway made of bamboo.  I reach a makeshift hut built over the sea.  Five or six gruff men sit in the shade, their boats tied up nearby.  

"These are my fish wardens," explains the Coastal Resource Manager.  "We have this hut as a look-out, so we can catch the illegal fishers."  There seems to be an awfully large area of sea and many islands out there.  Can they really spot illegal fishing from here?

In the corner, a big blue bucket catches my attention.  "Turtle," explains the manager.  

"The fishers caught it and brought it to us."  A large green turtle lies very still, just submerged, unable to turn around in its blue confines.  "We feed it fish that we catch, and we'll release it when we have money for fuel to take it to the deep sea, past the islands.  The fishers don't like it because it can eat their seaweed."  The turtle raises its head to breathe.

I'm surprised to see this turtle.  But why should I be?  Probably because it's alive.  Most of the animals I've seen here are destined for the pot.  But it also makes me think of what this place might once have been like.  When this sea was teaming with life, fishers could fill their buckets, turtles were numerous, and the island beaches were a tropical paradise.  This turtle in a bucket — a fragile vestige of better times.

Re-posted with permission from the Marine Reserves Coalition.

The art of selling conservation

By Dr. Nick Hill

I couldn’t possibly recall the number of times I’ve attempted to explain to my friends and family, for the most part patiently and calmly, but sometimes, I confess, angry and frustrated, why it is important that they choose the fish they eat carefully and use the various fish guides when making their choices, only to come for dinner another day and be proudly presented with tuna sushi or baked cod, or even a prawn cocktail.

When I ask them where this came from and whether they checked it was sustainable, I inevitably get a blank stare back. I repeat the arguments again, to which I always get sympathetic groans and understanding nods — but it obviously doesn’t stick for long. This battle to get people engaged in issues of marine conservation is shared by many marine conservationists across the world in a wide variety of contexts. If we can’t convince our own friends and family, how can we expect to reach the rest of the public?

This is exactly the question taken up at “Shallow Seas: The Future of Marine Conservation,” a recent talk at the Zoological Society of London in the UK. The talk looked at how scientists try and often fail to connect with the public about conservation issues. I thought which readers of this blog might find interesting.

Dr. Amanda Vincent, Project Seahorse’s Executive Director, put forward the case that we should focus marine conservation efforts at the ocean’s coastal areas: the world’s “shallow seas.” Not only is this the area of greatest collision between humans and the oceans, and where a huge variety of species live and important ecosystems that provide invaluable services to humanity are found (think seagrasses, coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes, estuaries), but this is also where millions of people work, rest, play, and explore. By focusing on areas that the vast majority of people have experienced in some way, Dr. Vincent argued we stand a much better chance of engaging people in marine conservation. However, we need to improve the tools that we use to engage people in the shallow seas, and we need to tap into emerging support for marine conservation. You can read more about her ideas in a recent editorial published in Aquatic Conservation.

Dr. Sarah Coulthard, from the University of Ulster, focused on the developing world, where many of the world’s poorest and most numerous fishers depend on the ocean fringes for their very survival. Sarah highlighted the importance of understanding people’s well-being when designing marine conservation strategies for these shallow zones. Conflicts can exist between the use and value that people obtain from these areas and potential conservation policies and strategies. Without understanding the wishes and needs of these people, any conservation efforts are likely to fail. You can read more about these ideas in the following papers:

Coulthard, S., Johnson, D. and McGregor, J.A. (2011). Poverty, sustainability and human wellbeing: A social wellbeing approach to the global fisheries crisis. Global Environmental Change 21: 453–463.

McGregor, J.A. (2004). Researching wellbeing: Communicating between the needs of policy makers and the needs of people. Global Social Policy 4(3): 337–358.

Vivekanandan, V. (2010). Trawl Brawl India — Sri Lanka trans-border fishing. Samudra report 57.

Dr. Richard Harrington, from the Marine Conservation Society, highlighted the importance of public engagement in driving forward the UK’s marine conservation agenda. He argued that the vast majority of the public’s reason for engaging in consultation comes from their personal experiences with the ocean fringes. However, despite widespread public pressure and engagement from a wide range of stakeholders from businesses to recreational yachters and holidaymakers, even now the UK government is stalling in their delivery of conservation plans.

Dr. Rebecca Jefferson, from Plymouth University, provided a fascinating insight into the UK public’s perception of the oceans and opportunities for connecting people to the sea — to increase the public’s “ocean citizenship.” Few people even know what lies beyond the coast. For example, 44% of the English public believe coastal shallows to be generally, mostly or totally barren. This illustrates one of the many barriers to developing the society-sea connection.

But there is reason for hope. Dr. Jefferson has found many people are at least interested and open to new information and ideas about our oceans. Her research has discovered that different people have different interests and motivations, and that we need to understand these differences and how to work with them. For example, women were generally more interested in pretty species, while men were more likely to be interested in species they could eat. Promisingly, however, she found that, yes, people relate to dolphins and similarly cute or anthropomorphic species, but they also relate to non-charismatic species that are nevertheless important — seagrasses for example. The challenge is in the storytelling. How do we give people the information they need to become invested in the conservation of these species? Her message was that we should not underestimate or patronise the public, but we do need to find ways to get more interesting stories out there.