phil molloy

On My Desk: Using social marketing to save the world

By Dr. Phil Molloy

When I was growing up, my brother and I used to watch movies about Gangland America. An odd choice for two English country bumpkins, but true nonetheless. One of my favourite quotes from those films is from John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. Doughboy — Ice Cube’s character — explains why people don’t deal with the problems in his 'hood: “Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the 'hood.” 

This is my explanation for why the environmental problems facing our seas are, if anything, getting worse. That is, either people don’t know how bad things are, they do know how bad things are but pretend not to because that would be tantamount to admitting they are partly responsible, or they just don’t give a monkey’s.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope so. But humour me for a minute and assume I’m right. How, then, do we deal with this depressing situation? This question has come up in a paper some colleagues and I are currently writing. We’ve been considering the role of social marketing in changing people’s behaviour. One of the most thought-provoking papers I’ve read on the topic is "Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing," a seminal article by the psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr, written over a decade ago.  

McKenzie-Mohr explains how we can use social marketing to promote sustainable behaviour. First, he says, of all the things that people could do that would be ‘greener’ than their typical day-to-day behaviours, what would be the most strategic to promote? That is, what behaviour is really going to make a difference? Once we’ve figured out what we want to promote, we need to establish what stops people from adopting these ‘good’ behaviours in the first place. This, in part, is where you solve Doughboy’s conundrum.

You’re determining whether the obstacle is that people don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care. Once you’ve figured this out, you must then work out the best ways to overcome the particular obstacle you face. These basic steps allow a prototype campaign to be designed. Before leaping into a full-blown social-marketing scheme, McKenzie-Mohr strongly advocates running a pilot campaign to check our proposed strategy will work. If the campaign doesn’t prompt the changes in behaviour hoped for, it should be tweaked and re-trialed until success is achieved. 

A good example of a successful social marketing campaign comes from Nova Scotia. To paraphrase the study: 

The provincial government announced a ban on all organic materials from landfills and tasked municipalities throughout the province with developing initiatives to increase composting. In one of the counties, local officials conducted survey research to identify local barriers to backyard composting and determine present levels of the practice. The survey showed that a surprisingly high number of residents were already composting — about 56%. The survey also showed that, among the people who did not compost, many perceived the practice as inconvenient and unpleasant, and lacked the basic knowledge about how to do it.

As part of a pilot program, campaign planners decided to leverage these already high levels of backyard composting by asking local residents who composted to do two things: 1) place a decal on the side of their blue box or garbage container indicating to their neighbours that they were committed to composting, thereby making the practice more visible and more socially acceptable; and 2) encourage neighbours to compost by speaking directly to them about it. Most local residents who composted were happy to place the decal on their bins, but very few were willing to talk to their neighbours. The failure of the second initiative underscored the need for piloting strategies before broad implementation.

Residents who did not compost but expressed an interest in the practice were visited instead by city employees who provided information about how to do it cleanly and effectively. Several months later, 80% of these residents were composting regularly in their backyards. The result of the social marketing campaign was a significant increase in backyard composting and a decrease in organic waste flowing into Nova Scotia’s landfills.

In Doughboy’s terms, an environmental social marketing campaign is a way to make sure that people do know, do show and do care about what’s going on in their ’hoods. But a good campaign will go further — it will make sure that people get stuck in and do something to make a difference.

How do you make conservation more effective?

By Dr. Phil Molloy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A walk through Hong Kong's traditional Chinese medicine district

By Dr. Phil Molloy

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was drawn to the city's bustling traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) district by a mixture of professional interest and personal curiosity. As a conservationist I wanted to see what marine animals are commonly sold; as a tourist I wanted to take in the sheer spectacle of it all. I wasn't disappointed on either front. 


It's the scale that gets you. The district encompasses many city blocks: Traders rush to and fro with curious-looking creatures (or bits of them), shop owners busily arrange new stock in elaborate displays, usually while shouting at each other, and a cacophony of smells (not all of them pleasant) leap at you from barrels of alien-looking objects. 

The first shop I walked into was about the size of a badminton court. A long display case ran its length at one side, behind which stood a beaming shopkeeper. The case teemed with lavishly presented jars and bowls of dried fish, abalone (snail-like creatures that, once dried, resemble frilly rocks), lizards on sticks, deer tails, and tortoise shells. The floor was barely visible beneath overflowing cartons. 

The front of the store was open to the street, where more barrels covereed the busy pavement. The floor-to-ceiling shelves had been set up on the sidewalk. They held glass containers of dried sea cucumbers. (Imagine barbequing a dill pickle… and forgetting about it. That's what dried sea cucumber look like. It's also not far from what they smell like.) The back wall was clearly the shop's pièce de résistance – a gaudy display of shark fins stretched across the entire expanse apart from a doorway. 

As I wandered on, I encountered the same riot of specimens, shop after shop, street after street. As a conservationist, I couldn't help but bristle at the sight of barrels of seahorses and walls of shark fins. Over 40 million sharks are killed per year for their fins. It's no surprise, then, that sharks are in decline. (Incidentally, sharks only kill about 40 people per year – statistically, they're less dangerous than going to the toilet!)


But you wouldn't think it as you wander around the Hong Kong's market, taking in displays of fins the size of Smart cars and shops selling them by the sackful. Shark fins sell at over US $350 per pound. They're used to give texture to soups served at weddings and other ceremonial events. The soup is considered a sign of prestige and wealth among many Chinese; having a wedding without it is considered a no-no. 

Or at least it was. Several conservation groups, such as Hong Kong's Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, as well as Bloom and Shark Truth, are pushing shark fin-free wedding fashion. They're educating soon-to-be-wed Chinese couples about the plight of sharks and encouraging them to explore alternative wedding fare. 

As a member of the Project Seahorse team I was also captivated by the vast numbers of seahorses and their relatives. My visit to Hong Kong followed on the heels of a trip to the Philippines, where I had been working with colleagues at Project Seahorse Foundation. If prizes were awarded for Best Seahorse Spotter, those guys would win them all. Yet, even with their expertise, during the several hours we spent looking for seahorses — in areas known for their seahorse populations — we found a single animal. 

My point is there aren't many seahorses. Yet in Hong Kong's TCM market, I was confronted with barrel loads of the scaly blighters. I heard the voice of my colleague, Sarah Foster, in my head: "Each fishing trawler may only catch one or two seahorses per fishing trip as bycatch, but each trawler does thousands of trips and there are thousands of trawlers. It adds up." No kidding!

But why were they here? I asked a particularly forthcoming shopkeeper. She told me that they are sold as powder or whole to make a tonic. 

"For food, or as medicine?" I asked.

After a slightly awkward pause, she explained that they're used for a variety of ailments but generally they "improve blood flow." The penny dropped — seahorses are nature's Viagra. I've since learned that they're used to treat a number of conditions typically associated with aging. 

I don't know if they work, but from a conservation standpoint it doesn't really matter. What's important is that seahorses need to be caught in a sustainable manner. In theory, this should always be the case: seahorses are listed in Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This means that a country can only trade seahorses if they can prove that the seahorses were collected in a manner that doesn't harm the populations from which they came. 

The reality is that many seahorse populations are overexploited. A large part of our work at Project Seahorse is to help countries meet CITES regulations. The trade in seahorses is not going to disappear; instead of working to stop it, our job is to help people to trade carefully and responsibly.

Until visiting the TCM district I hadn't really grasped the scale of some of the issues we're tackling at Project Seahorse. And if I haven't – and I'm a marine conservationist – I feel fairly sure that most people reading this haven't either.  If you're in Hong Kong, go and visit the TCM district.

Dr. Phil Molloy is a postdoctoral fellow with Project Seahorse.