philippines

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.

Conservation and calamities

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Damaged coconut trees.  Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Damaged coconut trees. Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

I spend a lot of time writing grants. It’s a fundamental part of conservation work to have the funds to do it. I know how easy it is to slip into the jargon of grant writing, using buzzwords and phrases like ‘building resilience’, ‘improving food security’ and ‘securing ecosystem services for future generations’. The last few months have taught me that it’s not just the future we need to worry about, it’s the here and now. Last weekend I visited our project sites in northern Panay, Philippines, that were hit by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda).

It’s quite extraordinary driving north through the centre of the island which looks completely undisturbed until you reach the area where the typhoon hit on 8 November 2013. From that point, the leaves of the coconut trees are bent to one side, like they are permanently trapped in the storm’s wrath. Shiny new tin roofs glint in the sunshine, blue tarpaulin is dominant, and mangled homes and buildings are everywhere. The sound of chainsaws and hammering rings out as people work to recover their homes and lives.

Devastated homes.  Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Devastated homes. Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Project Seahorse and ZSL-Philippines have, collectively, worked in the Central Philippines for over 20 years. The ZSL-Philippines team has been working with local communities for the last six to protect and restore their mangrove forests, well-known to be nature’s own mechanism for coastal protection. In the last 18 months, we’ve been expanding our marine protected areas (MPAs) to include mangroves, helping to connect vital habitats and increase coastal protection. We visit two of these partner communities – Buntod and Balaring – to deliver further aid, raised from donations through our website appeal following the disasters and from local donations. Having liaised closely with the local government and village officials, we’ve identified that these communities need building materials to reconstruct their homes and repair their boats.

There’s still no water supply, so the ZSL vehicle is piled high with containers so people can store water when the supply truck organised by the local government next comes through. We’ve also organised two trucks, one laden with 1,000 bamboo poles which will help reconstruct oyster farms washed away by the typhoon, rebuilding an important livelihood for these communities and the other carrying sheets of plywood and wriggly tin, plus nails and mastic.

Heather & wonderful old lady with jingle bells hat!  Photo: ZSL

Heather & wonderful old lady with jingle bells hat! Photo: ZSL

I’m shocked as we drive through these familiar places which have been devastated in a single day. I can hardly imagine as people tell me of the terror of trying to survive over five hours of winds of 315 km/hour. Every house in these two villages was damaged and most were completely destroyed. I am relieved to hear of the international response that brought in medical support for the first month and undoubtedly prevented major disease outbreaks. However, there is little help reaching these sites now.

In Buntod, Unicef is providing vitally important sanitation and clean water, but in Balaring it’s down to Project Seahorse, ZSL, and a few private donations. One wonderful old lady, wearing a jaunty bobble hat with ‘jingle bells’ written on it, tells me that her house completely collapsed but she is still living in it, crawling in to get some kind of shelter each night. She leaves ecstatic with sheets of plywood and tin to help her rebuild a better shelter. I feel totally inadequate and want to run after her and help her build it.

As always in the Philippines, we are met with warmth, smiles and laughter, but with terrible memories and so many daily worries, many have tears in their eyes as they share their stories. Incredibly, three of our staff; Jo, Gene and Rodney were the very first people to get to these communities after the typhoon, navigating fallen trees, electricity cables and debris. We were the first to get food and water packs to them too. And now we’re continuing to support them to rebuild as best we can. It was great to see the team keeping environmental sustainability at the core, even when there is a huge urge to help people in any way possible.

New home ready to go.  Photo: ZSL

New home ready to go. Photo: ZSL

For example, we are careful not to increase the capacity of the fishing boats and ensure the recipients of the help are part of the community groups we work with on mangroves and MPAs.

As I took a moment and walked away from the hubbub of the aid distribution, being carefully co-ordinated and documented by Rodney, I looked out to the sea. There, most of the mangroves that we’d planted with the community over the last six years still stood strong, even some of the youngest seedlings. And right in front of me, on the beach, were newly bagged mangroves ready to restart the community nursery. You don’t need to be a scientist to know the value of mangroves – these communities are prioritising restoring their forests as much as they are rebuilding their homes. So, I will write in the next grant that we will build resilience for coastal communities without worrying about jargon, because that’s exactly what we’re doing.

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.

The night life in the Philippines is truly wild

By Kyle Gillespie

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Something exciting happens when the sun goes down in the central Philippines. I'm not talking about the karaoke bars or the evening basketball games. Shortly after dusk, the reefs become flooded with fantastic and exotic creatures. It starts as a trickle.

As the last rays of sunshine disappear below the horizon a few crabs scurry from out of crevices. The trickle quickly becomes a torrent as basket stars unfurl their arms, snails with shells the size of grapefruit begin to hunt, and squid and octopus dance past flashing brilliant colours and patterns. The parade of creatures lasts until dawn and this past summer I had front rows seats here in at the epicentre of ocean biodiversity.

It's hard to believe that fish represent only about 5% of all the animals on coral reefs while an astonishing 95% of reef biodiversity is made up of spineless creatures, or invertebrates. And they are absolutely fascinating: Cuttlefish are intelligent, vicious hunters; decorator crabs wear elaborate costumes and tube worms use intricate, umbrella-like structures to filter food from the water. In many regions of the Philippines they make up a quarter to a half of fisher catch, sold to local and distant markets or consumed as important protein source for fishers and their families. 

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

In spite of their importance to humans, invertebrates are nearly always overlooked in marine ecological and conservation science. We do know that they are vitally important for the proper functioning of marine ecosystems, but when it comes to how they structure our oceans and how we can best conserve them, there are many more questions than there are answers. 

As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I’m trying to answer some of these questions so we can better tailor our conservation programmes to the reality of marine ecosystems and the fisheries that depend on them. Only by taking a holistic approach, one that takes invertebrates as well as fish into account, can we develop truly effective conservation solutions to some of conservation’s most intractable problems.

In 2013, for the fieldwork component of my research, I traveled from Vancouver to Danajon Bank in the central Philippines where Project Seahorse has worked for the past two decades. If you’ve been following our work, you might already know that this 130-km double-barrier reef off the north coast of Bohol Province is considered by scientists to be the cradle of marine biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean. Many species found all over the Pacific are thought to have first evolved here. During our time here, Project Seahorse has helped establish 35 community-run marine protected areas (MPAs) on Danajon Bank. 

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse

For four months I dived every night inside and outside of these MPAs, spoke with fishers about the importance of invertebrates to their livelihoods, and assessed how well managed and enforced the reserves are. During my field season, I was able to see many different and fascinating creatures, and spend time with some of the warmest people I have ever met.

Over the next few months I’ll be blogging in this space about some of these incredible invertebrates, their roles in marine ecosystems, and their importance to small fishing communities. Stay tuned!

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

Community portraits, post-Haiyan

By Tyler Stiem

In between updates on the relief effort underway in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, we'll be posting portraits of the amazing, resilient communities in these areas. Today we bring you a few scenes from Bantayan Island in central Philippines. As always, if you'd like to help out, visit our JustGiving page

A father and his four sons sit outside their storm-damaged house. Bantayan Town.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A father and his four sons sit outside their storm-damaged house. Bantayan Town. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A pair of boys transport rebuilding materials by bike through their village.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A pair of boys transport rebuilding materials by bike through their village. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A sign of hope if there ever was one: A pair of boys fly homemade kits over what's left of their village.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A sign of hope if there ever was one: A pair of boys fly homemade kits over what's left of their village. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A woman sits in front of the ruins of a house in Bantayan Town.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

A woman sits in front of the ruins of a house in Bantayan Town. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The long rebuilding process begins.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The long rebuilding process begins. Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

The relief and recovery effort so far

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Over the past few days, ZSL and Project Seahorse staff have begun delivering emergency aid to communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, three areas where no other external help is available. Because of our strong ties with the local communities — about 40 towns and villages in all, with a total population of 60,000 people —  our team is able to provide aid and logistical support quickly and effectively. 

Yesterday we delivered rice and canned fish to a community in Panay that has lost 75% of its houses. Today we are sending off the first set of 2,000 relief packs to coastal communities in Danajon Bank. All aid is delivered by our local team, of whom about half are social workers. We co-ordinate with local government and work through community organizations wherever possible (many of which we have collaborated with on our marine conservation work).

The situation remains difficult. Most of the storm debris have not yet been cleared, and in Danajon Bank and across Bohol province there have been 3,000 aftershocks (some as high as 5.1 magnitude) since last month’s earthquake. There is much work to be done. 

If you’d like to help, please consider donating to ZSL’s relief and recovery fund. The funds will go towards emergency relief and the longer-term recovery process. 

y Dr. Amanda Vincent

Over the past few days, ZSL and Project Seahorse staff have begun delivering emergency aid to communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank, three areas where no other external help is available. Because of our strong ties with the local communities — about 40 towns and villages in all, with a total population of 60,000 people —  our team is able to provide aid and logistical support quickly and effectively. 

Yesterday we delivered rice and canned fish to a community in Panay that has lost 75% of its houses. Today we are sending off the first set of 2,000 relief packs to coastal communities in Danajon Bank. All aid is delivered by our local team, of whom about half are social workers. We co-ordinate with local government and work through community organizations wherever possible (many of which we have collaborated with on our marine conservation work).

The situation remains difficult. Most of the storm debris have not yet been cleared, and in Danajon Bank and across Bohol province there have been 3,000 aftershocks (some as high as 5.1 magnitude) since last month’s earthquake. There is much work to be done. 

If you’d like to help, please consider donating to ZSL’s relief and recovery fund. The funds will go towards emergency relief and the longer-term recovery process. 

Field staff hand out relief packs to villagers. The packs contain food, clean water, soap, and essential medicines. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Field staff hand out relief packs to villagers. The packs contain food, clean water, soap, and essential medicines. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Registration for post-storm disaster relief assistance. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Registration for post-storm disaster relief assistance. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Staff prepare the emergency relief packs. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

Staff prepare the emergency relief packs. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

A barangay captain (village head) helps with the relief effort. Panay, Philippines.  Photo courtesy of ZSL

A barangay captain (village head) helps with the relief effort. Panay, Philippines. Photo courtesy of ZSL

Signs of hope: Amid all of the destruction, life goes on. Boys play pickup basketball outside a village. Panay, Philippines.  Photo: Chai Apale/Project Seahorse

Signs of hope: Amid all of the destruction, life goes on. Boys play pickup basketball outside a village. Panay, Philippines. 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

Update: Typhoon Haiyan and its Aftermath

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Dear friends,

As you know, it’s been an incredibly difficult few weeks for the Philippines. Following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake last month that caused considerable loss of lives and homes, the Visayas region was on Friday hit by Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda), one the strongest tropical storms on record. 

The regions worst affected by these twin disasters include places very near and dear to our hearts: Danajon Bank in northern Bohol Province, Bantayan Island off the northern coast of Cebu Province, and Panay Island further west. These are places where Project Seahorse and the Zoological Society of London have collaborated with communities on marine conservation ventures for up to 19 years, places where we have many friends, places we love.

We are deeply anxious about “our” communities.  Early reports from our field staff indicate that over 2,000 households in Danajon Bank alone have been badly affected by the earthquake. We do not yet know the extent of the typhoon damage in Bantayan (where Yolanda made its third landfall), but reports from our team indicate that 80-90% of homes in two communities on Panay have been destroyed.  We cannot yet begin to deduce the situation for fisheries and marine resources/conservation.

The small coastal villages that we know best are the most overlooked in terms of national and international relief and recovery.  So we are stepping in and have begun providing emergency relief in the form of packs containing food, clean water, and basic medicines. As soon as it is safe to do so, we will send experts into these areas to evaluate the damage both to the communities and to the coastal ecosystems. This will be the first step towards in the recovery process as we help these communities to rebuild their livess and rehabilitate the ecosystems they depend on for survival.

We are hugely grateful to our marvelous Filipino team, who are doing everything they can to provide relief to the communities. Thankfully, our team members are all safe.  Some, however, are dealing with great personal anxieties about family members caught in disaster zones or damage to their own homes. We are very proud of their courage and selflessness.

As the relief effort unfolds, we will be posting regular updates in this space. We hope to have photos and first-hand accounts from our field staff in the coming days. In the meantime, you can find real-time updates from our team on Twitter at @ProjectSeahorse@ChaiApale@AmandaVincent1 and @HeatherKoldewey

If you’d like to help, please consider donating to ZSL’s relief and recovery fund. The funds will go towards emergency relief and help to kick-start the longer-term recovery process. 

Best regards,

Dr. Amanda Vincent & Dr. Heather Koldewey

Project Seahorse/Zoological Society of London

P.S. For full coverage of the storm and its aftermath, you may want to explore out CNN's curated twitter feed. To see Danajon Bank in all of its pre-storm glory, visit our Expedition: Danajon Bank blog.

The value of marine reserves: lessons from the Philippines

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Philippines-Heather-Feb-2013-300x225.jpg

Watching Hugh’s Fish Fight last week felt very familiar as he shared his experience in the Philippines — I have just returned from a trip there myself.

I, too, have seen the devastating effects of dynamite fishing and the extreme pressures placed on the ocean by a population of 99 million people who depend on it for food. It’s not easy when you live below the poverty line, have a family to feed; and the ocean is no longer providing the supply that it used to in years gone by.

I have also been heartened seen the ever-expanding network of marine reserves across the Philippines. There, everyone has heard of them and knows that they are important and necessary. Nationally, over 1,000 exist and we have helped set up 34 marine reserves that are managed by local communities. The most recent one happened with support from Selfridges through our innovative Project Ocean partnership.

In the Philippines, marine reserves are widely accepted by communities as a simple solution to reduced catches. In the absence of a social security system or other options, I have seen first-hand how communities embrace marine reserves — often referring to them as ‘banks’ or ‘security’ for their future.

Philippines-guardhouse-Feb-2013-300x225.jpg

They realise that without setting aside areas of ocean, fish will have no place to live, grow and breed — and they are right. Our scientific surveys, that have monitored these reserves for over a decade, have shown that they do work, generating more fish and healthier habitats. Limitations in the Philippines are either funds or knowledge on how to go about setting up a marine reserve, not debate as to whether they should happen or not.

Coming home to the UK, I am struck by the contrast with the current process of establishing Marine Conservation Zones. After investing over £8 million and three years of stakeholder consultation to define 127 sites for MCZs, the government is currently only considering implementing 31 in the first stage. Not only does it now look like this figure will be further undermined – but it is also likely that some form of fishing will continue throughout all of the MCZs, bringing into question their effectiveness as protection areas.

It seems strange that this figure is overshadowed by the Philippine’s 34 marine reserves — fully protected areas — set up by one small organisation working with poor, local communities who have nothing but hope. We need to learn from their example. We need marine reserves in the UK to protect what’s left of our rich biodiversity and we need them now.

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

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 shell game

By Danika Kleiber

Ate Elac, the caretaker of Project Seahorse's fieldhouse in Suba (an island off the coast of Bohol Province, Philippines, where I'm doing my research) had agreed to teach me how to glean. Unfortunately the tide wasn’t low enough, so we combed the beach for discarded shells.  We came across a conical bivalve shell, and Ate Elac picked it up and said, in careful and clear tones, “In Visayan [the local dialect] we call this shell bangunon." Next was a spiky bivalve: “We call this shell tikod tikod.” We went on to examine 16 different shells each named by Ate Elac in the Visayan dialect. My favorite was the kasing kasing, or "heart shell": a white bivalve shell that resembles the shape of a human heart.

In Visayan you will often hear words doubled, and the naming of shells is no exception. The repetition often conveys that the object is a smaller version of the singular version. For example, on the island of Calituban, which is known for its gleaning areas, you would find large litob shells, but in Suba where Ate Elac lives you find the smaller litob litob.  As Ate Elac named off more shells my mind played with this linguistic rule.  If “fishing” was what people used to do here, did the depleted marine resources and meager catch now make a more accurate name for this activity “fishing fishing”?

Most of the shells we found on the beach had come from other islands.  “This is not a good area for gleaning, not now,” Ate Elac explained. I asked her why there were fewer shells to be found today.  “More gleaners,” was her reply. I had heard this explanation before. There are simply more people in these communities every year. When I visit communities and examine the census sheets found in every health centre, the number always increase from year to year. 

Before I could ask about the population increase in Suba, Ate Elac went on to explain that the increase in gleaners was due to the collapse of the fisheries in 2000. Fishing was no longer sufficient to feed families, so men were increasingly gleaning to fill the gap.  And then something clicked in my mind. In almost every community we had visited, officials explained that for the most part women gleaned, while men fished and gleaned.  Not only have we overlooked women’s participation in marine resource extraction, we may have also missed a key method men have used and maybe increasingly using.

This is the great thing about gender research. It takes the radical step of including women, but it also often tells us a lot more about what men are doing too.

Do not adjust your monitor

By James Hehre

Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia, the ultimate repository for knowledge in the new millennium, has this to say about the water monitor lizard:

“The Water monitor, (Varanus salvator) is a large species of monitor lizard capable of growing to 3.21 metres (10.5 ft) in length, with the average size of most adults at 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) long. Maximum weight of Varanus salvator can be over 25 kilograms (55 lb), but most are half that size. Their body is muscular with a long, powerful, laterally compressed tail. Water monitors are one of the most common monitor lizards found throughout Asia, and range from Sri Lanka, India, Indochina, the Malay Peninsula and various islands of Indonesia, living in areas close to water… Water Monitors are carnivores, and have a wide range of foods. They are known to eat fish, frogs, rodents, birds, crabs, and snakes. In the Philippines they are known as chicken lizards because of their predilection for eating domestic fowl.”

I didn’t know any of this as I lay tucked in my mosquito net on the porch of the fieldhouse where I sleep. It was dawn. I felt a tickling on my feet and awoke to a four-foot lizard tickling my mosquito repellent covered feet with its long, snake-like tongue. I’m not sure the exact thought that flashed through my still groggy brain. I think it was something like, ”Wow. That is a really big lizard. I wonder if it bites.”

This particular lizard seemed unconcerned with me, brushing past and striding purposefully (well at least as purposefully as a lizard can appear) into the fieldhouse. The situation was resolved easily enough. I roused myself and walked around the house to the kitchen area, where, taking up the housekeeper’s broom, I confronted my guest and invited him out the door. He didn’t take much convincing. Water monitors are considered tasty by many in the Philippines and he seemed to be taking no chances, choosing to leave the way he came, probably content to feast on the local chickens which coincidentally had been disappearing lately.

James Hehre/Project Seahorse

James Hehre/Project Seahorse

The monitor lizard was by no means the first animal I’ve encountered during my stay at the field house, and actually our bamboo-and-thatch base of operations also serves as home to all kinds of plants and animals, from fungus and algae to termites, centipedes, spiders, land crabs, and a host of lizards, toads, mice, shrews, bats, birds, one really big snake, and at least one really huge rat like the one that got stuck in my research assistant Gerry’s mosquito net several nights ago. I awoke to the spectacle of the two of them doing racetrack laps around the inside of the net, with Gerry occasionally lifting an edge in an attempt to let himself or the rat out, though at the time it wasn’t entirely clear which. Now was it clear who was more traumatized by the event, Gerry or his guest. Stifling my laughter, I eventually set them both free. (As Charles Shultz says, humour is when the rock falls on someone else’s head.)

The fieldhouse contains an interesting and diverse ecosystem. At its most basic definition, an ecosystem is simply all of the organisms in an area and the non-living things they interact with like sunlight, water, and soil. An ecosystem can be contained within a small puddle with only a few components or it can be as large and complicated and contain thousands of components like the coral reefs in my own study. Of course the fieldhouse could be considered an artificial ecosystem, one that doesn’t occur normally in nature because it’s based around a man-made structure.

As an ecologist I think it would be really interesting to compare the number and kinds of different animals that live in the house to the animals that lived on this particular patch of land before the house was built. It might be reasonable to expect the number to be less, since trees and shrubs that naturally provide habitat had to be removed to build the house.

But it’s also possible that building the house may have actually created more available food and shelter, so it may contain more animals than before.  The answer may lie in the condition of the land before the house was built. A fieldhouse built on a pristine tract of jungle might displace more animals than a fieldhouse built on land that had already been cleared for agriculture. (It would actually be a bit more complicated that, and would also depend on other things like the size and type of house and maybe how many other houses were nearby.)

It’s an interesting question, and not unlike the research that I’m conducting on seaweed farms on shallow coral habitat. Seaweed farms placed on pristine coral will probably have a deleterious effect because of trampling, shading, and because people remove the coral to keep it from cutting the lines which hold the seaweed in place.

But in the Danajon Bank, where I am working, there is very little pristine coral remaining. Most of it has been subjected to decades of dynamite and cyanide fishing, kai kai (which is breaking the coral apart with an iron bar to get at the fish and other animals hiding inside), and coral mining for roads, piers, and fish farms. So I’m curious whether putting a seaweed farm in an area that has already been disturbed may actually create new sources of food and shelter for the fish and other animals that live on the reef.

I guess in that light, the water monitor who came into the house (probably looking to turn Gerry’s midnight guest, the rat, into dinner) was only performing his role as the top predator in our fieldhouse ecosystem. Next time I suppose I will leave him alone to do his job.

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. 

Beautiful, beautiful data

By Danika Kleiber

I have data. This makes me ecstatic, and like any excited child I need to show off my presents before I start playing with them.

First is the GPS data. This is really, really cool. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, my research focuses on the role of women in fisheries in the central Philippines. Gleaning is one of the main fishing activities for women in the coastal and island communities of Bohol Province, where I’m based. They walk in the shallows, collecting shells, sea cucumbers, octopuses, and sometimes even fish.   

We’re asking gleaners to wear GPS units as they do this.  This way we can track how much time they spend, and how far they go. Similar data has been collected for other fishing methods, but this is the first spatial data on gleaning in these communities that I know of. Below is a track of one gleaner in the community of Suba. The map is blurry, but you can see the route she takes. And that's just one hour’s worth of gleaning!

When the gleaner returned we also measured her catch so we can get fairly precise measurements to calculate catch per unit effort (or CPUE for those fisheries lingo folks).  She caught 29 shells and four itsy bitsy crabs, so one calculation of her CPUE would be 33 animals/hour. Of course you can do more with shells than just count them.  The average size of the shells may vary from community to community, so it’s also important to weigh each item.  In this case the CPUE using weight as a measure of catch was 310.5g/hour. 

We don’t have to stop there.  We can make it even more complicated — I mean, accurate!  Shells vary from species to species in how much shell they have to protect the animal inside.  The shell species found in different communities vary likely due to differences in ecological features of their intertidal areas. Total weight of shells from Jandayan Sur, one of the research sites, may not produce as much food as an equivalent shell weight from the island of Cataban, for example.  Therefore we need to directly measure meat weight, and this is where things get tricky.

Gleaners who bring us their catch wouldn’t thank us if we started smashing their hard earned catch to measure the meat weight.  To get around this we’ve been buying shells that we can smash with impunity. We take length measurements, total shell weight measurements, and then after a little smashing, meat weight measurements.  From this we can plot the relationship between total weight and meat weight like so:

Look at that beautiful positive linear relationship!  Using the equation that best fits the data I can estimate the meat weight for every aninikad (a very commonly encountered species of mollusk) I weigh.  The best part about this type of data collection is we get to eat the results.

I love gathering these numbers and I look forward to the stories they will tell about food security and gender dynamics, but there is another type of data we’re also collecting.  The beauty of working in human systems is that you can ask direct questions. I have to contend with the communication static inherent in working in a language and culture that are not my own, but the human explanations will complement and complicate the story the numbers will tell (and this is why interdisciplinary work is so freaking cool).

The most colorful answers come from questions regarding gender roles and fishing activities. My research assistants ask the respondents who is responsible for fishing and who is responsible for gleaning.  For the most part the response is that men fish and women glean (although this is clearly not a hard and fast rule, as women do fish and men do glean).  Then they get to ask why, and this is where things get really interesting. 

Often the answer has to do with women’s domestic roles precluding fishing activities, or women’s fear of waves and water.  But hands down my favorite answer came from a woman who declared to my research assistant Jay that “women can’t fish, because when they dive, their butt floats.” I snorted into my squid adobo when I heard this, and imagined what the pearl divers of Japan (almost entirely female), and the spear fishers of Fiji (many of whom are female) would say in reply!

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Food security in Batasan

By Danika Kleiber

Today I’m visiting Batasan, a tiny island on Danajon Bank, Philippines, where I hope to find a site for my doctoral research into the role of gender in small-scale fisheries. Leading the way are Marivic Pajaro and Eli Guieb, Project Seahorse alums who did their own doctoral work in the area. I’m hoping that by having Eli and Marivic introduce me to the community here, I’ll be considered cool by association!

Batasan is a small and very densely populated island. The houses line a single street stretching down the middle of the oblong island. The last time Eli and Marivic visited Batasan was six years ago, when they were doing research for their own PhDs, and if the joyful greetings of the community members is anything to go by, they were well liked. 

At every house Eli and Marivic catch up with old friends. My grasp of Cebuano, the local language, is still rudimentary, but I practice catching certain words and phrase structures. I realize from these conversations that time is mostly measured in the growth of children. Babies have become little people, and little people have become bigger people. Eli tells me that there are many new houses and more people since the last time he was here.  

We have a particularly long conversation with Jerry, a local fisher whom PhD students often hire for his skills as a researcher assistant. Jerry reminds us that there have also been less pleasant changes. There are fewer fish. He tells the story of a fisher spending an entire day fishing and only finding a single crab. 

With more mouths to feed and marine resources declining, I can’t help but wonder how the people of Batasan will meet their dietary need for protein in the future. Batasan has an old and well-respected marine protected area (MPA), but by itself it cannot sustain the food needs of this growing community. We touched on this problem during the Marine Protected Areas workshop hosted by Project Seahorse in late June: Small community MPAs are undoubtedly effective at many levels, but they can’t be the only answer. 

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

How the other half fishes

By Danika Kleiber

danika_intro-blog_gleaning.jpg

It was the last week of interviews. My research assistant Kristina and I had spent the last month asking residents of a small coastal community in the central Philippines about how, what, where and why they fish.  People had obligingly answered and I had a binder full of data sheets to show for our efforts.  I was feeling rather smug.  From the interviews I now knew what I had previously only been allowed to suspect: women fished.  I just hadn’t seen it yet.

Before I left for the Philippines, I had received plenty of looks of polite bafflement when I explained that I was going to research gender and small-scale fishing practices. The idea of women fishing had not occurred to most people. This sentiment was also echoed in the Philippines.  “Women don’t fish,” a local official told me.  But every woman I spoke with admitted to taking wild animals from the ocean.  If that isn’t fishing, then what is it? 

After a long day of interviews Kristina and I decided to walk home along the seashore.  As we rounded a corner I saw a woman wading up to her shins in the tidal flats.  In one hand she carried a knife, and in the other she had half a plastic coke bottle.  She walked in gentle zig-zags with her focus on the water below.  She would periodically stoop down, and reach for something with her hands.  There was no boat, no net, no hook and line, and yet this woman was fishing. This is what I’d been waiting to see.

The fishing this woman was doing is called gleaning. From the readings I had done to prepare for my research I knew gleaning is a method of marine resource extraction used throughout the world.  It is a form of fishing that requires little equipment and women, men and children all participate in it.  As people walk in the shallows they collect shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes even fish.  And yet gleaners are rarely considered ‘fishers’, even by themselves.  They are not counted in official statistics on fishing, and biologists seldom research the population dynamics of the animals they collect.   

I didn’t ask this woman any questions, but from the data I had collected in my interviews I could make a few good guesses about her.  She was probably gathering shells and small crabs to feed her family that night.  It was also likely that over her lifetime she has witnessed the same decline in catch abundance that has been mentioned by male fishers in this area who dive and fish offshore in boats.  She probably has to walk farther and search longer for the dwindling resources that she and her family rely upon for food. 

If we don’t consider the impact that gleaning can have on the marine ecosystem, and we don’t understand the importance of women’s fishing to family food security, we are missing half of the information we need to manage marine resources and biodiversity.  As we work with these communities to protect marine biodiversity and ensure food security for future generations, we need to understand the full demand that humans are making on their marine ecosystem.   We need to count this woman because without her successful marine conservation won’t be possible.

A fresh start in the Philippines

By James Hehre

IMG_0037.jpg

Sitting on the bow of the outrigger canoe I can feel the staccato thump of the engine through the hull as it skims across the water toward a small island in the distance. From here you can only see a thin green line of mangroves on the horizon. It’s a perfect day, warm and cloudless.

Long ago these islands in the central Philippines must have been paradise. I wonder what they would have looked like to the very first people who settled here. At first glance from a distance everything looks so pristine, but that’s an illusion. To really understand what is going on you have to look under the water, and that’s why I’m here.

I should start by saying that to the best of my knowledge there is no history of mental illness in my family. I say this because my decision to quit my job at the age of 40 and move myself, my wife, and brand new baby to another country to pursue a PhD in Conservation Biology has been characterized by some within my circle of friends and family as less than sane. 

After more than a decade in the ecotourism business, I wanted to DO something. Something that would make a difference. Something, ideally, that would illuminate how one small piece of the world works and help people to protect the environment.

The project I chose involves trying to figure out whether seaweed farming has an impact on the coral ecosystems that form an important part of coastal marine habitats. If it does, can the impact of seaweed farming be measured? I want to know whether seaweed farming creates new habitat for fish, and can therefore help the environment, or whether it damages the environment by killing corals. 

Seaweed farming is a major global industry that is growing incredibly fast. Yet most people are unaware that seaweed is even farmed at all.  Seaweed is used in too many consumer products to count: everything from food and diet soda, to make-up and toothpaste, to industrial lubricants and medicine. The list goes on and on.

Seaweed farming a big deal in the Philippines, where my project is based. The shallow coral reefs that surround the hundreds of islands in the Central Visayas are ideal for growing just the right type of seaweed for export, which is why this region is one of the biggest producers on the world. As fish and other sealife have begun to disappear, thanks to overfishing and pollution, more and more families rely on seaweed farms to earn a living. The problem is that nobody really knows what all of this farming will do to the reef ecosystems. Over the next few years that’s exactly what I’m going to try to figure out.

So here I am, sitting in the prow of a canoe, halfway around the world from home, wondering how I’m going to pull this off. I’m feeling some pressure to succeed, for the sake of my wife and baby, for my advisor who believed me when I said that I could do this, and for my own sake. I’ve done my homework and I have a plan.  Yet a part of me can’t help but think that maybe I am a little crazy.

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. You can follow his ongoing adventures in the Philippines on this blog.