seaweed farming

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.

Cheapskate

By James Hehre

When I’m in the field I become obsessed with logistics — the art and science of getting myself and all of my stuff from one place to another, ideally in one piece or several large, easily fixable pieces. This is probably because logistics takes up a significant chunk of my time here in the Philippines. When I’m not moving my stuff from research site to research site, I’m usually setting my stuff up or getting permission to do things. If there’s any time left over, I get to do some actual science.

Okay, I exaggerate. (A little.)

Anyway, when I decided to trek to the southern part of Bohol to look at seaweed farming in seagrass ecosystems (which I plan to compare to seaweed farming in shallow coral ecoystems, the focus of my own study), I was confident I could do it on the cheap. I had a room booked, and the hotel even offered to send a van to pick me up in the town of Tagbilaran once I arrived.

“Pila? (How much?)” I asked.

“Only 500 peso sir.”

500 pesos! What was I, a tourist? There was no way I was going to spend 500 pesos to go a mere 15 kilometres!

To give you an idea, 500 pesos is the equivalent of about 12 dollars. The jeepney, the local equivalent of a bus (called a jeepney because they were initially constructed of jeeps left by the US army after WWII) costs about eight pesos, or $0.25 to go the same distance. I sensibly opted for the latter.

Three motorcycles, an outrigger canoe, trike and van ride later, I arrived at the public market in Tagbilaran and easily located my jeepney because it had “PANGLAO” — my destination — written on the side in large, friendly neon pink letters. I entered through the back and, since I was the first person aboard, had my choice of seats.

Seating in a jeepney requires some strategy for longer rides. Sit too far forward near the driver and you wind up having to pass fare change back and forth for everyone getting on and off. Sit too close to the rear door and everyone getting on and off climbs over you. I sat forward and on the right because a swarm of red ants had chosen to nest in the opposite seat.

By the time we had picked up all the people just off from work and every schoolkid destined for Panglao, we were carrying somewhere in the neighborhood of forty. This particular jeepney could probably seat 10 people comfortably. The passengers were squished together and sitting on each other’s laps across the benches and plastic stools placed down the middle aisle. Boys were piled on the roof with my dive bag and they clung to rails along the back and sides.

Since I was fortunate enough to be the first on, I was pinned against the wall that separated the back from the driver’s compartment. I couldn’t move my legs or arms an inch, but I had an excellent view of the driver and the road ahead. He was an amazing man, a paragon of efficiency. He could shift, smoke a cigarette, talk on the cell phone, make change, and if time permitted, actually steer — all at the same time. And as if to show off his multitasking super powers, he even yelled out to a woman who was getting off that she had forgotten to pay. How he even knew she was on the bus, let alone that she hadn’t paid, is a mystery to me. For a moment I considered taking a leave from my thesis to train as a jeepney driver. Acquiring his skills would definitely be an asset in my line of work.

As we bumped down a hot, dusty, potholed maze of dirt roads somewhere in the middle of the island, we started down a small incline and I couldn’t help but notice that the driver's right leg was suddenly pumping up and down faster and faster, the universal signal for “no brakes.”  For all his effort, it was having no appreciable effect on the bus as we careened down the hill. It was when he actually put down his cell phone and grabbed the wheel with both hands that I began to worry.

Luckily, it wasn’t a very steep hill. When we reached the bottom and began up a small incline we gradually rolled to a standstill, and then rolled backwards to the bottom again where we finally came to a gentle stop. The cabin was filled with the acrid smell of burning brakes. The people around me were quite casual, as though this happened all the time. They hopped down onto the road and disappeared into the evening.

Since I was the first on, I was also the last off.  The last remaining schoolkid slid my huge bag of dive gear down from the roof and walked off. I suddenly noticed something very odd. Except for the driver, I was alone. It was as though forty people had suddenly vanished. I looked at the driver and said, “Sa dagat?” (Which way to the ocean?) He grunted and pointed in the direction we’d been heading and returned to his burning brakes.

I slung the heavy bag of dive gear over my shoulder and began what was to amount to about a three-mile walk as the sun faded and darkness fell around me. It occurred to me as I walked alone in the quiet, muggy night, watching the arcing shapes of giant fruit bats silhouetted against the blackening sky, that 500 pesos suddenly seemed like a bargain. 

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Language lessons

By James Hehre

Lying on my back, looking up at coconut trees, I remembered reading somewhere that more people are killed annually by falling coconuts than by sharks. Doing research about the impacts of seaweed farming on coral reefs, the kind occasionally frequented by sharks, this kind of statistic would normally be comforting. But as I stared at the green fronds and large clusters of coconuts above me, I had to wonder if it was really true. At the moment it somehow seemed important.

The droning of a nearby motorbike broke my reverie. The sound brought to mind someone trying to fight off a swarm of angry bees with a chainsaw. Back in the bustling city of Cebu, I was used to holding on to the back of small motorcycles as we weaved through traffic at breakneck speed. They were loud, cheap, and great at cutting through traffic. But riding on the remote islands where I do my research was a completely different ballgame.

There are no cars on Jandayan Island, so motorbikes are the preferred form of transportation. The driver greeted me at the pier by pointing to the back of his well-used ride. Like most locals, he was used to people from Project Seahorse coming and going for various research projects over the years. He knew my destination without my saying a word.

The only road on the island is a four-foot strip of uneven concrete that winds down from the dock to a village on the far end.  We covered the first mile pretty quickly, swerving around goats, chickens, pigs and coconuts.  Along the way, the driver decided to act as a tour guide, turning completely around to face me as he pointed to something and then carefully pronouncing the word in Cebuano (the local dialect) for me to repeat. I did my best to keep the names in my head, hoping that a quick answer would give him more time to watch the road. But the combination of trying to keep my muddy feet on the pegs so I wouldn’t burn against the muffler, and wrestling the huge equipment bag that threatened to flip me off the back with every bump, pothole, and turn was making it really hard to concentrate.

 Apparently, the local custom for taking the many blind curves along the road is to honk the horn and then enter the corner at full speed, trusting that whoever, or whatever was on the other side had the good sense and speed to get out of the way.

For the most part this system seems to work fairly well for almost everyone involved. Water buffalo, however do not seem to hold on local custom. This may be due to their somewhat relaxed nature, or it may be that over time they’ve been conditioned to realize that all they really need to do is stay put and people eventually move around them. Either way, the water buffalo standing in the middle of the road as we rounded the corner at full speed did not seem particularly inclined to move one way or another and simply stood fast in the center of the road. I swear he was smiling.

In a split second, the driver veered to the right, dumping the bike and after a brief flight we landed in a heap in a muddy coconut grove, which is where I now found myself, sprawled awkwardly, tangled up with my bag, contemplating the palm fronds rustling gently above me in the morning breeze.

Arms? Check. Legs? Check. Head? Possibly but not necessarily. I'd been saved by mud, sticky, orange mud, which now covered me head to toe.  The driver popped up and with a “happens all the time” shrug, righted the droning bike. The water buffalo looked over its shoulder, curious about all of the fuss. Flashing a gapped-tooth grin the driver pointed toward the buffalo and said, "caribao" the Cebuano word for water buffalo.

“Caribao,” I repeated to him, climbing back onto the bike behind him. “Caribao. I’ll try to remember that one”.

Project Seahorse team member and PhD student James Hehre is studying the impact of seaweed farming on reef ecosystems in the Danajon Bank, Philippines. 

A fresh start in the Philippines

By James Hehre

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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.