tyler stiem

The faces of recovery

By Tyler Stiem

Though the story of Typhoon Haiyan (and the October earthquake) is beginning to cycle out of the news, the relief and recovery effort is still very much under way. Many villages in Bantayan, Panay, and Danajon Bank continue to face acute shortages of food, shelter, and other basic necessities. Our team in the field continues to be amazed by the resilience and optimism of these communities. Below are portraits of hope photographed by Steve de Neef.

If you can spare a few dollars, please consider donating to ZSL's relief and recovery fund. Your support is still needed and appreciated!

A local Madridejos women and her baby stand in front of her destroyed house after Typhoon Yolanda passed over the island.

A local Madridejos women and her baby stand in front of her destroyed house after Typhoon Yolanda passed over the island.

Kids posing and playing in Madridejos, an area hit very hard by Typhoon Yolanda.

Kids posing and playing in Madridejos, an area hit very hard by Typhoon Yolanda.

A pair of boys fly kites amid the ruins of Madridejos.

A pair of boys fly kites amid the ruins of Madridejos.

Smiles from a pair of boys.

Smiles from a pair of boys.

ZSL and Project Seahorse relief operation in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island.

ZSL and Project Seahorse relief operation in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island.

A woman posing in from of her house that was destroyed by Tyhpoon Yolanda.

A woman posing in from of her house that was destroyed by Tyhpoon Yolanda.

Mother and child at one of the relief centres

Mother and child at one of the relief centres

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

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

Photo of the week: Mighty mangroves

By Tyler Stiem

From  Expedition: Danajon Bank : Mangrove forest kissed by sunlight on Danajon Bank, Philippines.  Did you know?  Mangrove forests not only support a huge diversity of marine life, they protect coastal communities from the elements. During India's 1999 "supercyclone," mangroves are calculated to have saved nearly two lives per village.  Photo: Michael Ready/iLCP

From Expedition: Danajon Bank: Mangrove forest kissed by sunlight on Danajon Bank, Philippines. Did you know? Mangrove forests not only support a huge diversity of marine life, they protect coastal communities from the elements. During India's 1999 "supercyclone," mangroves are calculated to have saved nearly two lives per village. Photo: Michael Ready/iLCP


Photo of the week: Lantern fisher

By Tyler Stiem

From  Expedition: Danajon Bank : A lantern fisher begins a long night of fishing. One of the oldest techniques still used in the Philippines, it is also one of the most sustainable, involving only small homemade spears. It requires incredible patience and skill. As the supply of fish on Danajon Bank has dwindled in recent decades, traditional lantern fishers struggle to make a living. A 120hour trip will yield a catch worth about US $2.50 on average.  Photo: Luciano Candisani/iLCP

From Expedition: Danajon Bank: A lantern fisher begins a long night of fishing. One of the oldest techniques still used in the Philippines, it is also one of the most sustainable, involving only small homemade spears. It requires incredible patience and skill. As the supply of fish on Danajon Bank has dwindled in recent decades, traditional lantern fishers struggle to make a living. A 120hour trip will yield a catch worth about US $2.50 on average. Photo: Luciano Candisani/iLCP


Exhibition launch in Chicago

By Tyler Stiem

A trio of black-axil chromis ( Chromis atripectoralis ).  Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob/iLCP

A trio of black-axil chromis (Chromis atripectoralis). Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob/iLCP

It's been awhile since we've posted about Expedition: Danajon Bank, our photographic collaboration the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Since the expedition ended in late April, the team has been hard at work sifting through thousands of images, editing and curating them down to a select few for our conservation photo exhibition that will travel the world. 

First up, we're proud to say, is John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The exhibit opens to the public on Friday, August 9th and will be on display for 12 months. If you’re in the city, be sure to visit!

Stay tuned for more news and features, including some fantastic photo essays on blast fishing, seaweed farming, and more, as well as sneak peeks at future exhibits in Manila, Hong Kong, and London.

In the meantime, we’ll be posting amazing new photos from the expedition in this space.

Picturing the people of Danajon Bank, part three...

By Tyler Stiem

Wearing a homemade mask, a boy searches for gastropod eggs.

Wearing a homemade mask, a boy searches for gastropod eggs.

Prized possession.

Prized possession.

A fisher shows off his catch. Many fishers wear masks and gloves to protect against jellyfish stings.

A fisher shows off his catch. Many fishers wear masks and gloves to protect against jellyfish stings.

A boy and his family's catch.

A boy and his family's catch.

Outrigger fishing boats and marine protected area guardhouse in the distance.

Outrigger fishing boats and marine protected area guardhouse in the distance.

Picturing the people of Danajon Bank, part one

By Tyler Stiem

Children diving for gastropod eggs at low tide.

Children diving for gastropod eggs at low tide.

Over half a million people call Danajon Bank home. They live in coastal villages and on the tiny, teeming islands that dot the bank. All, or nearly all of them depend on the reef for food and income. It’s not an easy living. Overfishing is a problem, and over the years it has become harder and harder for people to catch enough food to eat and sell.

Out of necessity, fishers get creative. Some resort to fishing practices that can harm the reef, such as blasting, cyanide fishing, and trawling. Others find ways to live sustainably off Danajon Bank. Every community fishes, but some have adopted seaweed farming or established no-take marine reserves, practices that can (but, it has to be admitted, don’t always) reduce human impact on the ecosystem. Project Seahorse and other, local organizations have been working for years with communities to establish new reserves and sustainability in general.

One thing’s for certain: The communities of Danajon Bank are as vibrant as any coral reef. A great time to visit is at low tide, usually around dusk, when families go out together on the hunt for treats left behind when the water retreats from shore. Mainly it’s mothers and children, but fathers sometimes join too. They search the tidal pools and dig up the wet sand in search of crabs, gastropods, and other small, delectable sea creatures.

A woman gleans for shellfish

A woman gleans for shellfish

Expedition photographers Mike Ready, Claudio Contreras Koob, and Luciano Candisani spent days with the fishing villages of Danajon Bank. They documented this practice, which is known as gleaning. They visited seaweed farmers and marine reserves, they met net fishers and free divers and everyone in between. Here are a few of their photos: 

A fisher shows his catch. Dwindling fish stocks means fishers must catch smaller and smaller fish.

A fisher shows his catch. Dwindling fish stocks means fishers must catch smaller and smaller fish.

A boy wears a homemade mask. 

A boy wears a homemade mask. 

A fisher mends his net.

A fisher mends his net.

From Danajon Bank to aquariums all over the world

By Tyler Stiem

Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

The tiny island of Hambungon looks like a typical Danajon Bank fishing village. Ramshackle houses spill onto the beach and outrigger boats bob over the blue shallows just beyond. Women mend nets in the bright morning sun.Dogs bark, roosters crow, and kids chase each other across the sand. What sets Hambungon apart from other villages is that it’s home to a thriving — and, unusually, sustainable— trade in aquarium fishes.

This week, the expedition team paid a visit to Hambungon’s barangay captain, or elected chief. “Max,” as he calls himself, runs a small but important community fishery that targets reef fishes and invertebrates for sale to exporters in nearby Cebu City. Unlike many fishers in Danajon Bank, Max’s team of divers only collects species designated as sustainable by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) of the Philippines.

An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

Max leads us to a covered space. He’s a friendly middle-aged man, quick to make a joke. When he laughs, which is often, his deeply tanned faces wrinkles with amusement. Here, twenty-five or thirty basins are fed by water pipes. Each contains something different. We see anemonefishes, colourful nudibranchs, small jellyfishes, a pair of electric blue mandarinfishes. Max picks out an eel and, gently lifting it out of the water, lets it slither through his fingers back into the basin.

“Moray,” he says. “Juvenile.”

He explains that his divers, a team of village boys aged 15 to about 25, have been trained by MAC to identify and avoid marine species vulnerable to overfishing, and to catch their target species in such away as to avoid serious harm.  

Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

 Our tour’s piece de resistance is a scorpionfish. The craggy, brown-and-orange-flecked scorpionfish is famous for two things: One, its ability to blend in among corals and on the seabed, and two, its excrutiating venom. Max very carefully ‘milks’ the fish by pressing on its venom duct. A blueish white substance jets out from one of its spiky protrusions. He jumps back.

“You do not want to step on that fish!” he says, laughing.

The divers soon arrive on a pump-boat, carrying their morning catch. Clad in balclavas and long shirts to protect them from jellyfish stings, they look like a clan of soggy ninjas. Their catch buckets brim with silvery baggies filled with fish. The animals are catalogued and dumped into the basins. There are anemone fishes, mystic ras, boxfishes, a lionfish, nudibranchs, a frogfish, another scorpionfish, a long-snout butterflyfish, and more.

An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

The animals will be sold to a distributor in Cebu for anywhere between 10 and 100 pesos, or about $0.25 to $2.50 each. Compared to the retail prices the animals can fetch — a blue mandarinfish that sells for less than a dollar here can eventually be resold in stores for up to US $100 — it doesn’t seem like much. But the sustainable aquarium trade provides an important source of income for the fishers, and, even more importantly, an alternative to other, more destructive kinds of fishing. 

Whether the divers always follow the sustainability guidelines is another question. We spot a tiger-tail seahorse, a threatened species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, in one of the catch buckets. When Luciano points it out, a diver quickly returns the seahorse to the sea. But given how valuable seahorses are — a single animal is worth the equivalent of a kilogram of rice, enough to feed a family for a few days — you can imagine how difficult it would be for fishers to resist temptation now and then.

The following day, expedition photographers Tom Peschak and Luciano Candisani return to Hambungon before dawn to document the divers at work on the reef a few hundred meters beyond the village. It quickly becomes clear why it’s a young man’s game: Aquarium fishing is hard work.

Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Everyone freedives using only homemade wooden flippers, swimming down as far as seven meters to reach the reef. Small, weighted nets are set near coral heads on the one dive, and on the next, fish are coralled into the mesh. Next, the net is scooped and closed and prized species are transferred into baggies. In between the divers jet to the surface for lungfuls of air.

One diver proudly brandishes his catch for Luciano. You can see the smile in his eyes through his mask. The baggie shines like quicksilver in the sunlight seeping down through the blue water. A large anemone fish squirms inside. The day’s first iconic photo.

This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

After four or five hours, the day’s work is finished, and the aquarium fishers say goodbye. They chug off in their pump boat, destined for home.“Unbelievable,” Luciano says, shaking his head. “Tom and I were swimming with professional gear and we couldn’t keep up with those guys. I’m in good shape, but compared to them, no way.”

Picturing biodiversity, part two

By Tyler Stiem

Humbug damselfish

Humbug damselfish

More photos of Danajon Bank’s wild array of reef fishes from expedition photographers Michael Ready and Claudio Contreras. Today the duo is headed out to explore the seagrass beds and mangrove forests that circle some of the tiny islands on the inner part of the reef.

Watch this space for more great biodiversity as well as stories by the entire team on community-run marine protected areas, the sustainable aquarium trade, and blast fishing, where fishers using dynamite to blow up sections of the reef for larger catches.

Pufferfish

Pufferfish

Pajama cardinalfish

Pajama cardinalfish

Three-spot damselfish

Three-spot damselfish

Unidentified crab species

Unidentified crab species

Picturing biodiversity, part one

By Tyler Stiem

Crocodile flathead.

Crocodile flathead.

Threatened though it may be, Danajon Bank is home to many hundreds of fish species and many more corals, invertebrates, and other marine life. One of the purposes of the expedition is to capture the reef’s impressive but dwindling biodiversity before it’s too late. Food security is a pressing issue here, which means that, as a matter of survival, local fishers will target just about any sized fish. The animals are captured for food or for the international aquarium trade.

This week, photographers Michael Ready and Claudio Contreras Koob are putting in 16-hour days on the reef. They dive before dawn and come back to shore after nightfall in order to document everything from the otherworldly menace of the crocodile flathead to the regal beauty of the mandarin fish.

Here are a few of their early shots:

Winged pipefish.

Winged pipefish.

Mandarinfish

Mandarinfish

Nudibranche

Nudibranche

Copper-banded butterflyfish

Copper-banded butterflyfish

Interview with Dr. Nick Hill, expedition scientist

By Tyler Stiem

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

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

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

Nick, why do we need to protect coral reefs?

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

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

Why Danajon Bank?

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

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

What is needed to protect Danajon Bank?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope we get some incredible images! 

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

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

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