Field Notes

How much do we know about seahorses in China? From fairytale to reality

By Xiong Zhang

Before my recent trip home to China, I discovered a folk tale that explains why seahorses are used as a traditional medicine. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a fisher living on the coast of South China Sea. While fishing one day he saw a shiny body drifting away in the deep sea. He rowed his boat to the body and discovered that it was a mermaid who was badly injured. The fisher rescued the dying mermaid and cured her with some herbal medicines. In order to thank the fisher, the mermaid gave him a shiny pearl and told him that whenever he needed her help he could throw that pearl into the water with a message, and she would come to help him. 

A Kellogg’s seahorse (H. kelloggi), taken in Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, June 2, 2014.  Xiong Zhang/Project Seahorse

A Kellogg’s seahorse (H. kelloggi), taken in Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, June 2, 2014. Xiong Zhang/Project Seahorse

A few years passed. The fisher got married and his wife became pregnant. He was very happy. However, during childbirth his wife had a very difficult labor, and the fisher was afraid she might not survive. In that moment he recalled the mermaid and her promise. He rushed to the sea and sent the message with the pearl. Then the mermaid appeared with a magical medicine — a finger-length fish that has a horse-like head, a weird pouch, and a curved tail. The fisher brought the “medicine” home to his wife and she ate it. Soon after, she delivered a healthy boy.

The fisher visited the mermaid again to thank her. He persuaded her to drive these magical fishes into the shallow seas where they could be easily captured by fishers to help more women during childbirth. Since then, this magical fish — the seahorse — has lived in China’s shallow waters to ensure the safety of pregnant women and their babies.

I was surprised and amazed by this story, which I’d never heard before, even though I grew up in China and, as a PhD student with Project Seahorse, am now studying seahorses and their distribution patterns, their habitats, and their reaction to human pressures. The reality is that most Chinese people don’t know this story, either. They only know that dried seahorses are used as traditional treatments for infertility and obstructed childbirth (dystocia), and have been used this way for a very long time.

On my visit to Shanghai in June, I was struck by how little most people know about seahorses. At Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, one of the biggest aquariums in China, I spoke to some of the visitors at the seahorse display. I asked them what they knew about these charismatic animals and the threats to their conservation. Most people gave me a polite smile but they weren’t at all interested in learning more about seahorses.

I must admit that I felt a little frustrated by this at first. As a young scientist, I want my research to be more than just research. I want to inspire people to learn more about seahorses and rethink about what we should and can do for the sustainability of seahorse exploitation in China and all over the world. 

But visiting Dr. Qiang Lin, a colleague in the Laboratory of Marine Bio-resource Sustainable Utilization, South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, has doubled my resolve. He is the leader of the only seahorse research team in China, conducting studies on seahorses in various fields including behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation biology. He explained to me that the domestic production of cultured seahorses is around five million animals per year, while his preliminary research suggests the annual illegal domestic catch of wild seahorses could be as high as 12 to 15 million. 

Xiong Zhang (middle left) and Dr Qiang Lin (middle right) and other two researchers in his team, taken after Xiong’s presentation in Lin’s office, June 18, 2014.

Xiong Zhang (middle left) and Dr Qiang Lin (middle right) and other two researchers in his team, taken after Xiong’s presentation in Lin’s office, June 18, 2014.

Under increasing pressure from overexploitation, seahorses are becoming very rare in many of China’s coastal waters. Based one of his early studies, the domestic demand for dried seahorses is about 600 tonnes per year, but only about 5% of the volume can be satisfied by China’s own seahorse populations. To meet this demand, China has become the largest importer on seahorse trade, importing dried seahorses from all over the world. Vietnam and the Philippines are among those major countries who export seahorses to China. Along with development of tonic and medicine industries and the increasing demand, the prices of seahorse products are rocketing. Dried seahorses can be sold at a price of $2,500 per kg in Hong Kong, for example.

Facing this pressing issue, Dr. Qiang Lin and his team have conducted impressive studies on seahorse conservation and sustainable use in China. They have completed the whole genome sequencing of seahorses, and are currently exploring the genetic diversity and evolution of wild seahorses in order to build a strong foundation for seahorse conservation in China. They are also conducting seahorse aquaculture and creating new breeding stocks as an indirect way to relieve the pressure on wild populations from overfishing. 

They have also completed a decade-long survey (2004–14) on wild seahorse populations in China’s seas – Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East Sea and South China Sea. This is extremely important work that will influence my own research. We have agreed to cooperate on seahorse conservation in the future in order to uncover more about the “reality” of wild seahorses in China. I believe this cooperation will be rewarding and hope that it will be the start of a larger movement to raise awareness about seahorses and marine conservation in China.

Xiong Zhang is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse. You can follow him on Twitter @Harry01301

Reconciling traditional livelihoods in Malaysia

By Julia Lawson

Orang Seletar children in Gelang Patah.  Picture: Choo Chee Kuang

Orang Seletar children in Gelang Patah. Picture: Choo Chee Kuang

It’s mid-July and I’m sitting in the back seat of a sedan, the air-conditioning roaring to help quell the 45-degree Celsius heat that beats down from the hot Malaysian sun. Outside my widow a shiny new city springs from freshly cleared ground, full of luxury condominiums plastered with ‘For Sale’ signs and ready for occupancy. This is Iskandar, an entirely new region being built from the ground up by the Malaysian government.

The Iskandar region consists of five development zones around the southernmost city in peninsular Malaysia, Johor Baru. Johor Baru is peninsular Malaysia’s ‘southern gateway,’ only a 30-minute drive from the island city-state of Singapore. While the low prices of goods and services make Johor Baru a favourite shopping destination for Singaporeans looking to score a good deal, the Malaysian government hopes to turn this into a two-way street by providing the solution for Singapore’s economic expansion and physical need for land. Malaysia is a country with great aspirations, and rocketing economic growth. By the year 2020 it aims to be classified as a high-income economy (as defined by the World Bank), meaning a per capita gross national income greater than $12,616. This is often considered to be synonymous with joining the ranks of developed, first world countries.

The Malaysian government and the project’s ambitious planners bill the Iskandar development as a green city with a compact core that will promote walking and public transit. Its goal is to generate a physical and mental shift in Iskandar Malaysia’s population.

As I gaze out of the window of the sedan, the landscape around me is barren, dry and desert-like. We pull into a gas station and I drag myself across the scorching parking lot to buy a bottle of water. While I can’t help but question the walkability of a city where temperatures fester in the mid thirties throughout the year, I do appreciate that Iskandar Malaysia is trying to do things right. Yet, no matter how green a city, with a projected population of three million people by 2025, the process of creating Iskandar is not without consequences.

I plunge back into the car and we continue to head south to Gelang Patah, a traditional fishing community that has a large population of Malay indigenous people (Orang Seletar) and is situated on the Pulai River Estuary. The multi-national Ramsar Convention on Wetlands recognized this estuary for its biodiversity by naming it a Wetland of International Importance in 2003. At the base of the estuary lies Malaysia’s largest intertidal seagrass meadow, home to estuarine crocodiles, dugongs, and seahorses. I am here to help survey the yellow seahorses (Hippocampus kuda) living in this seagrass meadow. Over the past decade, nearly 800 seahorses have been tagged and monitored in this seagrass meadow, making it one of the most intensively studied seahorse populations in the world.

The best time to survey for seahorses is at dawn, so we leave to survey the seagrass meadow as the scorching Malaysian sun begins to rise. As we speed along the Sungai Pulai towards the Johor Strait, the view is astonishing. I see how tightly sandwiched the seagrass meadow is between two rapidly developing nations, Malaysia to the north and Singapore to the south. The seemingly remote fishing community of Gelang Patah sits only a stone’s throw from Singapore. As we get closer to Singapore, we begin to approach a daunting fleet of tankers that sit in the Johor Strait. Stepping onto to the largest seagrass meadow in peninsular Malaysia from our tiny boat seems surreal. The seagrass meadow is only exposed once a month when the tides are low enough for researchers to search for seahorses on foot.

In 2009 the local community began to express their concerns about the significant effect that the Iskandar development plan would have on their community and livelihood. The two primary concerns for the local people of Gelang Patah were the Tanjung Pelepas shipping port and Tanjung Bin Power plant. In order to go ahead, both developments would directly or indirectly remove mangrove forest and seagrass habitats, reducing the amount of space available to the fish and other creatures that the community relies on for food and income. Despite petitions and peaceful protests directed towards the Malaysian government, both projects have gone ahead, and are fully operational.

However, the biggest threat to the livelihoods of the fishers in Gelang Patah may be yet to come. A massive sea filling project is underway in the Johor Strait, the narrow strip of water running between Malaysia and Singapore. The new island will be christened “Forest City,” and is the largest sea filling project in Malaysia to date. When complete it will be a luxury home island. The seagrass habitat at the base of the Pulai River Estuary, a critical habitat to the fish that call it home and the fishers of Gelang Patah, will be buried.

So where is the fine balance between the increasingly urbanized population of Malaysia and traditional livelihoods? The green aspirations of Iskandar Malaysia show cautious planning and consideration, but sea filling projects seem to counter the developer’s objective to “preserve the biodiversity” of Iskandar Malaysia. The solution requires planners to meet the high standards they have set for themselves. They envision an Iskandar Malaysia that sets a global standard for green cities. With persistence, the success of a sustainable Iskandar Malaysia could indeed serve as a global example for other rapidly developing countries. I propose that Iskandar Malaysia both includes community-based knowledge systems in the development plan for Iskandar Malaysia, and considers the impacts the current development on traditional livelihoods. Supporting its own people through the rapid growth and development of the region should be a priority for the Malaysian government and Iskandar developers. 

As our small motorboat pulls back into the jetty at Gelang Patah after a long morning of seahorse surveys, the impacts of the Iskandar development are not immediately apparent. The local children take a small boat across the Pulai River to reach their school, and long-tailed macaques scamper through the trees surrounding the community dock. However, our boatman tells us how catches that sustain the livelihood of the community members are receding. I think about my friends in Gelang Patah today and hope that Iskandar Malaysia will not leave them behind.

Danajon Bank, three months after the earthquake

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes.  Photo: ZSL

Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes. Photo: ZSL

Last weekend I visited some of our project sites hit by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). This weekend I am visiting sites hit by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Bohol in October. 

As we land in Tubigon dock on Bohol I see the power of yet another of nature’s forces — this time a massive earthquake. I’ve entered a wonky, cracked, rubbly world, slowly being patched and filled. As we get a tricycle, I am stunned to see the municipal offices — the dominant building in central Tubigon — is torn apart by huge cracks on one side, while the other side has completely collapsed. I’ve had many meetings in those very offices with the mayor and officials and it’s normally bustling with activity so it feels all wrong to see it that way. Close by, the historic church and school are crumbled ruins, with the only consolation that it was a national holiday when the earthquake happened. Otherwise the casualties would have been so much higher.

We are heading to Matabao, the location of the marine protected area (MPA) we implemented as a result of Project Ocean — a wonderful and unlikely joint ZSL initiative with Selfridges department store. The road to Matabao is bumpier than before as sections have dropped and cracks have been temporarily filled. Tents line sections of the road and it’s great to see Shelterbox — a fantastic Cornish charity based near to where I live in the U.K. — have provided temporary housing to the most needy. There are houses that have completely collapsed, while others have spiderwebs of fresh concrete as people have made running repairs. Others look just fine, until you realise they are leaning at a rather unnatural angle and the tents in the garden confirm that these homes are no longer safe.

Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor.  Photo: ZSL

Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor. Photo: ZSL

We drop our bags at the little hostel we stay at near the water. The doors to our rooms won’t open fully now because, thanks to the quake, the rooms themselves have shifted and dropped below the path outside! At the highest tides, they now flood (luckily not today!) and rebuilding has already started. This is nothing compared to the situation reports we hear from some of the outer islands. Batasan, which is home to another Project Seahorse-supported MPA, dropped about a metre during the quake. In fact, our team was there at the time with international volunteers conducting surveys and were lucky to live through that terrifying experience. Now, the island floods every high tide and up to a metre at the highest tides. A detailed assessment will be done by experts this week, but it seems that the most likely option is to relocate that entire community — practically and emotionally a very difficult task.

We hold a community meeting with the members of the MPA Management Council and discuss this year’s plans. The mayor, engineer, and municipal agricultural officer from Tubigon also attend the meeting. They share some great news as they are able to allocate a fuel allowance and boat maintenance costs for the new ‘Selfridges’ patrol boat. They are grateful to have additional enforcement power in the area and we agree to set a co-ordinated enforcement plan with the larger Seaborne Patrol vessel that runs day and night throughout Tubigon’s municipal waters. The village captain confirms that he too has allocated funds this year from his budget to support the running of the MPA, in spite of the earthquake and the fact they couldn’t spare any funds last year. It’s encouraging to see — as with the ZSL Philippines mangrove sites — that environmental protection remains a priority in these communities, even after experiencing such major calamities, and testament to our local team for helping instil those values.

The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon.  Photo: ZSL

The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon. Photo: ZSL

We discuss the equipment they need and how to support that with the Selfridges’ MPA budget this year. Although I’m sure the fish wardens could do some damage with some Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag, we go for the slightly more practical option of binoculars, torches and mobile phones so they can communicate with the Seaborne Patrol!

The yellow patrol boat — painted in Selfridges’ statement colour — takes us out to the MPA after the tide comes in later that afternoon. The MPA guardhouse has adopted a jaunty angle after the ‘quake and the engineer has come up with a repair plan. I’m relieved we can get it operational again in the next month. As we pull up alongside it, we see very clearly why. There is a huge crack below the surface that snakes away from the guardhouse. These underwater cracks remain a real concern for the local fishers and who are very anxious, in many cases choosing not to fish in spite of the need for income and food. I put on my mask and snorkel and swim along the crack. It's really quite extraordinary to see the huge changes in the underwater topography. The crack is over five metres wide in places and ranges from a shallow drop to deep chasms. After a few hundred metres I find myself swimming over a drop-off, a steep wall with the sea disappearing below me. I only remember this area being a reef flat and seagrass bed and am confused. Back on the boat, Angie, our senior biologist, and the local fish warden confirms that there was no drop-off before.

Heather, Marisa, and village official in damaged MPA guardhouse.  Photo: ZSL

Heather, Marisa, and village official in damaged MPA guardhouse. Photo: ZSL

Next week, the team start our bi-annual underwater surveys of our MPAs to establish their impact on improving fish and habitats. This time, we will also be working with Filipino scientists to document the physical changes resulting from the earthquake. The communities are desperate to find out how their MPA and surrounding fishing grounds have changed. And, of course, they want to know whether it’s safe to go out on the water.

Ironically, the earthquake seems to have reduced fishing pressure on these impacted reefs as most fishers did not go out for about a month after it hit. The earthquake has shown the importance of diversifying livelihoods, not just to take pressure off the oceans, but also to build resilience in these communities against such catastrophe. The ZSL-Interface Net-Works project seems to be doing just that, with net collection rates remaining consistent or even increasing in the months after the earthquake, indicating this initiative is able to provide valuable income at a time when there are so few other options. Never has there been a better time to emphasise that we need conservation for development if we are truly going to achieve a sustainable future.

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.

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!

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

More photos from the relief efforts

By Regina Bestbier

Our relief efforts continue in the devastated communities in Panay, Bantayan, and Danajon Bank where no other external help is available. To date we've reached eleven communities, delivering emergency packs and other assistance to 1,600 households.  This past week we delivered rice, canned fish and drinking water to four communities in Panay (ZSL mangrove conservation project sites) that lost 75% - 100% of their homes.

Here are some images taken during a two-day relief operation to Bantayan and Hilantagaan Island in Cebu.  All photos taken by Steve de Neef.

 

Typhoon Yolanda affected many fishermen in the Visayas. On the way from Hagnaya to Bantayan there where a lot of damaged and some sunken boats.  Photo by Steve de Neef

Typhoon Yolanda affected many fishermen in the Visayas. On the way from Hagnaya to Bantayan there where a lot of damaged and some sunken boats. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People on Bantayan Island are collating anything they can to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Yolanda's wrath.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People on Bantayan Island are collating anything they can to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Yolanda's wrath. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People gathering around the ZSL/Project Seahorse relief truck in Bantayan Island.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People gathering around the ZSL/Project Seahorse relief truck in Bantayan Island. Photo by Steve de Neef

 Relief goods being offloaded and distributed in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island to victims of Typhoon Yolanda.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 Relief goods being offloaded and distributed in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan Island to victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Photo by Steve de Neef

 People waiting in line in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan to receive relief goods. This can take hours.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 People waiting in line in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan to receive relief goods. This can take hours. Photo by Steve de Neef

 Distributing emergency supplies in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan.  Photo by Steve de Neef

 Distributing emergency supplies in Dunganon Bank, Bantayan. Photo by Steve de Neef

Hope.  Photo by Steve de Neef

Hope. Photo by Steve de Neef

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 seahorses of Malaysia’s Sembilan archipelago

By Julia Lawson

A pregnant male yellow seahorse ( H. kuda )

A pregnant male yellow seahorse (H. kuda)

Located roughly 10 km off the west coast of mainland Malaysia, Pulau Sembilan (or the Nine Islands) has managed to fly under the radar while the rest of the country expands and develops. The archipelago is composed of nine uninhabited and densely forested islands.

Earlier this year, I conducted an exploratory dive in Pulau Sembilan looking for seahorses, which I heard could be found in the coral reefs surrounding these islands. Threatened by coastal development, land reclamation, and fishing, these reefs comprise some of the last healthy coral populations off the west coast of Malaysia.

The first few days of the trip were eye-opening for the sheer scope and diversity of the corals on display, but disappointing in terms of seahorse sightings. My research assistant, Yin Sing, and I found only four seahorses in the first three days. While it was exciting to observe these charismatic and mysterious animals in the wild for the first time, my heart sank as we looked for others. There were none, but this was not surprising as seahorses populations are notoriously patchy and low-density.

During our very last dive, I swam slowly back to the boat, determined to enjoy my final few minutes underwater in spite of our disappointing numbers. I noticed some beautiful branching coral in the shallows and swam over to examine it. That’s when I noticed two eyes staring up at me. A tiger-tail seahorse seemed to hold its breath, wishing for me to pass by it unnoticed. Nearly perfectly camouflaged against the yellow-tinged Acropora coral, I strained my eyes to look for others nearby. I was shocked to find more seahorses, woven amongst the branching coral. Running out of time, I conducted a quick count and confirmed five individuals in this small patch. Had they been there all along and we were just looking in the wrong places?

We returned to the Sembilan archipelago a few weeks later, determined to find out as much as we could about our newly discovered seahorse population. We were equipped with quadrats, transects, calipers and all the other scientific gear needed to survey a population of seahorses. On a hunch, I felt like there had to be more than just the five I found in that small patch. We had three full days to find out if this was true. My mind raced—what if there were only five? What if we can’t find them again? But before I knew it, I was back in the water at the Sembilan archipelago, eye to eye with a tiger-tail seahorse. 

Yun Sing and I worked methodically, focusing on patches of branching coral and then finding seahorses living inside. We would locate a seahorse, gently measure and photograph it, and return it to its home. We would also note whether it was pregnant or had a partner (as seahorses are monogamous). Lastly, we took note of the seahorse’s surroundings by photographing and measuring the branching coral that it lived in.

After three days of intensive diving we found 78 seahorses around the Sembilan archipelago, including two tiny juveniles that were only 2.5cm in length. We were ecstatic to find out that this population represented not only the biggest population found to date on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, but one of the biggest populations discovered thus far in South East Asia.

Despite the size and density of this population, we were surprised to learn that the Sembilan archipelago is offered no protection by the Malaysian government. With no restrictions on fishing, the Sembilan archipelago is open access and more alarmingly, it is open to those specifically harvesting seahorses for the aquarium trade. 

Project Seahorse has since then teamed up with Reef Check Malaysia, a local non-governmental organization in Malaysia, and our colleagues at the University of Malaya, to encourage government protection of this unique and important ecosystem. Protecting the seahorses of the Sembilan archipelago is an important step in maintaining seahorse populations in South East Asia.

Julia Lawson is an MSc student with Project Seahorse. 

Seahorses, of all things: Further thoughts on the West African seahorse trade

By Andrés M. Cisneros-Montemayor

A fishing port, somewhere in Senegal or Gambia on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa. It’s a hot, humid and buggy day, the pirogues are coming in, and it’s organized chaos all around. We’re weaving through porters and sorters, watching out for donkey carts full of fish zipping by. Between rivulets of human sewage and fish offal flowing into the ocean, women sit and gut the days’ catch. I skirt a pile of half-day-old finned shark trunks, a bucket of multi-sized octopus and cuttlefish, catch a glimpse of old cleaned-out sea turtle shells and a large devil ray, and take in the seemingly endless flow of pelagic and tropical fishes arriving bucket by bucket. In the background sits a fly-covered hill of murex shells, and a small army of men and women adding to it after breaking each snail out with small iron bars. Scenes like this — of people catching whatever they can to make a meagre living — play out daily all over the world…

…and I’m here to ask about seahorses.

Now, as a quick personal back-story, growing up around fisheries I still remember hearing about this or that (usually foreign) conservationist and their quest to save something, usually shutting down a fishery in the process. So the irony was not lost on me as I moved down the beach with my bottled water (oh, how the tables turn) and, through my translator, Boiro, asked fishers about their catch. Did they see any seahorses, how many, etc.? Usually, the initial look of suspicion was replaced with one of honest surprise (and perhaps some derision) upon accepting that yes, this ‘Toubab’ is a student, and he actually just wants to know about seahorses. Seahorses, of all things! 

Seahorses are listed under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species), which means they can be legally caught in a country, but require a permit to export. Exports from West Africa to Asia (as traditional Chinese medicine) have been increasing quickly, but exactly where they’re being fished and how they compare with declared exports is unclear. My job is to continue research begun last year and estimate how many seahorses are being caught by fishers here, how they are being traded within the country, how they are getting out, and how the authorities are dealing with it, if at all. 

Three week’s research (so far) into the trade in Senegal and Gambia, here’s the lowdown. First of all, seahorses are not high on anyone’s radar. Fishers catch some by accident here and there; some traders might collect them and re-sell, and eventually larger handfuls of seahorses are accumulated on their way to Dakar. When asked how big a part of his business they are, the owner of a seafood processing plant and the largest single (legal) exporter of seahorses in Senegal laughed and said “0%”. After touring his plant, I believe him. In fact, many government officials and scientists, and even some fishers, were unaware of the seahorses trade in Senegal and Gambia. 

This is a classic example of the scaling-up phenomenon in fisheries. Even if individual fishers only occasionally catch a few seahorses, the sheer number of pirogues and industrial trawlers on the water means that an estimated 1.8 tonnes of seahorses (almost 300,000 individuals) are landed per year, just over six times the legally-exported amount. The rest of the seahorses are taken to Asia illegally, either by boat crews returning home or by clandestine exporters. This gap between perception and reality speaks to the much larger issue of global bycatch, which affects seahorses and many other marine species. 

What does this mean, specifically, for seahorses in West Africa? Well, we’re still working on that Our estimated seahorse landings represent less than one-thousandth of a percent of total Senegalese fishery landings. What we do know is that awareness is the necessary first step toward a sustainable seahorse trade in the region. After compiling results from our research, we brought together and shared them with key representatives from almost every stakeholder group you would want present, including CITES authorities, government officials, fish exporters, non-governmental organzations, academics, and policymakers. They now know what seahorses look like, how the males carry eggs and how to tell them apart from females, where and how they are caught, how they are being legally and illegally exported, and why this is something they should care about (trade sanctions if nothing else). More importantly, participants themselves were quick to spearhead discussion on the next steps to tackle this issue (and related ones such as shark-finning and customs practices), and have already started to move the wheels. On the biology/ecology side, we tripled the amount of seahorses previously sampled in this region and will now attempt to find more of them in the wild (tricky, but stay tuned). This will help provide much-needed local data for scientists and managers.

Developing countries face many serious economic and societal problems, such as poverty, which would seem to transcend by far even the most legitimate conservation concerns. Ultimately, these issues belong on a continuum, and need to be addressed together, with effective, holistic policies — sustainable fisheries being a step in the right direction. My field work in West Africa has made me realize, that if we only focus on and wait to solve the large-scale issues, we might eventually find that all the smaller conservation battles were lost in the meantime. So when you are tasked with even a seemingly-inconsequential aspect of conservation in a country with other pressing needs, remember that every single improvement counts. 

And remember to carry bottled water! 

Project Seahorse's trade research in West Africa is generously supported by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Photos: Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse

Searching for Seahorses

By Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh

Hippocampus kuda , also known as the common seahorse, observed on a coral reef off the Andamn coast of Thailand by Shedd Aquarium Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh.  Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

Hippocampus kuda, also known as the common seahorse, observed on a coral reef off the Andamn coast of Thailand by Shedd Aquarium Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh. Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh is a postdoctoral research associate based at John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago. Her work is part of a joint Shedd-Project Seahorse partnership. This blog originally appeared on National Geographic Newswatch.

The wind blew steadily, whipping up whitecaps in the distance as our little long-tail boat made its way out of Panwa Bay, at the southeastern corner of Phuket, Thailand. My co-worker, Lindsay, already wore her dive gear, and our research assistants, Tum and Arm, hunkered down at the back with stoic expressions. We were about to get soaked.

Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh and field assistant Top aboard a long-tail boat out of Panwa Bay, at the southeastern corner of Phuket, Thailand.  Photo: Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh and field assistant Top aboard a long-tail boat out of Panwa Bay, at the southeastern corner of Phuket, Thailand. Photo: Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Our boatman skillfully negotiated his way through the roiling waves as we left the bay, but we couldn’t escape the constant spray and waves that broke over the bow of the boat. Wiping saltwater from my eyes for the umpteenth time, I thought: I hope we see a seahorse today.

As part of my postdoctoral research position at the Shedd Aquarium, in collaboration with Project Seahorse, I’m searching this vast part of Southeast Asia for tiny seahorses (genus Hippocampus). My goals: to find out where seahorses live and what marine environments they prefer, how many species exist, whether seahorse populations here are under threat, and promote their conservation.

Species at Risk

Why are seahorses species of concern? According to the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), seahorses are heavily traded on the global market, with millions of animals exported globally every year. Dried seahorses for traditional medicine comprise the bulk of the trade, but animals are also sold for curios and live in the aquarium trade. Bottom trawling is the biggest contributor of seahorses in trade: the incidental harvest of seahorses, or bycatch, accounts for up to 95% of dried seahorses. Given what we know about seahorse biology—they have low rates of reproduction and tend to mate for life—wild seahorse populations can easily be overexploited. Seahorses also live in important marine habitats that are among the most heavily impacted by human activities, such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and estuaries.

The Science of Seahorses

Seahorses are too unique to be consigned to extinction. Unlike most other fishes, seahorses lack the aerodynamic body shape for gliding through water. Instead, their prehensile tails grasp structures on the sea bottom for support. In a wild departure from the majority of the animal kingdom, the male seahorses are the ones who get pregnant, protecting and nourishing embryos in a special brood pouch on their abdomens. Pairs of many species are monogamous, with couples greeting each other daily in a courtship dance, sometimes while changing colors, to reinforce the pair-bond.

Despite their magical characteristics, we really don’t know that much about seahorses. They tend to be rare, well-camouflaged, and patchily distributed, making them difficult to find and study. We know the biological traits of seahorses that make them vulnerable to overfishing, but we need to build upon existing knowledge to improve their conservation. Hence, my current efforts.

I’m in Thailand because according to CITES trade reports, Thailand exports the highest number of seahorses in the world annually (~5 million individuals per year from 2004-2008). Here, I’m working with the CITES authorities in the Department of Fisheries and researchers from Kasetsart University (Bangkok) to find out where seahorses live along the coast of Thailand, how many seahorses are out there, and if different species have habitat preferences.  These data will help the Thai government to assess the seahorse trade in Thailand, and ensure its sustainability.

Measuring the trunk length of a female Hippocampus comes, the tiger-tailed seahorse.  Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

Measuring the trunk length of a female Hippocampus comes, the tiger-tailed seahorse. Photo: Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh/Shedd Aquarium

As we swam along the second 50 meter transect at our survey site, a patch reef off Koh Khai Nai (Khai Nai Island), I spotted a flash of yellow under an overhang—a seahorse! It was a female Hippocampus comes, the tiger-tailed seahorse, the first I had seen in days of surveys. We quickly took some body measurements with a caliper to minimize stress to the animal (a good-sized seahorse too, with a height of 14cm), and placed her gently back in the crevice. We found five seahorses on this patch reef, giving an approximate density of 1 individual per 1,000 square meters – definitely uncommon. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of effort, usually a few days of intense searching, to find seahorses in a large survey site. We’re getting used to seeing several “empty” transects, or search areas with no seahorses, as we progress, but that makes each seahorse we find more valuable to our database. Despite the wind and the waves, our trip to Koh Khai Nai in search of seahorses was time well spent, indeed.

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.

My map

By Danika Kleiber

Project Seahorse PhD student Danika Kleiber is studying the intersection of gender, fisheries, and food security. For an introduction to her work, read her first post from the field. You can also visit an archive of her posts.

Behold, my map. Each of those red dots represents data on women participating in fishing. It’s a work in progress, but I think it’s already pretty darn fascinating. The data comes from a variety of sources, and for the purposes of this map at least I’m not that picky.  Government statistics, ethnographies, personal communications, grey lit, peer-reviewed lit, books — everything! I’ve found papers on everything from inland river fishers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to shell-gatherers in Papua New Guinea, to salmon fishers in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Some references are rather dated (a 1930 ethnographic study of Samoa is the current reigning champion), and some represent places where women used to fish, but no longer do so (such as the Greenland communities Dahl researched in the late 90’s).

I don’t pick favorites, but I have to say, I love government statistics. Finding a 1998 report from Mexico that broke down fishing participation by gender made my day (with special thanks to my friend Lindsay for translating the table for me). European Commission reports (2002), you also have my respect. Even if you did leave out the shell-gathers, you had the grace to admit it. 

However, mostly what I find is purely descriptive data. From short one-line descriptions such as “women are known to glean in the shallows,” to rich ethnographies detailing the diversity of fishing methods used, I enjoy these even as I find them somewhat frustrating.  Yes, I want meaningful cultural context, but I also want numbers! That’s the thing about policymakers, it’s not enough to know that women fish.  They want details like, How many women fish? How much do they catch, what type of species do they catch and are they catching too much?  For that perfect mix of quantitative and qualitative data I’ve had the best luck with human ecology, nutrition, and other interdisciplinary studies.

My global review has also inspired me to make a list of all the words for “gleaning.” Gleaning is the type of fishing I’m most interested in, because it’s the least studied, and the one most often practiced by women. It is the practice of gathering shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes even fish from coastal shallows. Here are some of the other words for it: groping, gathering, collecting, plucking, harvesting or hunting. Or if you prefer a more international flair, try panginhas (Cebuano), or fangota or alaala (Tongan). I was particularly struck by this sentence by Carrier in 1982 used to describe gleaning in Papua New Guinea: “It has no name, but if you ask a Ponam he will say mat which means ‘reef’ and covers all sorts of gathering, plucking and harvesting of sea creatures, usually by women and always during the day” [emphasis mine].  Poor no-name gleaning. 

The thing I like best about this map is the fact that it tends to promote its own growth. Over the last six months I’ve given lots of talks, and this map always features in the introduction. It’s a quick and dirty way to demonstrate that women’s fishing is not a geographically isolated event, it’s a global phenomenon. The interesting thing is that this map is the thing people tend to remember and want to talk to me about. And mostly the conversation is about how I’m missing some data points. A woman from Bolivia told me the women fish while the men farm, and a teacher from Columbia told me she’s seen women gleaning along the seashore.  I love getting this information. In fact, if anyone out there knows of any more red dots I should add to my map, drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you.

Project Seahorse visits the Great Barrier Reef

By Danika Kleiber

Fellow PhD student Jenny Selgrath and I just attended the 2012 International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia. There were some wonderful talks.  I was particularly drawn to the sessions covering the new Coral Triangle Initiative, but also really enjoyed a talk by Philippa Cohen, who has been researching temporal closure management in the Solomon Islands.

After all the talks and meetings were over, Jenny and I decided to visit the Great Barrier Reef.  After all, how could we spend an entire week discussing coral reef conservation and not take the opportunity to see the world's largest coral reef system for ourselves? At the end of the conference we hopped on a bus to Port Douglas and then on a boat to Agincourt Reef. 

Here's Jenny getting some work done on our way out to the reef (submitted as proof that graduate students do work all the time):

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As soon we got in the water I noticed the huge reef flats:

But perhaps even more important for marine biodiversity were all the nooks and crannies in the reef that provide ideal shelter for all sorts of animals.

Although the fish were amazing, my favorite discovery was the giant clams.  They come in so many beautiful colors, and some were almost as big as me!  

After a week of thinking and talking about reefs it was great to be reminded, first-hand, of their beauty and importance as a marine habitat.

It was the perfect way to end the conference (submitted as proof that even graduate students have to sleep).

Jenny Selgrath and Danika Kleiber are PhD students with Project Seahorse.