Murderers, Cannibals and Spanish Dancers

We care about the characters and their fates. The dancers and thugs we meet are far closer to human experiences than the reality of sea animals going about their daily rituals of eating, surviving and finding mates. And I think it’s that quality that makes someone who would usually be indifferent to the ocean, become enthralled by the imagery that now fills their minds.

The Gulf of Mannar's trawling problem

Located between the southeastern tip of India and the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, the Gulf of Mannar is home to mangrove and sea grass habitats- ideal feeding and breeding grounds for many species. Unfortunately, it is also known for its longstanding problems with overfishing and destructive fishing practices.

You say 'falsification,' I say 'validation': taking a multidisciplinary approach to conservation

Success in conservation requires people from different backgrounds to work together. Seahorse conservation is a case in point, where biologists, fisheries scientists, policy makers, businessmen, social workers, the media, and many others need to work together to achieve the goal of protecting these iconic animals from overfishing and other human pressures. 

How much do you know about China’s marine fisheries?

This is the second in a series of blogs about fisheries and conservation in China. Read part one and part three.

Open an atlas and you can easily recognize Mainland China by its rooster-like shape: tail pointing to Middle East, head towards to Russia and Korea, back carrying Mongolia, and chest facing the Pacific.

The Tao of Poo (or, How I Learned to Love Multidisciplinary Conservation)

By Clayton Manning

Matsumoto Castle, Japan.  Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Matsumoto Castle, Japan. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Over the past year-and-a-half I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up and thought, “how the hell did I get here?” Not just geographically, but intellectually, too. 

In November 2012, entirely for fun, I started a volunteer research project with a biologist at the University of Calgary who I had met during my undergrad. In that project I took thousands of photos of bumblebee wings, then digitized and analyzed them. I was investigating how bumblebee morphology (the shape and form of their bodies) affected the characteristics of their wings, and the work couldn’t have been more terrestrial. 
Only a few months later, in February 2013, I caught a flight from Calgary to Tokyo, Japan. It was the first time I'd ever left North America. I was moving to a country that I knew nothing about, where I knew nobody, and where I knew absolutely none of the very unique local language. I spent the next 20 months teaching English and immersing myself in Japanese culture.

Fecal coliform colonies.  Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Fecal coliform colonies. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Now I’m now living in Vancouver and a graduate student with  Project Seahorse, an organization whose work couldn't be any farther, in a physical sense, from the stuff I've been doing. Instead of looking at blown-up pictures of bumblebee wings on a computer screen, I will be diving to investigate the trophic behavior of seahorses. If variety is the spice of life, someone must have hit me in the face with a rack of it.

Some would argue that because my research background has been largely microscopic and land-based, I’m not suited to do research on marine fishes. Before bumblebees I studied mountain pine beetles, where I showed that the amount of monoterpenes (a vaporous chemical) a pine tree releases affects the ability of the females beetles to lay eggs. And before that I worked in Alberta rivers, and revealed how solar radiation is a more important killer of fecal (poop) coliform than water pH. But I would argue it is the breadth of my research base and my recent personal past that will allow me to conduct successful research.

Mountain pine beetle egg galleries. The beetles are an invasive species.  Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Mountain pine beetle egg galleries. The beetles are an invasive species. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Conservation is a tricky corner of science, where you need to employ a wide range of skills and learn many of those you don’t. It is an intricate mixture of ecology and social sciences, with a dash of physical sciences such as chemistry that is churned by economics. If you look at it from only an ecological perspective, you will completely miss the human-related reasons for why some communities are forced to exploit a resource.
But if you look too closely at the human side of things, you may miss the potential biological reasons for declining species populations such as trophic cascades or invasive species (such as mountain pine beetles). If that isn’t difficult enough, every day the impacts of climate change on conservation are becoming more and more prominent. Conservationists are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, adaptive and creative problem-solvers.

It could therefore be a positive that I’ve needed to figure out how to build a water-bath that keeps poop bacteria at a constant temperature. Who knows, maybe during my thesis I’ll need to be able to build a cage for seahorses that regulates the size of the zooplankton (a tiny organism seahorses feed on) that is allowed to enter. Or maybe my painful 36 consecutive hours of peeling pine tree logs to find pine beetles I had implanted a week before will allow me to more effectively conduct early-morning fisher interviews, all-day visual census dives and late-night data entry for weeks on end. It is also possible that my year and half of learning how to communicate effectively in a broken foreign language will give me a leg up when conducting field work in another new country.

Although the last two years have been a trip for all of my senses, and although I find myself face-to-face with a brand new challenge, it is the diversity of my research and recent life experiences that I will look upon to complete my Master’s degree. Whether it be on fish or insects, in forests or oceans, one’s ability to do good science is dependent on problem-solving and resourcefulness. This especially so in conservation, when all elements of the human and natural environment may be at play.

So when, inevitably, the day comes that I need to overcome some strange, unforeseen issue in the waters of a faraway land… you can bet I’ll be thinking about either beetles or poo.

It's time for some #OceanOptimism

By Jennifer Selgrath

“Capes on everybody, it's time for some #OceanOptimism!"

At her IMCC plenary talk last month, Project Seahorse co-founder Dr. Heather Koldewey encouraged everyone in attendance to think about what kind of super hero we want to be. As marine conservationists, she said, we should always think about our scientific work in terms of how it changes the world for the better. Now more than ever, we need to get on with conservation.

Just as importantly, however, we need to communicate our successes. We need to share our stories with the world. Because, as Dr. Koldewey pointed out, the media’s coverage of ocean conservation focuses almost exclusively on the negative. In her talk she drew a parallel between media coverage of human health and coverage of the health of our ocean. In the headlines of stories about cancer and other serious diseases, for example, positive words like “hope” and “cure” are common. Not so with stories about ocean conservation. The headlines tend to be doom-and-gloom.  

The problem with that, she said, is that “scary messages without solutions don't motivate people!" What motivates people is hope.

Which is why, just in time for World Ocean Day in June 2014, Dr. Koldewey and her colleagues launched the Twitter hashtag #oceanoptimism to highlight all that is going right with marine conservation and encourage the wider public to get involved. To date, over 1.8 million twitter users have been reached with inspiring stories of hope and change. 

Dr. Koldewey shared a few of them in her speech.

She talked about iSeahorse, our program that turns seahorse enthusiasts into citizen scientists and the data they collect into conservation action. 

Another was Net-Works, a project she oversees in her role as the head of the Zoological Society of London’s Global Conservation Programmes. An innovative public-private initiative with floor tile manufacturer Interface, Net-Works turns old and worn-out fishing nets into eco-friendly carpets. You can watch a short video about it here

This program has a special place in my heart because they collect nets in many of the fishing villages where I do research. I feel full of optimism watching how this program is helping to reduce ‘ghost fishing’ — where abandoned nets float in the ocean, inadvertently catching and drowning sea life. It does this by repurposing discarded nets, bringing a sustainable source of revenue to the impoverished communities, and creating community-based banking programs. To date the program has converted 40 metric tons of fishing nets into carpet.  

She also spoke about Project Ocean, an awareness-raising campaign with Selfridges that marries marine conservation with high fashion. Selfridges has eliminated shark by-products from their beauty line, stopped selling endangered fish in their food court, and had fashion models wearing balloons to look like plankton all to encourage consumers to make their shopping habits more sustainable. 

There are many, many more examples. Just search Twitter using #OceanOptimism. And please share your stories, too!

Jennifer Selgrath (@JennySelgrath) is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. 

Idealism tempered by my first CITES meeting

By Dr. Sarah Foster

Note: This post marks the last of our reports from the 2014 CITES annual technical gathering in Veracruz, Mexico. To read more, visit the "Commentary" section of this blog.

Every now and then you have an experience that really gets you thinking. Participating in my first UN meeting has certainly done that for me. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) has an annual technical gathering to sort out challenges in regulating annual exports of species for conservation.  Seahorses pose plenty of such challenges with a huge global trade of tens of millions of animals — and declining populations. We need to make CITES an effective tool for their conservation, to complement everything else we are doing.

Amanda Vincent (left) and Sarah Foster (right) at the 27th CITES Animals Committee Meeting in Veracruz, Mexico.

Amanda Vincent (left) and Sarah Foster (right) at the 27th CITES Animals Committee Meeting in Veracruz, Mexico.

After long days at this meeting I retain lots of hope that CITES can make a difference. But I’m struck by two reality checks that are tempering my idealism. That’s inevitable, perhaps, given how much I expected from just this one tool, but it’s still sad.

My first reality check is that CITES seems to address symptoms more than causes for many species declines, including seahorses.  The principle of CITES seems simple enough – Parties should not export more seahorses than wild populations can bear. So we just need to figure out how many we can take out of the water, and keep trade levels there. Except it is not that easy.  CITES is only about international trade and not really about actual exploitation.  The hope for most species is that limits on exports will create limits on how many are taken from the wild.  The problem is that most seahorses are caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries.  So caps on export levels will not, by themselves, reduce catch rates. We can make this point at the CITES meeting but – in a CITES context - we cannot tell Parties how they should go about managing their fisheries, including the destructive and non-selective trawling that is the root cause of the problem.  So we are often skirting around the real issues, removed from the heart of the matter.  We need to find innovative and yet politically acceptable ways to bridge this gap and help CITES move seahorse trade toward sustainability.

My second reality check is that we cannot tell Parties what to do. No way, no how. But they want our advice. And we know quite a bit about what needs to be done! CITES is working to support Thailand in moving its seahorse exports towards sustainability.  This is pretty tricky because most are caught in trawls (see above) and seahorses are just not priority species in Thailand. More problematic still, fixing this will need CITES to try some new approaches, beyond the usual recipes. Amanda and I were delighted to be asked to draft new recommendations for Thailand.  After two years of assisting its Department of Fisheries, we have learned a lot about what needs to be done.  So I found it really very frustrating that our gentle attempts at innovation were set aside in favour of formulaic phrases. We had an amazing chance to give Parties guidance for eventual success but instead we had to beat around the bush, respecting the politics of the CITES process.

I recognize that my gripes are probably realities of an international UN convention.  Still, it all has me thinking that such protocols are really hampering support for thousands of species that would beg for help if they could.  How can we best make progress in this context - carefully, indirectly, vaguely and without telling anyone what to do?  And do seahorses have time to wait for us to work this out?

On being part of the world’s largest conservation team

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

It is truly wondrous that the world has managed to create a global action group for conservation, one that includes 1200 governments and non-governmental organizations. I am so involved in this club, called the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) that I seldom step back and really look at it. But I was recently reminded not to take it for granted. It does amazing work, particularly by co-ordinating thousands of volunteer experts in animal and plant conservation into a strong force for nature

The IUCN team of volunteer experts is much in evidence at CITES meetings on regulating exports of endangered species (see my blog on May 2nd). The meetings are packed full of countries and public interest/advocacy groups. They tackle a huge array of very complex issues that need masses of information about lots of species involved. There is a lot of knowledge in the hall. But a great deal of the information and influence in these meetings comes from behind the IUCN name plate, where staff and volunteer experts work together to get it right for wildlife.

I love being part of the IUCN group. At my most recent CITES meeting, IUCN was able to cover the most critical agenda issues in wildlife trade thanks to help from volunteer experts on big catscrocodilesprimatessnakessharkstortoises and freshwater turtles — and seahorses. At such gatherings, IUCN provides factual input without pushing any particular agenda. Because of this, we are commonly asked for advice, invited to offer our views, and always respected for our expertise.

Contributing through the IUCN is rewarding, even if things don’t always work out quite as hoped. As IUCN is so trusted, we are often able to influence what countries decide at CITES without ever insisting on our opinion. The corollary, though, is that sometimes we just have to bottle our annoyance and live with a country’s surprising behavior and/or CITES’ quirky decisions. I certainly had to cope with that mixture of good and frustrating at the last meeting. But I’m so glad at least to have a decent chance to change things through IUCN.

Unsustainable shrimp a jumbo problem

By Dr. Sarah Foster

Project Seahorse researcher Sarah Foster says most of the shrimp we eat are unsustainably harvested. For every kilogram of tropical shrimp caught through trawling the bottom of the ocean, 10 kilograms of other marine life is killed. To protect ocean health, Foster argues that we have to be smart about the shrimp we eat.

How does shrimp harvesting impact our oceans?

Each year around World Oceans Day my family and friends ask what they can do to make a difference to the health of our oceans. My answer: don’t eat shrimp or prawns–unless you know they have been sustainably sourced. Most aren’t.

Where do most of our shrimp come from?

Almost all shrimp you buy or get served come from tropical trawl fisheries. This fishing technique “clear cuts” the ocean floor, catching shrimp and everything else in its path. An average of 10 kilos of other marine life is captured and killed for every kilo of tropical shrimp landed. Some of this “other catch” or “bycatch” is kept and sold, but most is turned into fishmeal or fish oil for fertilizer and aquaculture practices. Many of these species could be sources of food for humans but reducing them to plant or animal feed redirects key protein sources away from the people who need it.

The total area of seabed trawled each year is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clear cut. We criticize clear cutting forests so why don’t we fuss about clear cutting the ocean floor?

Is farmed shrimp a sustainable alternative?

Most shrimp farming is as bad, if not worse, as bottom trawling. Shrimp ponds have destroyed thousands of kilometres of coastal habitats around the world, particularly mangroves, which serve as nurseries to many marine species and help buffer coastal communities from powerful storms. Shrimp farming also pollutes adjacent waters with chemicals and waste, and the salt from the ponds can turn productive land into a desert.

How can we end ocean clear cutting?

Something has to make trawlers change their practice. By buying and eating sustainably sourced shrimp you can help provide the incentive. Shrimp trawlers around the world now carry Turtle Excluder Devices because the U.S. won’t import their shrimp if they don’t, although implementation remains a huge challenge.

Let’s give fisheries an incentive to protect the rest of the bycatch species. Be smart about the shrimp you eat. Thankfully in Canada this is easier than in many places. Most of Canada’s shrimp fisheries are considered to be ecologically sustainable with minimal bycatch. Canada is home to one of the most sustainable prawn fisheries in the world – the B.C. spot prawn fishery. This fishery uses traps that do not result in as much bycatch or habitat damage. We also have programs like Oceans Wise that tell you if the shrimp you want to buy for the barbecue or order in a restaurant won’t harm the oceans they come from.

Yes, you will pay more for the shrimp you eat but the oceans will pay less for your choices. Your gain is that you will be able to appreciate and eat other marine life for much longer.

Three more countries required to take action for seahorses

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Good. Two more seahorses species should get better help, thanks to the recent CITES technical meeting for animals.

At this meeting, CITES expressed Urgent Concern about Guinea and Senegal’s exports of West African seahorses (Hippocampus algiricus - photo right) and Thailand’s exports of three spotted seahorses (Hippocampus trimaculatus). The upshot is that these countries have been given some recommendations (which must be followed) on how to move their exports of these species towards sustainable levels. It’s a good early step in the long, long journey that will be needed to secure the future of these seahorses, with both species judged as Vulnerable to extinction. 

Guinea and Senegal are huge exporters of algiricus. Vast numbers are caught in non-selective fishing gear (especially seine nets) and hundreds of thousands are sold dried to east Asia every year. CITES has decided that Guinea and Senegal must take more responsibility for these exports, and has drawn up a list of recommendations for both countries. Project Seahorse is very glad that we can help here; Kate West and Andres Cisneros-Montemayor recently carried out the only fishery and trade surveys of seahorses in these two countries. Kate and Andres also had a first look at algiricus biology – there are no papers on this species – and we’ll also give that info to Guinea and Senegal.

Fisheries in Senegal.  Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

Fisheries in Senegal. Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

Thailand has been exporting more than 99% of all trimaculatus in international trade, with an average of well over a million animals leaving the country each year. This seems to be more than the population can support, but Thailand needs to do the work to analyse this properly. Such analysis may be tricky because most of the seahorses are caught accidentally by the huge number of trawls that operate off Thailand. Happily, Project Seahorse is able to help here too. We’ve been formally collaborating with the Thai Department of Fisheries for the past two years, as it works to manage exports of three other seahorse species. So we can help provide decent information about seahorse biology, fisheries and trade. Thailand, of course, will have to decide how to apply this knowledge to its trade challenges.

Fisheries in Thailand.   Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse.

Fisheries in Thailand.  Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse.

CITES gave the three countries much the same set of recommendations, all of which are essentially requirements. The main focus is on mapping, enforcement and monitoring. All countries need to know more about where the seahorses live relative to conservation threats and areas with fisheries/ocean management. Then the countries need to strengthen enforcement of their often really good management measures, such as the ban on trawling within 5.4 km of the coast of Thailand. Finally, the countries need to track seahorses catches - and the effort it took to catch them – for quite a few years to find out what is happening to the wild populations. The results of this work will guide next steps in conservation.

On other new seahorse matters, CITES agreed to ask all member countries to explain how they decide on appropriate levels of exports for the lined seahorse, Hippocampus erectus. And CITES addressed some confusion in the naming of seahorse species. Much more needs to be done on clearing up species distinctions and identification, however.

All in all, Project Seahorse involvement with CITES and seahorses looks likely to continue for quite some time. For one thing, we are waiting to hear whether Thailand adequately addressed CITES recommendations from two years ago. For another, we are working with Viet Nam to help them address the ban on seahorse exports – for one species only – that CITES imposed last year. This was the first ever ban under any international agreement for any marine fish, so is an interesting case study. Then there’s the new work ---.

I found this CITES meeting both interesting and frustrating. A few countries started scrutinising the recommendations for seahorses a lot more carefully, as they realised we were setting precedent for other marine fishes, including sharks . As a result, some sensible and focused advice was diluted into broad generalities that will be harder for countries to grasp. It will be interesting to see how their national agencies respond to the hard won recommendations: will they try to make change or while they wriggle as much as possible ?

Supporting seahorses through CITES - here we go again...

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Hippocampus kuda . One of the three seahorse species under CITES Review of Significant Trade.  Photo by Luc Eeckhaut/Guylian Seahorses of the World.

Hippocampus kuda. One of the three seahorse species under CITES Review of Significant Trade. Photo by Luc Eeckhaut/Guylian Seahorses of the World.

ere we go: CITES again. Every year or so, several hundred people sit down at a technical meeting to see whether international trade controls are doing any good for animals. It’s a somewhat crazy process, full of potential and limitations. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is responsible for ensuring sustainability in exports in 4827 animal species. It works more or less well for different countries and different species. Our challenge at this meeting (called the Animals Committee) is to figure out which countries and which species need the most support – and how to help.

We came to the meeting to support seahorses, of course. We also want to get involved in some broader issues that range from captive breeding to training for Customs officers. But the focus is seahorses, the first marine fish brought under CITES regulation since 1976. We are already working closely with Thailand and Vietnam, which are having trouble ensuring that exports of some seahorses don’t exceed what wild populations can bear. Now it seems that Thailand might need help with another species. And we might have to get involved in West Africa too.

For the first time, I have another seahorse wizard along. Sarah Foster is also on the Project Seahorse team and has spent years working with CITES but this is the first time she has come to a formal meeting. It will be interesting to see what she makes of it all ---

At the moment, we are ploughing through the masses and masses of documents, coded with letters and numbers that refer to remote parts of the CITES experience. Most of them are very dull and somewhat obscure. But we really need to understand them well and figure out how they apply to our immediate conservation concerns. Behind every animal name in this mound of paper is a spectacular, quirky or critical species. One that we just might lose forever unless CITES does its work well.

A tribute to Choo Chee Kuang, academic and humanitarian

By Julia Lawson

Earlier this year, Project Seahorse colleague Choo Chee Kuang passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Choo was a scientist, conservationist, and humanitarian who produced important and novel research on seahorses and the seahorse trade in Malaysia. On behalf of the Project Seahorse team, MSc student Julia Lawson remembers our dear colleague, who will be deeply missed.

Choo Chee Kuang’s reputation preceded him. I knew his work long before I travelled halfway around the world to begin my own fieldwork in Southeast Asia. His pioneering research on seahorse populations in Malaysia introduced me to the country before I ever set foot in it. A map next to my desk depicted the sixteen sites that Choo surveyed along the west coast of the peninsula. Those sites acted as a guidebook, and came alive from Choo’s papers. As a young researcher, developing ideas for my project, he had published a number of pioneering studies that inspired me. I left for Malaysia in May 2013, eager to see how things have changed from Choo’s research twelve years earlier.

Upon arriving in Malaysia, I spent time with the volunteer research program Choo started in 2004 called Save Our Seahorses Malaysia. It was then I realized that he was so much more than an academic. SOS Malaysia leads the effort to understand and protect seahorse populations in Malaysia, with a focus on the Pulai River Estuary in the south peninsular region. The Pulai River Estuary consists of the largest riverine mangrove forest and most expansive seagrass area in the peninsula. It is home not only to seahorses, but also pipefish, estuarine crocodiles, and dugongs. 

While this area is exceptionally biodiverse, it sits in an area of political importance, making protection difficult. The Pulai River Estuary occupies a narrow strip of water between Singapore and Malaysia, right in the middle of a busy shipping lane. Singapore continues to expand through development and land-reclamation, and Malaysia seeks to keep pace. In 2006, Malaysia proclaimed a huge region in south Malaysia as the Iskandar Development Region. This region is aimed at complimenting Singapore as the central economic hub in peninsular Malaysia. 

Driving down to the SOS Malaysia headquarters in Gelang Patah, we passed through much of Iskandar Malaysia. High-rises sprang from freshly cleared ground; luxury condominiums sat empty in the middle of nowhere. Ready for occupancy, and ready for expansion, Iskandar Malaysia seems to perfectly capture Malaysia’s status as an emerging economy.

Orang Seletar children near Gelang Patah, South Johor.  Photo: Choo Chee Kuang

Orang Seletar children near Gelang Patah, South Johor. Photo: Choo Chee Kuang

Choo fought tirelessly to protect the Pulai River Estuary from the negative effects of development that come from projects like Iskandar. To save the estuary’s seahorses, Choo realized that he needed the support of the local indigenous people, the Orang Seletar. He recognized that as south Malaysia continued to develop, traditional livelihoods like small-scale fishing would be lost. Today, ocean-side communities in south Malaysia are faced with encroachment from shipping ports and hazardous petrochemical plants. Choo educated Orang Seletar children about their marine environment and over time he became a spokesperson for these communities. Under the guidance of Choo, Save Our Seahorses Malaysia was also a key organizer in peaceful protests by the Orang Seletar community to highlight environmental concerns about petrochemical projects in the region. 

Choo was an academic who was fascinated by seahorse biology and trade in Malaysia, yet he was also a humanitarian who cared deeply about the communities and people in the areas that he studied. Today, south Malaysia continues to develop, but the impact of Choo’s work continues to be felt. The Orang Seletar community still maintains a community centre, which Choo helped develop, and Save Our Seahorses Malaysia continues to monitor the seahorse population in the Pulai River Estuary. Through SOS Malaysia’s ongoing work to bring small-scale fishing communities and scientists together, Choo’s important work will live on for many years to come.

I count myself among those inspired by Choo, and he remains an advisor and a mentor to me, even though he is no longer with us. Using Choo’s papers as the backbone of my research, I revisited the ports he surveyed 12 years ago, and recorded trends and changes in seahorse trade and biology since his founding work. Project Seahorse and our colleagues at the University of Malaya will continue research on seahorses in Malaysia, and on-the-ground conservation continues with Save Our Seahorses’ dedicated volunteers and Orang Seletar fishing communities.

Chagos resets the baselines

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Photo: Bob Long

Photo: Bob Long

Dr. Heather Koldewey, co-Founder of Project Seahorse and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London, writes about the creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve, the largest no-take marine protected area in the world. 

Chagos taught me that I didn’t know what the ocean should look like.

Through my job at the Zoological Society of London, I’m one of those very privileged people to have had the opportunity to travel the world, and have worked from Mozambique to the Philippines in community-based marine conservation efforts.

In the Philippines’ the areas I work are what can only be described as ‘trashed’ – blasted craters giving evidence of recent dynamite fishing, few tiny schooling fish, and if you’re lucky, the flick of a tail as a small grouper scoots into a rocky crevice. Here, marine protected areas (MPAs) are about securing some hope for the future for poor and hungry communities with ever-decreasing options. And MPAs do work, protecting and restoring the wonderful diversity of coral reefs, but also recovering fish populations. Fishers there are fully engaged with MPA management as they know the importance of such areas of ocean protection to secure their future, as well as that of the ocean, something I only wish was a more widely held view within UK fishing communities.

I knew Chagos was different. I’d seen the talks, read the articles, talked to the scientists, seen the data. I knew Chagos was special, hence my commitment and support for it becoming a no-take MPA and involvement in the Chagos Environment Network and Chagos Conservation Trust executive committee. But seeing it for real was quite another experience that a graph, a chart or even an image could simply not prepare me for.

Working closely with the legendary experience of Charles Sheppard and extraordinary expedition skills of Pete Raines, we were fortunate to pull together a world class team of scientists prioritising the immediate research needs that would best inform a Chagos MPA management plan. For the first time, an integral member of the team was a trainee scientist who also represented the Chagossian community, a hugely positive step and one of the many successes of the expedition.

But back to my knowledge gap. Once in the water, I was unprepared for the sheer abundance of fish, the size and age of fish, and particularly the behaviour of those fish. For many years, I was curator of ZSL London Zoo’s aquarium so I know what a gnarly old fish looks like and you just don’t see them in the wild. Chagos was full of them. I have never had so many different kinds of fish swim towards me out of sheer curiosity – including lots of huge grouper that hung in the water column, something I hadn’t seen before. To quote from Finding Nemo – ‘Fish are friends not food’ in Chagos. I could not believe the vast areas of stunning plate corals, any one of which would be a significant attraction in any dive site in the world. I experienced the sheer joy of seeing sharks on every dive – decimated in most of our oceans and in even in trouble in Chagos.

Most of all, I could not quite come to terms with what we have done almost everywhere else. Our oceans are in a desperate state and pressure from people is only increasing. Worringly, even those of us who are involved in ocean conservation are shifting our reference points, starting to consider mediocre, depleted reefs to be comparatively good. We have lost a sense of what our oceans should look like and could look like. Chagos was certainly the most beautiful place on Earth I have ever been to and being part of the expedition has further increased my resolve that this is a vital wilderness area of enormous significance that must be protected. And the graphs and charts say that too.

Originally published on the Marine Reserves Coalition Blog.

On My Desk: Using social marketing to save the world

By Dr. Phil Molloy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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