The art of selling conservation

By Dr. Nick Hill

I couldn’t possibly recall the number of times I’ve attempted to explain to my friends and family, for the most part patiently and calmly, but sometimes, I confess, angry and frustrated, why it is important that they choose the fish they eat carefully and use the various fish guides when making their choices, only to come for dinner another day and be proudly presented with tuna sushi or baked cod, or even a prawn cocktail.

When I ask them where this came from and whether they checked it was sustainable, I inevitably get a blank stare back. I repeat the arguments again, to which I always get sympathetic groans and understanding nods — but it obviously doesn’t stick for long. This battle to get people engaged in issues of marine conservation is shared by many marine conservationists across the world in a wide variety of contexts. If we can’t convince our own friends and family, how can we expect to reach the rest of the public?

This is exactly the question taken up at “Shallow Seas: The Future of Marine Conservation,” a recent talk at the Zoological Society of London in the UK. The talk looked at how scientists try and often fail to connect with the public about conservation issues. I thought which readers of this blog might find interesting.

Dr. Amanda Vincent, Project Seahorse’s Executive Director, put forward the case that we should focus marine conservation efforts at the ocean’s coastal areas: the world’s “shallow seas.” Not only is this the area of greatest collision between humans and the oceans, and where a huge variety of species live and important ecosystems that provide invaluable services to humanity are found (think seagrasses, coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes, estuaries), but this is also where millions of people work, rest, play, and explore. By focusing on areas that the vast majority of people have experienced in some way, Dr. Vincent argued we stand a much better chance of engaging people in marine conservation. However, we need to improve the tools that we use to engage people in the shallow seas, and we need to tap into emerging support for marine conservation. You can read more about her ideas in a recent editorial published in Aquatic Conservation.

Dr. Sarah Coulthard, from the University of Ulster, focused on the developing world, where many of the world’s poorest and most numerous fishers depend on the ocean fringes for their very survival. Sarah highlighted the importance of understanding people’s well-being when designing marine conservation strategies for these shallow zones. Conflicts can exist between the use and value that people obtain from these areas and potential conservation policies and strategies. Without understanding the wishes and needs of these people, any conservation efforts are likely to fail. You can read more about these ideas in the following papers:

Coulthard, S., Johnson, D. and McGregor, J.A. (2011). Poverty, sustainability and human wellbeing: A social wellbeing approach to the global fisheries crisis. Global Environmental Change 21: 453–463.

McGregor, J.A. (2004). Researching wellbeing: Communicating between the needs of policy makers and the needs of people. Global Social Policy 4(3): 337–358.

Vivekanandan, V. (2010). Trawl Brawl India — Sri Lanka trans-border fishing. Samudra report 57.

Dr. Richard Harrington, from the Marine Conservation Society, highlighted the importance of public engagement in driving forward the UK’s marine conservation agenda. He argued that the vast majority of the public’s reason for engaging in consultation comes from their personal experiences with the ocean fringes. However, despite widespread public pressure and engagement from a wide range of stakeholders from businesses to recreational yachters and holidaymakers, even now the UK government is stalling in their delivery of conservation plans.

Dr. Rebecca Jefferson, from Plymouth University, provided a fascinating insight into the UK public’s perception of the oceans and opportunities for connecting people to the sea — to increase the public’s “ocean citizenship.” Few people even know what lies beyond the coast. For example, 44% of the English public believe coastal shallows to be generally, mostly or totally barren. This illustrates one of the many barriers to developing the society-sea connection.

But there is reason for hope. Dr. Jefferson has found many people are at least interested and open to new information and ideas about our oceans. Her research has discovered that different people have different interests and motivations, and that we need to understand these differences and how to work with them. For example, women were generally more interested in pretty species, while men were more likely to be interested in species they could eat. Promisingly, however, she found that, yes, people relate to dolphins and similarly cute or anthropomorphic species, but they also relate to non-charismatic species that are nevertheless important — seagrasses for example. The challenge is in the storytelling. How do we give people the information they need to become invested in the conservation of these species? Her message was that we should not underestimate or patronise the public, but we do need to find ways to get more interesting stories out there.

Fishing the jackpot

By Danika Kleiber

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

“Can you lift it any higher, Jay?”

Jay was struggling to lift a very large ray out of the water so that I could take a picture.  It was very beautiful, very heavy, and very dead. A wife and husband spearfishing team had come back with the GPS they had obligingly taken out with them, and my research assistants Jay and Aileen were there to measure the catch. As part of my research, I’ve been weighing and cataloguing the catches of local small-scale fishers to determine what they catch, who catches what, and what they eat versus what they sell. It’s part of a larger project that looks at gender roles in small-scale fisheries and their impact on food security and conservation.

One look at the ray and we all knew the 4000g electronic weighing scale, which usually does a fantastic job on small shells of all descriptions, would be woefully insufficient for this behemoth catch. Jay had first estimated the ray at 50 kg. When we finally did manage to weigh the fish, it was 37 kg and change. At 65 pesos a kilo this catch was still worth just under 2500 pesos — about US $55-60.   

The fishers’ excitement about their catch was understated yet discernable. There was a brouhaha trying to find a big enough scale, and people were gathering around to take a look. One small boy even climbed on the ray’s back. I sat in the corner while the fisher woman recounted the story of pulling the ray into the boat. 

The animal was what is known around here as a jackpot catch. Although 2500 may not seem like much, the other catches we measured in this community ranged in worth from 16-350 pesos ($0.40–$8). 

I find the concept of ‘jackpot’ to be an interesting one, especially when it comes to fishing practices. I talked to my colleague Bernie about this after the ray had been measured and sold, and confirmed something that had been floating around in my brain: there is no jackpot in gleaning, only in offshore fishing.

Most studies detailing how people decide what fishing methods to use outline the risks and rewards, and like many things in life there is a tendency for those two things to be positively correlated, and (surprise, surprise) it also often plays into the gendering of particular fishing methods. 

Dr. Rebecca Bleige Bird’s new research from fishing communities in Torres Strait, between Papua New Guinea and Australia, highlights this point.  She discovered that offshore fishing was riskier, both in terms of the possibility of drowning and the chances of catching nothing, but people, mostly men, were drawn to it because there was always the chance of a big catch.  And with a big catch comes big prestige. 

On the other hand, Bleige Bird found that gleaning — which is done primarily by women and children and involves collecting shells, sea cucumber, octopus, and sometimes fish as they walk the shoreline — is the choice of people who need first and foremost to get food on the table. When food is scarce, you can’t take the risks associated with chasing the big catch. 

Blige Bird detailed how, in Torres Strait, women are expected to put food on the table every day, and that leads them to choose gleaning. In my own research, we ask women why they don’t fish off shore in boat, and the answers we get usually mention the physical risks —drowning, exposure to the elements, seasickness, and so on. 

As with most gendered activities (that is, activities that are associated with men or women but not both) there is a tension between expectations (men fish, women glean) and reality (men also glean, women also fish).  It is this tension between the gender ideal and actual practice that I think presents the possibility of understanding how social change might occur.  

So to recap I’ve somehow managed to connect a 37 kg spotted ray with social change and gender equality. I wonder what I’d do if someone caught one of these.

The shell game

By Danika Kleiber

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

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

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

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

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

Weighing the impact of illegal fishing

By Danika Kleiber

I was packing up, getting ready to leave my research site in Aguining after a week of data collection.  That’s when Jay, my research assistant, told me the local barangay captain — the local Filipino term for village leader — had caught a seahorse. Did I want to see it?  I grabbed my camera and went down to have a look. 

Turns out it was a pipefish.  Or more specifically 14 pipefish.  Pipefish are related, but they are not seahorses. There was also a bucket of tiny little catfish, puffer fish and a variety of silver and stripy fish, and another bucket of slight larger puffer fish, needle fish, one squid, and one small black tip shark. The team quickly switched gears into ‘weigh all the catch by species’.  Slowly we worked our way through the fish, down to the bottom of the bucket where the small fish were drowned in the fallen scales of the bigger fish we had already weighed.  That’s when my worry came back. 

There weren’t any seahorses, but the large quantity of small fish still indicated illegal fishing.  Probably in the form of a net with a mesh size smaller than regulation.  I was a bit surprised that the barangay captain, who had boasted to me only yesterday about how illegal fishing was declining in his community, would share this catch with us so openly.  Finally it was explained to me that this wasn't the captain's catch.  It was the catch he had confiscated from the illegal fishers he’d apprehended earlier in the morning. They'd been using double fishing nets. It suddenly all made much more sense. 

I asked him what would happen to this catch.  He told me it would be dried then distributed among the community.  I don’t have enough information to calculate the catch per unit effort as precisely as the rest of the catch data I’ve collected, but these measurements do give me an idea of how effective illegal fishing gear is at taking large quantities of very, very small fish from the sea.

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. You can read more about her adventures on the Project Seahorse blog, starting here

Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

Do not adjust your monitor

By James Hehre

  Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

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

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

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

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

  James Hehre/Project Seahorse

James Hehre/Project Seahorse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. 

Sustainability at Shedd Aquarium

By Jennifer Selgrath

Two baby leafy pipefish are zooming around a tank. I try to take pictures and they come out looking like blurry toothpicks. Blimey! They are totally unlike their parents, who hover gently over rocks in the tank just above — cool, calm, and unhurried. I guess some things don’t change between species.  I am in Chicago visiting the John G. Shedd Aquarium, and their aquarist, Erika Lorenz, is kindly giving me a tour. Erika specializes in seahorse husbandry (i.e. feeding, breeding, and caring for seahorses) so she is full of information about seahorses and just about everything else. The Shedd Aquarium is a long-time partner of Project Seahorse, so it is lovely finally be here, seeing their work in action. 

One of the reasons these baby leafy pipefish are so exciting is that the Shedd is committed to exhibiting animals they have sourced sustainably. Seahorses are one species with which they’ve had a lot of success. We walk past tanks that house hundreds of babies. Seahorses are notoriously difficult to rear in captivity, so the birth of these new seahorses counts as a major success. Erika boxes some of the animals in a special container to be shipped to other aquariums around the world. Shedd’s collection includes a number of different species, including spiny, tigertail, and long-snouted seahorses (H. barberi, H. comes, and H. reidi). 

Sourcing fish and other marine and freshwater critters in sustainable ways is incredibly important. Aquarium- and aquaculture-bred animals have a much higher survival rate in captivity than animals that are caught in the wild for captivity. And if too many fish are caught, then the aquarium fishery can have devastating effects on local populations. My friend Malin Pinsky did his PhD research studying clownfish (think “Finding Nemo”) and found that their populations were almost locally extinct close to cities where there were aquarium fisheries.

Shedd sources their leafy pipefish and other species from Australia’s sustainable fisheries. There, one person is allowed to catch three males per year right before they give birth (seadragons, like seahorses, have male pregnancies).

The fisher is allowed to keep and sell the babies – some of which, like the ones I see at Shedd, are raised to adulthood – but he must return the fathers back into their homes in the ocean, thereby maintaining the local population, too. It’s fantastic to see what is possible when an aquarium integrates conservation into their mission.

Jennifer Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Beautiful, beautiful data

By Danika Kleiber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Cheapskate

By James Hehre

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

Okay, I exaggerate. (A little.)

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

“Pila? (How much?)” I asked.

“Only 500 peso sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Hehre is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Food security in Batasan

By Danika Kleiber

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

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

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

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

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

Danika Kleiber is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

CITES, conservation, and geopolitics

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

There it is.  I have survived another week of UN negotiations on wildlife trade.  And emerged content.

I’ve been in Geneva to contribute to the technical working group on animals for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.  It meets to execute the will of the 175 nations that are signatories to CITES, trying to make sure that international trade does not harm wild populations of animals and plants.

It’s a bit hard to explain these meetings.  You spend a lot of time watching global geopolitics played out over some poor quail or shark.  The meetings are full of process and procedure that can slow things to a glacial pace.  Many of the issues seem hardly to have moved since I was last involved seven years ago.  Some are clearly going backwards.  But an important few are actually creeping in the right direction.  Read up on the Saker falcon, for example. 

It takes a while to get your head around the fact that each and every one of the 175 signatory nations to CITES (the Parties) has the right to do more or less exactly what it wants.  You can negotiate and you can nudge but you sure as heck can’t order any nation around.  Nor would you want to try.  Any nation that gets fed up can just withdraw from the issue or the Convention.  So the approach has to be softly, softly, working to support their aspirations.  Your persuasive capacity comes from the fact that signatory nations want to be seen as good global citizens, doing the right thing.

Marine fishes are some of the most controversial issues that CITES and its technical Animals Committee ever tackles.  Many nations are apprehensive about treating fish as just another form of wildlife, fearful that this might lead to onerous restrictions with high economic or social costs.  Yet again this meeting, many nations claimed that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization was the appropriate body to deal with fisheries issues, even though (or maybe because?) the FAO has no regulatory capacity at all and has very limited or no interest in many fish species.

Against this background, I am happy that the Animals Committee agreed that nations should be asked to explain their rationale for allowing current high volumes of seahorse exports. The seahorses were the first marine fishes of commercial importance to be brought under CITES management in recent times, and continue to set precedent.  Countries all over the Indo-Pacific will now be asked for the scientific basis for their exports of six seahorse species.  And signatory nations in West Africa will need to justify their export levels of the West African seahorse (H. algiricus), newly in trade and already exported at about 600,000 animals per year.  

Given the outcome, it was well worth being here.  I did rather wonder about investing a week in these interminable proceedings.  But the solid science and strong trade data that Project Seahorse always produces definitely helped convince signatory nations to begin this trade review.  They listened and asked questions and dissented but agreed in the end to do what is right for our quirky fishes.  That should give us a chance to figure out how well CITES is working for these seven seahorse species and what more we need to do to help.  Plus I got a quick snapshot update in current global geopolitics, played out at a snail’s pace that enthralled even as it exasperated.

I appreciated being part of the IUCN delegation.  This strong intergovernmental organization has a great record of credible evidence-based contributions to CITES. 

For the report on the Working Group on the Review of Significant Trade, go tohttp://www.cites.org/common/com/AC/25/WG/E25-WG01.pdf

For more on the 25th meeting of the CITES Animals Committee in general, go tohttp://www.cites.org/eng/com/ac/

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the Director of Project Seahorse.

Language lessons

By James Hehre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the other half fishes

By Danika Kleiber

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fresh start in the Philippines

By James Hehre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Santo Niño of the coral reef

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

I heard a profoundly important yet humorous anecdote at the workshop we are leading in Cebu, Philippines.  Project Seahorse has gathered colleagues from many sectors for a discussion around our research findings on marine protected areas (MPAs) under the mantra of “MPAs in the Philippines: Ever more, ever better.” 

We are delighted that some Roman Catholic priests from Sea Knights are participating in the workshop. This is a group of ocean-loving priests; many of them are scuba divers. One of the Sea Knights, Father Tito, is also the Executive Director of the Santo Niño de Cebu Augustinian Social Development Foundation. 

Father Tito told us this wonderful story of how the Church took a very sacred statue of the Santo Niño (the infant Jesus) from the basilica in Cebu to islands on Danajon Bank, the area of the Philippines where we have done so much of our MPA research and management. The arrival of the Santo Niño created a very festive occasion, with huge village gatherings, boat parades and street processions.

During the celebrations, the Church showed a film on environmental responsibility, motivated by its desire for stewardship of God’s creation. A large international fisheries management aid project on the reef later reported a notable decrease in poaching rates in the villages that the icon visited.

Thereafter, the municipal government of Bien Undo, Bohol placed two replica icons of the Santo Niño and the Blessed Virgin Mary underwater in an area with considerable illegal fishing, primarily using dynamite. The mayor of this municipality took the initiative because he is himself a Sea Knight.

Apparently the fisheries abuse disappeared because, after all, you do not blow up the Infant Jesus, or His Mother. Such a change is especially important because both icons lie in a critically important newly established MPA full of corals and fish that are vulnerable to dynamite fishing.

What other powerful conservation gains might emerge from collaboration with strong religious and faith-based groups?

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the director of Project Seahorse.

How do you make conservation more effective?

By Dr. Phil Molloy

When I tell people that I do coral-reef conservation, they usually tease me about the tough life I must lead, spending all that time in the sea, sun, and sand. If only it were so relaxing! In fact, my work tracking the changes in fish populations starts with days of poring over species identification guides, shifting dive gear on and off boats, making seemingly endless forays to and from field sites, and spending hours underwater, wishing I’d gone with the 5 mm wetsuit instead of the 3 mm one.

Don’t get me wrong: I love it. I wouldn’t be doing reef conservation if I didn’t. But the widely unrecognized reality is that marine conservation fieldwork is time-consuming, physically demanding and, critically, expensive. Yet it is work that must be done carefully and accurately. Without accurate studies of the impact of external pressures on marine ecosystems, or the effectiveness of marine protected areas, we wouldn’t be able to create better conservation tools.  

So, as marine conservationists, we are under considerable pressure to develop quick and cheap methods that allow us to get in the water, collect the data we require and get back to terra firma.

To this end, I’ve been exploring ways to streamline the methods used to detect changes in coral-reef fish populations over time. Can we, for example, obtain meaningful results even if we reduce the frequency of visits to each study site or the amount of replication required each visit, or by considering just a handful of fish species?  In particular, we were hopeful that we could detect general changes in fish populations using a subset of locally fished species or those whose names make them particularly easy to identify (like the blackfin barracuda — a barracuda with, you guessed it, black fins).

By re-analyzing an existing dataset, we found that we could still detect changes in the number of fish and the number of species if we visited sites every other month (instead of monthly), or by halving the amount of replication done each visit. Most interestingly, we also found that we could detect these changes by only considering three-quarters of the locally fished species or all easily identified species. Still with me?

What this means is that we don’t need to count every fish species to detect changes in the overall fish populations on the reef. By using commonly fished species as indicators, conservationists can reduce the amount of time and money needed to train research volunteers — and they can more easily involve local fishers in their fieldwork, making it faster and more effective!

This is good news all around. Our results mean that we’ll have more time to do more conservation, and maybe, just maybe, a little more time to enjoy that fabled sea, sun, and sand!

Dr. Phil Molloy is a postdoctoral fellow with Project Seahorse. Learn more about this research in “Frugal conservation: What does it take to detect changes in fish populations?” published in the November 2010 issue of Biological Conservation

First Nations Stories about the Sea

By Jennifer Selgrath

At the International Marine Conservation Congress a couple of weeks ago, I met Charles W. Elliott, the First Nations artist who created the gorgeous print on the right that was used as the conference logo. I'm fascinated by the way stories connect people to their marine environment, so I was excited to talk to him about Coast Salish stories from British Columbia.

Here are the two that Charles shared with me:

Salmon lived in longhouses, similar to people in Saanich communities. In one community, there was a salmon who loved to complain. He annoyed the gods. To stop him, the gods sent a bald eagle down who picked up the salmon and carried him far up in the sky. From that great height the eagle dropped the salmon. When he hit the ground he landed so hard that his body was flattened. He became the fish now known as flounder.

I love this story because it gives personality to fish from the ocean. It tells about their creation in a way that gives them personality and character.

The other story was about the time when the Saanich people set out to travel across the deep ocean. By beating on their drums, they called the orcas (killer whales) to join them. The whales travelled with the boats, making the ocean safer by breaking the large waves in front of the boats and guarding the boats on both sides. It's an incredibly visual story! I love the idea of orcas as shepherds of seafaring people — guiding and guarding them.

Maybe we can draw upon the magic and wonder of such ideas when we are working to connect people to the ocean. All around the world, the ocean takes on different forms, from wild, pounding wave on open coasts, to calm, clear water in island archipelagos. Inside these different parts of the ocean, there are diverse neighborhoods of creatures and landscapes. Finding and sharing stories about them seem like a powerful way to inspire people about conservation.

Jenny Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. 

Project Ocean: From designer handbags to marine conservation

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

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Even though I had been part of the planning process, walking up to Selfridges on the day of the launch of Project Ocean was a jaw-dropping experience. Situated on one of the busiest shopping streets in the world – Oxford Street in London — Selfridges is an iconic department store known for its trend-setting, high-end fashion. I found myself faced with a giant activist-style banner covering the front of the building with the message ‘No more fish in the sea?’The shop windows — each one a bold and thought-provoking tableau — were also attracting considerable attention, with people stopping and taking photos with their smartphones.

What made me grin was that the attention was focused not on a piece of jewellery, designer dress or expensive handbag, but on our oceans: All these windows creatively and simply presented marine conservation issues, translating ‘heavy’ topics that include bycatch and overfishing into striking statements: ‘Jellyfish and chips’ on offer from a van in one window, ‘Would you eat a panda?’ in another, with a bluefin tuna swimming next to a panda. And — hooray — ‘Save our seahorses’! Had we achieved our goal of making fish fashionable and marine conservation mainstream?

Project Ocean is a partnership between Selfridges and the Zoological Society of London, but it is a truly collaborative initiative involving Project Seahorse and 21 other conservation NGOs, as well as many artists, musicians, celebrities, chefs, fishers, industry representatives and more. Beyond the windows and facade, Project Ocean is about promoting the sustainable consumption of marine resources.

Selfridges has switched to sustainable seafood, produced a seafood guide and iPhone app, and is running fun and educational activities in its restaurants and foodhalls. We’ve been working with Fish2Fork (founded by Charles Clover from the ‘End of the Line’) to encourage all of the 148 cafes and restaurants along Oxford Street to become sustainable too — a marine protected area (MPA) in the heart of London!

As part of a series of launch events, Project Seahorse hosted a day of presentations and activities on May 25th. We introduced a brand-new short film about our work and I gave a series of talks throughout the day on the weird and wonderful world of seahorses. Guylian Belgian Chocolate, our longtime donor, provided free chocolate tastings and a series of prize draws. They certainly managed to pull shoppers away from the bucking bronco whale and the people walking around dressed in plankton-like balloon sculptures.

Our event proved a great way to reach new audiences. I fielded questions such as ‘What, seahorses are fish?’, ’Corals aren’t plants?’, ‘Why do people catch seahorses?’, and ‘Why can’t we have more protected areas in UK waters like they do in the Philippines?’. Good questions, all of them....

It was great to see so many people, including donors and supporters, collaborators and former team members, friends and family and people who had heard about us through Project Ocean. Not to mention people who just happened to be shopping there at the time: stunning seahorse imagery combined with yummy chocolates seemed to be a winning combination!

With financial support from Selfridges, the Project Seahorse Foundation (PSF) team in the Philippines has established a new MPA in Matabao near Tubigon, the 34th we have helped to implement in the region. Last week, PSF team member Angie Nellas did a live video link from the Philippines where shoppers at Selfridges were able to ask her questions about our work there. That evening, UK TV celebrity Kate Humble explained with passion her experience of our community-based MPA successes in the Philippines as part of the Thursday evening talks series.

Project Ocean is raising funds for more marine reserves, meaning more fish in the sea and a more positive response to that enormous and daunting slogan, ‘No fish in the sea?’ And hopefully we’ll have a whole new set of ambassadors — complete with designer suits, heels and handbags — for our oceans.

The Project Ocean launch runs until June 12th. For more information visit www.selfridges.com/projectocean

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Associate Director of Project Seahorse and Programme Manager, International Marine and Freshwater Conservation, at the Zoological Society of London.

Success stories from Hawaii

By Iain Caldwell

Thinking back to my recent experience at the IMCC, there is one session in particular that stands out in my memory: “Lessons from the control of invasive species on coral reef ecosystems in Hawaii.”

It seems like doom-and-gloom stories are all too common in conservation and I was buoyed by the positive messages coming out of this series of talks. The first speaker, Jonathan Blodgett from Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, talked about how the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources has gained a foothold onAvrainvillea amadelpha, an invasive algae species in Kaneohe Bay, using a giant underwater vacuum cleaner and sea urchins. 

The vacuum cleaner (playfully termed the “super-sucker”) is used by scuba divers to suck up the vast tracts of the algae that have invaded the bay. While the super-sucker is good at removing the algae, the area can become re-invaded quite quickly. This is where the cleaner urchin come in. Once the invasive algae has been removed, these native urchins have been successful at keeping at least small areas clear of new algae. The technique is certainly not perfect as the urchins need to be “herded” to areas that need to be cleaned, but it appears to be a step in the right direction.

The second speaker, Eric Conklin of the Nature Conservancy, shared some lessons from his work co-operating with local organizations to rid Oahu’s shore of the same invasive algae species. The lesson he shared that stayed with me was that starting small can make big things possible. Eric showed an aerial photo of Manalua Bay after a group of volunteers had made a first attempt at removing the invasive algae. The algae carpets the bay from one end to the other and a group of local volunteers was only able to clear a tiny square on the map. 

As Eric said, it would be very easy to look at the photo and think that their efforts were for nothing. However, that small step inspired a partnership between the Nature Conservancy and a local people’s organization called Malama Maunalua, which has attracted more funding and support. The result? Over 23 acres (almost three million pounds) of the invasive algae have been cleared to date.

The third presentation was a tag-team effort by Russell Sparks and Darla White, both of the Hawaii State Division of Aquatic Resources, who have tackled the algae problem in Maui by protecting key herbivorous fish from overfishing. These native fish eat the algae and help to keep the invasion in check. The Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area was established in 2009 and has gained local support even within fishing communities — probably partly because fishing of non-herbivorous fish is still allowed.

The final presentation, by Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawaii and the USGS, addressed the problem Hawaii faces from an invasive fish known as roi. This grouper species was initially introduced in the 1950’s as an additional source of food because of the dwindling number of native fish. Ironically, it has since been linked with ciguatera poisoning, making its consumption questionable. It is now blamed for the further decline of native species. 

Spearfishing groups have been organizing “roi roundups” to try to rid reefs of the perceived threat of these species — without enough information about the actual threat or how effective this intervention can be. Using a suite of experimental techniques, Alan and his colleagues at the University of Hawaii and the Nature Conservancy have been working with local fishing communities to determine what effects roi is having on the native fish community and whether their short term removal is an effective long-term solution.

Even though the five speakers were from a variety of backgrounds (NGO, government, and academic) they all had a relaxed and conversational tone, which made the session feel more like a town hall meeting or a department seminar than a formal presentation at an international conference. It probably helped that the room was small and the dress was casual — the speakers donned Hawaiian shirts for the occasion — but I think any audience would have been engaged. 

To me this refreshing and informative session demonstrated that good science can be entertaining and conservation can use positive messages to inspire.

Iain Caldwell is a Ph.D candidate with Project Seahorse.

The Whitley connection

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

I was delighted this week to have a chance to meet two other conservationists who have won Whitley Awards for grassroots nature conservation: Deepak Apte from India and Rachel Graham from Belize.  

Having won the first of these awards in 1994, back in the mists of time, I have a strong interest in everybody who has won since. They always make me grateful that I applied before they were quite so well-known and competitive.  

Deepak won the award in 2008, for his work to developing the capacity of Lakshadweep islanders to lead on conservation and secure their livelihoods, partly by developing enthusiasm for India’s first interconnected network of marine protected areas. He is Assistant Director with the Bombay Natural History Society.

Rachel won her award this year for her “work to protect Belize's sharks, crucial to healthy seas and for the country's economically important tourism industry." She is director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gulf and Caribbean sharks and rays programme and a member of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.

We are now discussing getting a list of all Whitley people who focus on marine issues, as a first step towards seeing what we might all achieve collectively. We are a pretty determined bunch so I have high hopes of the synergies that should emerge.

The pros and cons of social media at scientific conferences

By Dr. Phil Molloy

Today I was sitting in a great talk about how heavily overfished species in Hawaii bounce back when fishing stops. A good friend of mine was wildly prodding his iPhone. I initially thought he was texting, which surprised me not only because the talk was gripping and colourful but also because my friend is typically very polite. Curiosity got the better of me and I snuck a peek. He was tweeting the main results being presented by the speaker.

I’ve noticed a few other people tweeting in talks. This is probably the first conference at which I’ve noticed an obvious social-media presence and it has got me thinking.

On one hand, it’s becoming clear that social media is a hugely powerful tool for marine conservationists to reach more people than ever before. For example, where I work in the Philippines almost everyone uses Facebook; even if they don’t have internet access, they connect to Facebook on their phones.

At home in Vancouver, just about everyone I know under 25 uses Facebook and Twitter, and tell me how often they LOL, that they’ll BRB, and “OMG <3” this, that and the other! My nephews will probably laugh at me simply for the fact that I’m even writing a blog about how innovative social media can be. Clearly social media has and will continue to play a huge role when it comes to engaging people about environmental problems and building support for conservation. Definitely a plus.

On the other hand, I — and many of my colleagues — use conferences to discuss new ideas and results. But the ideas we share here are not always our final say; often they’re part of the long thought process that goes on behind the scenes in research.

Unless I’m presenting work that has been or is about to be published in a scientific journal, my conclusions could change. (Even after they have been published, new evidence may change our conclusions — that’s how science works.) It might sound odd to a non-scientist that I present preliminary results, but it’s actually very common.

Scientists often use conferences such as IMCC to showcase hot-off-the-press results. We do so either in the spirit of collaboration or to remain cutting-edge. Presenting preliminary results, as we call them, allows us to tap the wealth of knowledge available at conferences before we go to press. You should rest assured, though, that whenever scientists do present preliminary work, we say so. My concern is that when such preliminary results are tweeted, this context is lost.

So, I guess the bottom line is, does it matter if tweets misrepresent results? Probably not in most cases. First, the nature of Twitter is such that the half-life of any given tweet is miniscule; moments later another tweet arrives about something totally unrelated and audiences move on. In rare cases, a conclusion may be totally misrepresented and trigger misdirected gossip. I imagine such misunderstandings would resolve themselves after even the smallest amount of digging. Nevertheless, the use of real-time communications tools at scientific gatherings raises some interesting questions.

Online social media are profoundly useful tools to help all scientists but particularly conservationists to communicate to an incredibly diverse group of people (and by god do we need help communicating); that much is clear.

I’ll end with three words of advice: 1) For those presenting at conferences, be aware that giving a talk at a conference now means giving a talk to a massive social network; 2) Tweeters, be aware that your posts will be read out of context and results can be easily misunderstood; and 3) Twitter followers — take posts about conferences with a pinch of salt.

Dr. Phil Molloy is a post-doctoral research associate with Project Seahorse.