Turtle in a bucket

By Dr. Nick Hill

Dr. Nick Hill is a former Project Seahorse researcher and currently a project manager in the Marine and Freshwater Conservation Team at the Zoological Society of London. In this guest post, he talks about the conservation challenges facing the fishing communities of Danajon Bank, Philippines.

There's a beautiful white beach here, somewhere. Discarded plastic bottles, biscuit wrappers, Styrofoam and fishing nets are piled above head height in places.  You can smell this tiny island before you can see it.  I tread carefully through the minefield left by over 2,000 people that have neither a bin collection nor a sewerage system.  The occasional coconut palm and gnarly mangrove tree jut through, memoirs of a former paradise.

I consider taking a swim to escape the carnage. But the idea evaporates with one glance at the crystal clear water – devoid of life except for a thick green carpet of sludge on the seafloor.  Can you get typhoid from seawater?  Not a risk I'm willing to take.

As the setting sun casts a beautiful pink glow overhead, some Filipino fishers prepare for a night on the water.  There's normally excited anticipation before a fishing trip.  But not in this part of the Philippines.  There's some general chatter, the hissing of kerosene pressure lamps and the occasional whoosh as they're lit.  

Water sloshes around the legs of fishers as they wade out to their narrow outrigger canoes and fix the lamps in place over the bow.  Then the first of the modified pump engines that will power them to their fishing grounds shatters the relative tranquillity of the evening.  As they disappear into the distance and darkness descends, a generator splutters to life behind me and the street karaoke begins.

Iunderstand the fishers' lack of enthusiasm.  I joined one of them last night.  It's hard work, swimming all night, towing your boat with only a faint circle of light cast by the lamp to first spot and then spear your quarry.  Without a wetsuit, it doesn't take long before the tropical waters feel chilly, while invisible jellyfish leave their marks on your skin.

In the morning the returning fishers have barely enough catch to fill half a small bucket.  A lucky fisher proudly shows me his haul.  A pufferfish, still fully inflated, is his largest prize.  He grins as he tells me that many parts of this fish will kill you if eaten. But with so few fish left the fishers increasingly take the risk.  I watch as he deftly skins it and removes the poisonous internal organs, hoping he hasn't missed any.  

His most valuable catch is less obvious.  A pair of seahorses barely four inches long, still snapping their heads upward – the limited movement their stiff bodies allow.  The fisher proudly holds them up.  "China – expensive," he explains.  Behind him, the day-shift fishers busily prepare boats and long nets.

It's little wonder that many fishers are looking for new sources of income.  Seaweed farming is becoming increasingly common — where once there were fish, people now exploit the empty space to grow algae that feeds our insatiable demand for gels and cosmetics.  I wonder whether this shift in focus will allow the fish to recover.  

"It's because of the illegal fishers who use dynamite, cyanide and trawling," my guide informs me.  "If we can stop the illegal fishers then the fish will return."  And how will that happen?  "The government needs to increase enforcement," he explains.

By the afternoon I'm back on the mainland and being led along a rickety narrow walkway made of bamboo.  I reach a makeshift hut built over the sea.  Five or six gruff men sit in the shade, their boats tied up nearby.  

"These are my fish wardens," explains the Coastal Resource Manager.  "We have this hut as a look-out, so we can catch the illegal fishers."  There seems to be an awfully large area of sea and many islands out there.  Can they really spot illegal fishing from here?

In the corner, a big blue bucket catches my attention.  "Turtle," explains the manager.  

"The fishers caught it and brought it to us."  A large green turtle lies very still, just submerged, unable to turn around in its blue confines.  "We feed it fish that we catch, and we'll release it when we have money for fuel to take it to the deep sea, past the islands.  The fishers don't like it because it can eat their seaweed."  The turtle raises its head to breathe.

I'm surprised to see this turtle.  But why should I be?  Probably because it's alive.  Most of the animals I've seen here are destined for the pot.  But it also makes me think of what this place might once have been like.  When this sea was teaming with life, fishers could fill their buckets, turtles were numerous, and the island beaches were a tropical paradise.  This turtle in a bucket — a fragile vestige of better times.

Re-posted with permission from the Marine Reserves Coalition.

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.

My map

By Danika Kleiber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Project Seahorse visits the Great Barrier Reef

By Danika Kleiber

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Of crocodiles and medicine men

By Kate West

Photo: Kate West/Project Seahorse

Photo: Kate West/Project Seahorse

As my plane jolted onto the rutted tarmac, I looked out of the window to find mangroves stretching for kilometres, mango trees everywhere, and, for the first time in nearly a month, green grass. I removed my scarf, anticipating the humidity that would hit me as I stepped off the plane and into the next stage of my adventure: the West African nation of Guinea-Conakry. 

Two days later I woke at 6:30 to the pounding sound of rain. The rainy season had begun. Being from Wales I'm no stranger to rain, but this was weather on a totally different scale. On the way to Medina Market in Conakry, the capital city of Guinea, our vehicle struggled through thigh-deep water past a taxi man wrestling to free his goods-laden car.

Wishing I had brought welly boots, we moved cautiously through the discarded vegetables and fish carcasses that carpeted the market floor. My assistant, Soumah, swiftly led the way, her beautiful white and blue traditional dress remaining miraculously unsoiled. 

As we moved deeper inside the market, scurrying through a maze of two-foot-wide avenues that branched off repeatedly, I felt as though I had entered a labyrinth. Keeping up with Soumah was hard enough without also having to avoid the channel of water that ran underneath us and the traffic of young boys and women carrying heavy loads on their heads. Finally we came to a halt where one of the paths widened and opened up to a series of stalls. These were owned by Haoussa, traditional medicine men who descend from people who had come for Niger and Nigeria. 

Moth-eaten scraps of fur were hung up next to bones and horns of varying shapes and colours. In a bucket on the floor several sickly-looking terrapins swam around slowly. Each time we asked cautiously about the seahorses, we were passed on to the neighbouring stall. After much reassurance one young medicine trader finally spoke to us, explaining that the traders were scared. A few months before, some Europeans had come asking to buy big cat skins. One of the stall owners went inland to make enquiries on their behalf. Upon his return he was apparently jailed for three months and a huge fine (about US $2000, more than the average Guinean makes in three or four years). It emerged later that the European men had reported the trader to local anti-poaching authorities. 

Though I feel very strongly that the illegal trade in endangered species must be stopped, I also felt very sorry for this man. As one of the older Haoussa rightly pointed out, what had the arrest of one trader achieved? His family was left without an income and a huge fine to bear, and what impact would that have on the poachers or the demand from the West and from Asia for such products? Change requires meaningful collaboration between researchers, national governments, and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Authorities.

The following day, we ventured 40km outside of bustle of Conakry to the small fishing village of Dubreka. The village is next to an estuary which leads into mangroves and eventually the sea, which is about eight kilometres downstream. When we arrived, most of the fishers were still out at sea. While we waited, I spoke to a retired fisher who now used his pirogue to take the occasional tourist out onto the estuary. He had never caught a seahorse, but told a story of a far more menacing creature. Last year a young girl had been taken from the banks of the river and eaten by a crocodile. At first I thought it might be an old wives’ tale he told to entertain tourists. However, many other people in the village confirmed it. 

As the fishers began to return, the rain began again. We huddled under a large lean-to among men mending fishing nets and women selling bottles of homemade juice and mangos. Here fisher after fisher told us the same answer, they had never found seahorses in their nets, many didn't even recognise the seahorse at all. Those who did know them kept telling us they could be found on the large fishing vessels in the port. We left Dubreka without any physical sign of a seahorse but again made aware of the terrible challenges that impoverished peoples face.

Kate West is undertaking this trade and biological research as part of her Master of Science degree at Imperial College London (UK). Her work is supervised by Amanda Vincent (Director of Project Seahorse, based at UBC), Chris Ransom (West and North Africa Programme Manager, Zoological Society of London) and Pia Orr (Research Associate, Imperial College London). Kate's research is generously supported by an Erasmus Darwin Barlow Expedition Grant and by the People's Trust for Endangered Species. Further support for our West African work comes from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Investigating the West African seahorse trade

By Kate West

Finally, after months of preparation, I have arrived in Senegal. My task: to investigate the fast-growing seahorse trade in West Africa. Hippocampus algiricus, the West African seahorse, is classed as Data Deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), having rarely been studied before. My aim is to gain as much information about the species' biology, as well as to gather quantitative information about the trade of the species. This will ultimately help to make the West African seahorse trade more sustainable. I will spend five weeks in Senegal and a week in Guinea.

Keen to get started as soon as possible, I meet with Cheikh Fall, a fisheries inspector and my research assistant, soon after my arrival. Given the nature of trade work, I’ve been feeling a little anxious about how fishers and traders will react to my probing questions about the trade of specialist marine products. When I meet Cheikh, a tall, smiling man, my fears are quickly put to rest. After a chat about logistics and the overall project, Cheikh produces a long list of people he has already started to contact in the port. I feel encouraged already.

The following day we meet with a wholesaler in Dakar, Senegal’s largest city. We pass through a shifty looking back alley near the port, where shark fins and swim bladders lay drying in the sun. Our contact views us suspiciously but informs us that he does indeed sell seahorses, and from this tiny piece of information, we develop new leads for our investigation at the port.

The next time we visit the port, to meet another wholesaler, the shark fins are gone and in their place we find something that, for our purposes, is even more interesting — pipefish, a seahorse relative. As I begin to inspect the dried specimens, an elderly man appears with a handful of dried seahorses. I can't believe my luck. After some haggling over the price, we bring the specimens with us into the port of Dakar. 

Cheikh informs me that there are a number of Chinese vessels docked here at the port — seahorses are in important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), commonly used as a tonic to treat many different health problems. Project Seahorse has been working for many years to make the trade in seahorse for TCM more sustainable, and my research here in West Africa will help to fill some of the gaps in our current knowledge about which species are traded and in what volumes.

We enter a dimly lit office next to the quay where we encounter several Chinese traders. In Wolof and French we explain our quest to the owner of one of the Chinese fishing vessels. Immediately the man becomes very excited and asks whether he can buy some seahorses from me! I explain that I am studying seahorses, not trading them, and he seems a little disappointed. When I ask why he wants them, he makes a gesture to Cheikh to indicate that they are used to enhance virility. Cheikh laughs. 

Outside on the quayside, we see that one of the Chinese vessels is unloading. We make our approach. Here our reception is not so warmly received. I am told not to take pictures. However, as we leave one of the fishermen slips a 'petit cadeux' into my hand — another seahorse, evidence of their catch.

After spending most of the rest of the day talking to fishing boat captains, we meet with another wholesaler. Sitting in a dark room down a dusty road, I finally see something familiar, the logo of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, the international body that regulates the trade in seahorses and other threatened animal and plant species. I ask him about regulations here in Senegal, and the wholesaler explains that all the seahorses are shipped to Hong Kong and that there is a quota managed by the Ministry of "Eaux et Foret" — water and forests. 

Following this lead, we visit to the Ministry the next day, where I ask about this quota. Excitingly, we are shown the official export records dating back to 2004, when all seahorse species were first listed under CITES. These data will be extremely useful.  Many types of data are needed to paint the most accurate picture of wildlife trade, as all data sources have omissions and errors, and it is helpful and encouraging that the Ministry is willing to share their export records with us. 

The next part of the journey takes us away from the fast pace of Dakar to fishing villages further south. Our first stop is the large fishing village of Joal. Here, around 3,000 pirogues depart every day to fish for cuttlefish, squid, sol, etc. This truly impressive sight was featured in "The End of the Line,” a documentary that highlights the problem of rapidly depleting fish stocks around the world. Karim Sall, appointed president of the local marine protected area and deputy town mayor, acts as our guide. 

As the pirogues unload in the dusk I notice a huge cart of what looked like rotting molluscs. Karim explains that these had been on a pirogue for 10-14 days, and, having been the first catch of the trip, twould have been sitting in the sun. Where previously these sub-par mollusks would not have been considered fit for consumption, they now serve as food for the Senegalese population. Meanwhile the fresher, iced catches are shipped to meet the demands of Western and Asian countries. I have observed examples of this time and time again – fishing efforts being doubled to meet ever-growing global demand, with diminishing results.

I leave Joal feeling like there is a lot to be learned from these examples, not just in terms of the seahorse trade but for all aspects of marine conservation.

Kate West is undertaking this trade and biological research as part of her Master of Science degree at Imperial College London (UK). Her work is supervised by Amanda Vincent (Director of Project Seahorse, based at UBC), Chris Ransom (West and North Africa Programme Manager, Zoological Society of London) and Pia Orr (Research Associate, Imperial College London). Kate's research is generously supported by an Erasmus Darwin Barlow Expedition Grant and by the People's Trust for Endangered Species

Sifting for stars

By Danika Kleiber

Kids gleaning.  Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

Kids gleaning. Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

I watched the boy comb the stubbly seaweed with his fingers. Absurdly I thought of a gold prospector sifting sand for nuggets. He was crouched in the intertidal flats at low tide, where the water was just high enough to cover his toes. I then noticed that there were others crouched next to him and they were all using the same careful sweeping and sifting motions. I knew they were gleaning but this wasn’t a type of gleaning I’d see before. I had just put a GPS unit on a volunteer and she was walking around the tidal flat with slow hunched purpose. This boy, and what I assumed to be his family, were motionless apart from their arms and hands. Sifting, sifting, searching.

I walked over slowly and peeked into the small plastic container the boy was using to put his catch in. I was expecting shells, but instead I saw stars. What seemed like hundreds of tiny little sea stars. It was strangely beautiful to see them clumped up like that but also a little alarming. I turned to Jay and asked what they were going to do with them. My mind ran with visions of sea star stew, which didn’t seem likely or appetizing. Jay explained that they would be dried and made into earrings. That made a lot more sense. Not food then, instead they were gleaning for curios.

Curio is that strange ‘other’ category in the trade of marine animals. I remember learning about it when I was editing seahorse trade papers. Most seahorses are used for traditional Chinese medicine, but a significant amount are also used to lend a bit of interest to a yo-yo or a keychain or even a toilet seat. Like seahorses, these sea stars are a beautiful shape and I could imagine how they would appeal as a pair of earrings. But it made me reflect how as a western consumer I am so often cut off from the chain of production. Next time I see a curio in a shop I’m sure I will imagine this little boy and his family sifting the seashore.

Pacific Ecology & Evolution Conference

By Lindsay Aylesworth

As a new Ph.D student starting in January, it’s been a challenging first few months learning about (and remembering) the various graduate students, professors and their research here at UBC. As someone new to Vancouver and even Canada, I was completely unaware of what other universities were close by, let alone who and what was being studied in my own (new) backyard.  However, an opportunity arose to go to the Pacific Ecology & Evolution Conference (PEEC) hosted by the University of British Columbia at the Bamfield Marine Science Center and little did I know this experience would change just that.

The view of Vancouver Island from the ferry.

The view of Vancouver Island from the ferry.

PEEC is held each year at Bamfield, located on Vancouver Island and run by a consortium of universities in Western Canada (Simon Fraser University, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, University of Calgary and University of Victoria). The aim of PEEC is to bring together graduate and advanced undergraduate students from Western Canadian and American universities to share their research in the fields of ecology and evolution. I’m used to attending international marine science conferences where big names in marine conservation are in attendance and I’m the lowly person on the totem pole. However, the nice thing about PEEC was that with only university students in attendance – we were the people to meet.

 View from 2nd ferry to the Bamfield Marine Science Center

 View from 2nd ferry to the Bamfield Marine Science Center

My first surprise was the actual trip to get to the research station. Yes I knew Bamfield was on Vancouver Island and the only way to get to the island was by ferry. Little did I know that after the first ferry, the voyage would involve a 90-minute car-ride, followed by another 3-hour ferry! Most of the main cities on Vancouver Island are accessible by car; however outside of these areas the only roads are those from commercial logging activities, with half of those in disrepair. The village of Bamfield is in a remote area, located in a protected inlet on the west side of Vancouver Island. The second 3-hour ferry was organized specifically for PEEC and provided the first opportunity to meet my peers attending the conference. 

Participants at PEEC on the ferry to Bamfield

Participants at PEEC on the ferry to Bamfield

The laid back atmosphere of the Bamfield Marine Science Center provided the right forum for students to get to know one another and the ongoing research at the different universities. I learned about some interesting work on lionfish at SFU, coral reef fish at University of Victoria, and even work of peers, now friends, at UBC on marine spatial planning, salmon fisheries, and diversity in seagrass meadows.

Saturday afternoon I attended an optional workshop on Science Communication hosted by Laurel Johnson of the Vancouver Aquarium. The goal of the workshop was to focus on the content of our research and how we communicate to a broad audience. The best part of the workshop was becoming a kid again to perform some experiments in the name of learning by doing. 

My team at the communication workshop

My team at the communication workshop

Here’s my team trying to figure out why the red dye is sitting on the surface in one cup and spreading throughout in the other.  (Answer it’s because one is salt water and the other is tap water. The different densities of the water cause the dye to react differently.)

The mysterious red dye that sits at the surface in one cup and spread throughout in the other

The mysterious red dye that sits at the surface in one cup and spread throughout in the other

After a day of presentations, networking and working on communication skills, a relaxing evening was to follow with the annual PEEC dance and costume contest. Similar to the TV show America’s Next Top Model, the theme of the costume contest was “Next Top Model Organism”, where people dressed in their most creative and interpretive meanings of their favorite organism. I’m proud to say the “Seahorse” was dubbed the next Top Model Organism after an epic dance- off between the flatworm, jellyfish and myself. 

And the next top model organism is…the seahorse

And the next top model organism is…the seahorse

PEEC was a fantastic way for me to get to know my peers both at UBC and at other universities in the Vancouver area. I would recommend it to any grad student – it’ll be the most relaxing and enjoyable conference you ever go to!  

What does and doesn't constitute fishing

By Danika Kleiber

I’m really excited about this:

I know what you’re thinking. It’s just a freaking pie chart, what’s the big deal?  Well, my friends, this pie chart represents 600 interviews of people in 12 communities in Danajon Bank, Philippines. 

But of course in the end it’s not the amount of effort I’ve put into the data gathering that matters, it’s what this pie chart means that really counts. And to get to that I need to first explain where the numbers come from.


My intrepid research assistants interviewed 300 women and 300 men about their fishing habits.  We asked them to tell us things like their typical catch volume, how often they went out per week, and how much time they spent fishing during each trip.  From this I can calculate a number of things, but in this case I calculated weekly catch volume.  I then add up everything women catch, and then everything men catch, pop it into a pie chart and VOILA! I should mention for the die hard methods people out there that the respondents were randomly selected, and we found the proportion of women and men participating in fishing activities were very similar (83% of women and 85% of men) so using equal number of interviews was appropriate. 

This pie shows that women, who according to most people in the Philippines, don’t fish, still magically manage to be responsible for 1 out of every 3 kilograms of marine life that gets extracted from the ocean. Now, I realize that I’m biased, and that my judgement is only further blinkered by several weeks worth of data entry (I’ve been dreaming in numbers), but please believe me when I tell you that this is kind of a big deal.  Women fish.  And it makes up one third of the catch volume.  Booya!

The next thing you should do is doubt my data.  How could women possibly be catching all that if they don’t fish?  The answer has to do with semantics. (Aside: about a decade ago I had a long conversation with my college math professor about why feminist researchers make such a big deal about semantics. So, Christopher, 10 years later, here is my example:)

It has to do with how we define the words “fishing” and “fisher.”  Most of the time when people quantify community fishing activities they only talk to people who self-identify as fishers. In many ways this seems to make sense, but in reality can wreak havoc with the data because there is a big difference between the number of people who call themselves fishers (and define their activities as fishing), and the number of people who extract animals from the ocean.  And the difference is largely made up of women.

(Note: this argument is based on the scale of data collection.  If you are focused on only one fisheries then it makes sense to focus on only those that participate. I’m talking about research that scales up to the community, region, or international level.)

Women, for a variety of cultural and social reasons, rarely describe themselves as fishers.  And furthermore the extractive activity that women predominately participate in — gleaning — is rarely considered a form of fishing.  So a woman in a boat lifting a net?  She’s not really fishing, she’s just helping her husband. A woman walking around the intertidal area with a huge bucket and a machete? She’s just gleaning.  

You can see why I wouldn’t take this assessment at face value.  So for the purposes of my research I defined fishing as what people did, rather than how they defined that activity. Gleaning extracts animals from the ocean and is therefore fishing.  “I’m just helping my husband” shares all the characteristics of fishing, so it too is counted as fishing.  

And what do you get?  A delicious data pie.

The seadragon in photos

By Tyler Stiem

A pair of leafy seadragons swimming together. The leaf-like appendages help the animals to blend in with their surroundings. They are not used for locomotion.  Photo: Dave Harasti/daveharasti.com

A pair of leafy seadragons swimming together. The leaf-like appendages help the animals to blend in with their surroundings. They are not used for locomotion. Photo: Dave Harasti/daveharasti.com

A vibrantly coloured weedy seadragon swimming. Seadragons can change colou to blend in with their surroundings.  Photo: Dave Harasti/daveharasti.com

A vibrantly coloured weedy seadragon swimming. Seadragons can change colou to blend in with their surroundings. Photo: Dave Harasti/daveharasti.com

A weedy seadragon swimming above a kelp bed. Seadragons inhabit seagrasses, kelp beds and rocky coral reefs.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A weedy seadragon swimming above a kelp bed. Seadragons inhabit seagrasses, kelp beds and rocky coral reefs. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

Weedy seadragons gather in large groups of 20 or more individuals to breed, akin to 'lekking' behaviour in some land animals.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

Weedy seadragons gather in large groups of 20 or more individuals to breed, akin to 'lekking' behaviour in some land animals. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A close-up view of markings on a weedy seadragon.  Photo: Keither Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A close-up view of markings on a weedy seadragon. Photo: Keither Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

As in the case of seahorses, male seadragons carry the fertilized eggs. Instead of carrying them in pouches, seadragons carry them on brood patches, a specialized area of skin on the underside of their tails. Here, a male carries eggs that have become covered in algae as they develop.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

As in the case of seahorses, male seadragons carry the fertilized eggs. Instead of carrying them in pouches, seadragons carry them on brood patches, a specialized area of skin on the underside of their tails. Here, a male carries eggs that have become covered in algae as they develop. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A weedy seadragon feeding. Seadragons depend on mysid shrimp, sea lice, and other tiny marine creatures for sustenance. Their fused jaw allows them to suck their prey from the surrounding water with great efficiency.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A weedy seadragon feeding. Seadragons depend on mysid shrimp, sea lice, and other tiny marine creatures for sustenance. Their fused jaw allows them to suck their prey from the surrounding water with great efficiency. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

Like seahorses, seadragons belong to the family Syngnathidae. 'Syn' means fused and 'gnathus' means jaw. All syngnathids have fused jaws.

Like seahorses, seadragons belong to the family Syngnathidae. 'Syn' means fused and 'gnathus' means jaw. All syngnathids have fused jaws.

A leafy seadragon in profile.  Photo: Dave Harasti/daveharasti.com

A leafy seadragon in profile. Photo: Dave Harasti/daveharasti.com

Talking seadragons with Dr. Keith Martin-Smith

By Tyler Stiem

As part of our "Year of the Water Dragon" feature, I sat down with Dr. Keith Martin-Smith, a former research fellow and honorary research associate with Project Seahorse, to talk about his work on the beautiful and elusive seadragon. His scholarly articles and photographs have been published in Oryx, Fish Biology, and on BBC Nature, among other places. See also our gallery of seadragon imagesfun facts page, and a recent scholarly article

A weedy seadragon feeding.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A weedy seadragon feeding. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

First of all, what makes seadragons unique?

Seadragons are arguably the most charismatic members of the seahorse family, primarily because of their outrageous colour patterns in the weedy seadragon and their amazing camouflage for the leafy seadragon. They have extremely brightly coloured eggs that they carry underneath the tail and which gradually become covered in algae over the course of their development. 

Weedy seadragons gather in large groups of 20 or more individuals to breed, akin to ‘lekking’ behaviour in some land animals. They also have a fascinating ‘mirroring’ behaviour during courtship where the male and female hold their bodies in identical postures but in mirror image of each other. I have also occasionally seen female-female pairs performing the same display. Whether this is competitive behaviour or mistaken identity I’m not sure!

What is the connection between seahorses and seadragons?

Seahorses and seadragons are all in the same family of fishes, the Syngnathidae, and share a number of common features such as the long, tubular snout, reduced fins, male pregnancy and hard, external body plates. They live in similar, shallow coastal habitats and are similar ecologically, feeding on small crustaceans and with restricted home range.

How many species of seadragon are there and what differentiates them? 

There are two species of true seadragon – the weedy or common seadragon, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus, and the leafy seadragon, Phycodurus eques. The weedy seadragon has a complex pattern of purple stripes on the ‘neck’ region and hundreds of yellow spots on the side of the abdomen, the head, the snout and the tail while the leafy seadragon is mostly brown and green with white stripes on the abdomen when living in shallow water or reddish in deeper water. The leafy has many frondose appendages while the leafy has simpler appendages. A third species, the ribboned pipefish, Haliichthys taeniophorus, is sometimes called the ribboned seadragon or tropical seadragon. Confusingly, the pipehorses, Solegnathus spp., are known as hai long or sea dragons in traditional Chinese medicine.

Click the image to watch weedy seadragons disappear into their habitat. Video: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

Click the image to watch weedy seadragons disappear into their habitat. Video: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

How did you come to study these animals?

I’ve been working with seadragons since 2001 at sites in southern Tasmania. Initially, with some students, we developed techniques for tagging seadragons with visible implant fluorescent elastomer (VIFE), a coloured substance injected under the skin in a variety of body locations to uniquely identify individuals. We also used surface-towed GPS units in waterproof housings to establish the home range of individuals. Then, in 2004-05, I collaborated with Jaime Sanchez-Camara, a seadragon researcher from Spain who had been working on weedy seadragons around Sydney.

We used our combined data to show that seadragons in colder waters grow more slowly, breed later in the year and live longer than individuals in warmer waters. In 2009, on a recreational dive, I noticed that one of the seadragons that I’d seen still had VIFE tags from 2004. This re-stimulated my interest in seadragons and I began a study to see if we could use the spot patterns on the abdomen to uniquely identify individuals — something that I have since confirmed over a period of three years.

In fact, I’m still regularly seeing the first individuals that I photographed and I can identify all of the seadragons at my regular dive sites. Some of these individuals still have their VIFE tags from 2004-05 in 2012, seven or eight years later, which suggests that they can live a long time. My data predicts that they can live more than 12 years in the wild. I’ve also found that the males carry two broods a year here in Tasmania and all of them start the first pregnancy at the same time.

A pair of male seadragons. Eggs are visible on their brood patch on their tails.  Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

A pair of male seadragons. Eggs are visible on their brood patch on their tails. Photo: Keith Martin-Smith/Project Seahorse

Where are they found, geographically, and in what kinds of habitats?

Leafy seadragons have a very restricted distribution, only found on the southern coast of Australia in the states of Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria while the weedy seadragon has a wider distribution extending from Perth in Western Australia to Sydney in New South Wales and around Tasmania. They both live in similar habitats - namely shallow, algae-covered rocky reefs down to perhaps 30 m.

What threats do they face and what is their IUCN Red List status? 

The major threat to both species of seadragon is habitat loss from activities such as coastal development, pollution, dredging etc. An unknown, but potentially serious threat, is related to climate change where warmer ocean conditions are allowing the spread of barren-forming sea urchins which graze large seaweeds and inhibit regeneration of kelp forests. Both species are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List.

What can seadragons tell us about evolutionary biology? What other scientific insights can they yield?

The reproductive biology of seadragons may provide insight into the evolution of male pregnancy as they have the simplest form of reproduction in the family with eggs just embedded in spongy tissue on the tail. Other reproductive aspects of seadragons remain enigmatic such as sex roles and whether they are monogamous within and between pregnancies. The extreme camouflage of the leafy seadragon is also a fascinating evolutionary development.

Finally, the growth of algae on the eggs during development but not on the body of the seadragon is a promising area for investigation – how do the seadragons remain free of fouling growth and which genes are switched on/off in the eggs?

Why do we rarely see them in aquariums? Can they be bred in captivity?

We rarely see them in aquariums for a number of reasons – they are difficult to maintain, requiring live food; the export trade from Australia is tightly controlled and they are very expensive to purchase costing many hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There is only a single individual in Australia who captures a few brooding male seadragons each year and raises the offspring for sale soley to public aquariums. Captive breeding has proved difficult but I think that there has been some recent success at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA.

How can we protect seadragons? 

Seadragons are protected by strong federal and state laws in all locations in Australia where they occur so the major contribution to protection that is needed is to ensure that habitat loss is minimised through sensitive coastal development. Marine protected areas where intact habitat is preserved and protected can obviously help.

Spearfishing on Danajon Bank

By Adam Cormier

Project Seahorse friend and colleague Adam Cormier recalls a recent excursion with spearfishers in Danajon Bank, Philippines, where our researchers work with local communities to make fishing sustainable. We’ve helped establish 34 marine protected areas in the region so far.

Mangrove trees press in thick on both sides of our little outrigger canoe as we ride out into the open ocean. As the sun begins to set and the motor coughs to life the world becomes a palette of red, orange, blue and black. 

The sun sets quickly in this part of the world and the sky soon turns grey and then black. The only light comes from Gerry’s flashlight as he sits on the prow of the boat, scanning the water for coral. From time to time he points one way or the other and his brother Edward, seated behind me, steers us accordingly. Gerry and Edward have agreed to bring me spearfishing with them. They’re friends of Project Seahorse.

After about 20 minutes Gerry makes a signal and Edward cuts the motor. I’m handed a homemade spear gun and a flashlight that I strap to my head. Gerry takes a minute to add socks and tattered ski-mask to his outfit of jogging pants and sweatshirt. He looks like Spiderman after a battle with The Lizard (if Spiderman was Filipino and always smiling). I guess when you spearfish for a living you get pretty serious about protecting yourself from jellyfish and sea urchins and such.

Jerry asks me if I’m ready. I try to act all macho and say, Of course. Truth be told I’m pretty nervous. I can’t see land or what’s under the water I’m sliding into. I’m a good swimmer, and comfortable in the ocean, but a five-hour swim in the dark is a bit of a stretch. 

As soon as we’re in I can see that the bottom is only about ten feet away. Every shape and size of coral imaginable is illuminated by the circle of light from my headlight. Gerry quickly calls me to his side. Right there he says, pointing to a cluster of coral, a rabbit fish. I don’t see anything. Right there, he says again. I dive down, still only seeing layer after layer of coral. Finally Gerry fires his spear into the exact place he pointing, coming up with a wiggling rabbitfish. He deposits this into the mesh bag at his waist. 

Over the next while this same scenario plays itself out again and again, Gerry pointing out fishes I can’t see for the coral. Finally he leaves me to it and he gets down to his night’s work. After losing and finding the boat a couple of times in the dark I quickly learn to always keep it in sight as Gerry tows it behind him. 

I fall into a rhythm, deep breath, dive, see nothing but beautiful coral, come up, find the boat, repeat. It really is an incredible experience. The night is quiet and the sea is calm, the only sounds are splashes and snorkels being cleared. We travel along a ridge back towards land. On one side the coral falls away into inky blackness, on the other there is a forest of it. Hundreds of tiny wiggling fish seem drawn to the gleam of my flashlight and they spend the night dancing around my head.

Finally, on one dive I see a fish! It’s round and yellow, the exact same color as the round and yellow coral it’s perched on. I fight the current and twist towards him, aiming my spear gun and pulling back on the thick elastics. My spear shoots out wide. I realign myself for a second shot as my lungs begin to remind me that I am not a fish. Miss again. I come up for air and when I return the fish is gone.

Spearfishing is really, really hard. It’s like playing darts underwater while holding your breath, only the dart board moves quickly and blends into the multi-coloured background as needed. Gerry and Edward and many of the communities living on the Danajon Bank — a rare and biodiverse double-barrier reef off the coast of Bohol Province, Philippines — make their living this way. It’s not easy. In recent years, dwindling resources has meant that fishers must travel further out to sea to find enough to catch. The challenge is striking a balance so that the fishing they do is sustainable for generations to come. Which is why Project Seahorse has teamed up with the communities to establish marine protected areas (no-take zones where fish stocks can replenish) around the Danajon Bank. 

After my yellow friend gets away I decide to stop trying so hard and just enjoy myself. The sky is clear and holds more stars then I’ve ever seen. I also begin to lose all track of time and start to get tired. Gerry and his brother continue to dive, coming up with fish more often than not. I try to ignore the aches in my back and arms and continue to paddle along behind the canoe. Any fish I do see seems too beautiful and too quick to try and catch.

Finally Gerry calls out to me and says it’s time to go home. I haul myself into the boat, bone-tired and actually cold for the first time since I stepped off the plane in Cebu. Both Gerry and his brother have a mesh bag full of fish. I guess they were there, hiding in plain sight for someone who knows how and where to look. As we putter back to Batasan and slide back trough the mangroves I have a new appreciation for the people who provide me with my breakfast every day. I can’t imagine a harder way to make a living then as a spearfisher. Gerry and Edward wishes me a good night and I head back through the village to the guest house where we’re staying. I’ll never look at my breakfast squid the same way.