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

By Clayton Manning

 Matsumoto Castle, Japan.  Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Matsumoto Castle, Japan. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

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

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

 Fecal coliform colonies.  Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

Fecal coliform colonies. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investigating the Thai seahorse trade

By Ting-Chun Kuo

“First you grind the specimen into powder, then you boil it with herbs,” the trader told me. He showed me a box with about 50 dried seahorses in it and explained that, prepared in the right way, the animals act as a tonic to improve kidney and lung function as well as improve men’s virility and cure back pain. 

I was at a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Yawarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, investigating the seahorse trade in Thailand. There were more than 10 traditional Chinese medicine shops on this street, and I found seahorses in almost every of them. Used in medicines, for aquarium display, and as curios, 15-20 million seahorses are traded internationally every year. 

Thailand is the biggest seahorse exporting country in the world. Seahorses are controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that countries that have signed on to this international agreement must ensure their exports are not detrimental to wild seahorse populations. To move the Thai seahorse trade toward sustainability, Project Seahorse and the Thai Department of Fisheries agreed to investigate the situation in Thailand together. It is the first such investigation in Thailand since CITES controls on seahorses came into effect in 2004.

To really grasp the scope of the trade and the impact of these protections, we need to study the route, quantity, price, and species/size composition of Thailand’s dried and live seahorse trade, comparing this new data to the data gathered before the CITES regulations were implemented. 

Starting in Bangkok, my Thai colleague, Jaeb, and I interviewed traditional Chinese medicine traders and aquarium dealers We then spent a month traveling along the coastline of Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, talking to fishers and local traders. In Thailand, most of the seahorses involved in trade are caught unintentionally in fisheries that are targeting other species. Fishers collect the seahorses in their catch, dry them, then sell the specimens to local buyers at port. The sales provide important extra income. Local buyers then sell the seahorses to higher-level traders, who then sell to wholesalers, who finally distribute the seahorses to retailers and exporters. Sound complicated? This diagram might help:

 Figure 1. Dried seahorse trade structure in Thailand. Arrows indicate the direction seahorses were sold.

Figure 1. Dried seahorse trade structure in Thailand. Arrows indicate the direction seahorses were sold.

The work in Thailand has had its challenges. Although the seahorse trade is legal in Thailand, traders – especially in traditional Chinese medicine retailers – were reluctant to talk about how they sourced their seahorses or about the volume of their trade. Such questions were very sensitive in a business context. Therefore, we had to cross-validate the information we got from people at different trade levels to gain a more complete picture of overall Thai seahorse trade.  

Seahorse buyers in fishing villages were easier to approach. Almost every day, they come to the ports to purchase seahorses from the trawler crews, and then keep them until the higher-level traders comes to buy their catch. The first local buyer I met was a man opening a classic old style karaoke bar in a fishing village in Phuket. He was very frank about the trading he does, and even asked us whether we want to go to collect seahorses together. He spends most afternoons and evenings, from about 3 p.m. to midnight, at the port, waiting for trawler boats to come in and making sure he’s one of the first to buy their seahorse catches.

We went with him to the port near his home, which was used primarily for landing the massive bycatch from trawlers, for eventual reduction to fishmeal or fish sauce. Usefully, the buyer soon found a trawler with eight dried seahorses. He bought the seahorses from the crew, as well as many other bycaught animals, such as sea cucumbers, shells, and lobsters. He also arranged for us to interview the trawler captain, who provided us with good information. 

The higher-lever traders were more difficult to find, because they usually lived in bigger cities and only occasionally visited the ports where seahorses are landed. Still, we managed to interview a few of them. They told us that they usually sent their seahorses to wholesalers in Bangkok for export, and some of the seahorses were re-distributed to TCM stores in other parts of Thailand.

As our research continued up the trade ladder, a picture began to emerge of the complexities of the seahorse trade and how urgently the Thai government needs to enforce fisheries regulations to ensure sustainability. Stay tuned for the next update! 

Two weeks on Haida Gwaii

By Riley Pollom

As the plane touched down on Haida Gwaii, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. In preparation for the trip I’d devoured all the material I could find on the establishment of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Marine Conservation Area and Haida Heritage Site, a conservation success story if there ever was one. Established in 1988 on the southern part of the archipelago, Gwaii Haanas protects some of Canada’s greatest biological and cultural treasures. Even so, I was astonished by what I saw over the next two weeks.

My partner and I started the trip at Rose Spit on Graham Island. According to Haida tradition, it’s here where life on earth first began. It was here that Raven, a trickster figure in Haida cosmology, opened the clamshell to release the first people. The creation legend is famously portrayed by Bill Reid in his 1980 sculpture, The Raven and the First men, housed at the UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. We hiked from Tow Hill, the highest point on the northern part of the island, down along the rocky and aptly-named Long Beach. Along the way we encountered the many signs of marine life lapping onto the beach — dungeness crab molts, giant kelp stalks, and the shells of countless mollusks. We also encountered many locals harvesting razor clams at low tide, a practice that has gone on sustainably for thousands of years. The spit itself was quite a sight – picture two perpendicular coasts meeting, with a long, tapering stretch of land jutting into the strait.  

From there we visited Tlell, home of the Edge of the World Music Festival, and then the ancient village of Tanu for an ecological and cultural tour with Haida guides.  We started out in Queen Charlotte, a logging town that became the largest settlement on the islands, and then zipped across glass-smooth water to Skedans on Louise Island. 

Skedans is an abandoned Haida village, one of the many that flourished for centuries, until the nineteenth century. The village’s 200-year old totems are slowly returning to Mother Nature, as the remaining Haida elders wanted it. Central to every aspect of life for the Haida, including village life, hunting and fishing, and even in determining who could marry whom, the totems are a stark reminder of how this community once thrived.

Life here was disrupted by a smallpox epidemic that took decimated the local villages, reducing a population of 20,000 to a few hundred people. As large portions of each village succumbed to the disease, it was decided that the survivors would congregate in two villages – Skidegate and Masset – the only Haida villages still inhabited.  As a result of the epidemic, the Haida lost valuable traditional knowledge, along with the governance structures that helped them manage their forest and ocean resources effectively. In their absence, commercial fishing and extensive old-growth logging took hold on the islands for many decades, badly damaging the ecosystems that the remaining Haida communities depended on for survival. 

But today it was hard to see any sign of these past hardships. The new management plans instituted as part of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement — which gave the Council of the Haida Nation a direct stake in the park — are clearly working. In Skedans, ocean and forest were both teeming with life. I struggled to grasp how such a place of abundance could have once suffered such cataclysmic losses, human and animal. As we departed Skedans, en route to the more southerly village of Tanu, we came across a large pod of humpback whales feeding near Moresby Island. A huge adult humpback leapt completely out of the water within 100 metres of our boat, sending our jaws to the floor. What a sight! Our guide, on the job for 20 years, had never seen such a complete breach, or one so close. 

Tanu was another sight to behold, with large hemlocks, cedars and firs growing up out of ancient Haida totems and longhouses. Although many of their ancestors and cultural traditions lied buried there, there’s a sense of comfort that comes out of the fact that these remnants are giving way to new life. 

On our last day in Haida Gwaii we ventured through Skidegate Inlet to the west coast of the islands to see the salmon – some of the largest in the world — that make Haida Gwaii so popular with sportsfishers. As our aluminum boat bounced out over the Pacific chop, I told our guide that we would be unable to ship our catch home (we had a three-day train ride to Vancouver awaiting us), and so we were okay with catch-and-release. “The Haida never play with their food,” he said, teasing me. To our amazement (and regret) we caught large coho and chinook salmon with in a few minutes. The biggest was 30 pounds!  An abundance of boats, both Haida and charter, bobbed along the steep cliffs of the islands catching as many as we did, revelling in the abundance of such magnificent creatures. 

And so the Haida go on. Fishing and living off the ocean as they always have. I returned to Vancouver convinced that, under the right conditions, both human societies and biodiversity can recover from unspeakable hardship and degradation and even flourish. The thriving ecosystems and animal populations of Gwaii Haanas are a thrilling testament to this. 

My first seahorse in the field

By Ally Stocks

Allison Stocks is studying the impact of fishing on seahorse populations in southern Vietnam. This is the first in a series of posts about her fieldwork.  

I spent eight months at UBC preparing for my field season on Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam, and once I’d actually reached my research location, I figured I’d be diving and finding seahorses in no time. Of course, that was not the case; there are hundreds of hoops to jump through first. With the help of my research assistant, An, I organized dive gear, found transportation across the island, and had meetings with several staff members of the local marine protected area, plus three different Coast Guard offices to make sure we wouldn’t get arrested when we started diving. 

One day, early in the field season, An and I were trying to find a boat that was willing to take us to the dive sites. We rode our motorbike for an hour and a half to a fishing dock where seahorses are landed. When we arrived, we spoke with several different fishers who were keen to share information about seahorses. We haggled with boat owners for a low price for a day’s rental, and we’d managed to get a pretty good deal by the late afternoon. At that point, I wanted to head back to town, but An convinced me to wait. 

“I want you to see seahorses,” he said. “Also I want to see seahorses.”

So we hung out in the shade with a few fish buyers, and An quickly became friends with them. They warmed up to us and soon enough were chatting and even singing happily. One of them gave me and An some berries that he had stashed in his motorbike helmet. An told me a story about how the berries represented long lost love. He said to be careful, when you eat them you might fall in love with someone. 

After a little while, the first boat came into the harbour and I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I instantly froze, and thought, “There are dead seahorses on that boat. Time to do some research.”

I hadn’t actually prepared to collect any data, since An and I were there to chat with the fishermen, make a good impression, and find a boat to rent. But our new friends urged us to check out the catch. As An distractedly chatted with someone about clams, I saw a woman in yellow polka-dot pants approach the fishing boat, and in a split-second exchange, her gloved hands held tightly to something. My stomach churning, I saw tiny little curled tails poking out from between her fingers.

“An!” I called to him, pointing. “Look!”

He ran up to the woman and asked if we could see the seahorses. She happily obliged, and we lay the four little creatures out on a piece of paper and I took a quick picture. It was surreal to see and touch seahorses for the first time, especially after spending so long reading, talking, and writing about them.

Lying in front of me were four dead seahorses, still fresh. Two of them were Hippocampus trimaculatus, the three-spot seahorse, and two were Hippocampus spinosissimus, the hedgehog seahorse. Three of them were juvenile males; one was a female. I scooped them up and handed them back to the woman in polka-dot pants. It was clear that seahorses are quite valuable in Vietnam, because she tucked them safely away in a small bag kept in her jacket. 

Seahorses are caught in Vietnam both on purpose and as bycatch. They are sold domestically for consumption, and traded internationally primarily to China for use in traditional medicine. Seahorse fishing has placed an immense pressure on populations, and recently a ban was placed on exports of live seahorses from Vietnam until the country can demonstrate that the trade is sustainable. My work will help the Vietnamese government understand the current status of seahorse populations. 

At the fishing port, nine more boats arrived over the next two hours, some carrying seahorses, some without. Whenever we weren’t investigating the catch from the boats, we were back on the dock with our new friends, who had cooked up a feast of fresh seafood and were eager for us to try it. 

I ate a several different kinds of clam, snails, conch, and fish. I gulped it all down and gave a queasy smile, trying my best to make friends with these men who could make or break the next four months of my research. In the end, I must have done well, because they were very pleased with us. One of them kept telling me (translated by An) that I needed to stay in Vietnam and get married, to form a proper partnership between Canada and Vietnam (he clasped his hands together in harmony). I laughed it off, and our jovial seafood feast continued until the light began to fade. 

We saw a total of 19 seahorses that day. They were all three-spot and hedgehog seahorses, freshly caught, and quickly snatched up by buyers on the dock. 

It was time for us to motorbike back to town. I’d had no idea what to expect from the fishing communities in Vietnam. We’d made some new friends, and I looked forward to returning to this dock to get to know them better, and to gain more valuable information about the seahorses being caught there. 

Follow Ally on Twitter @ally_stocks.

It's time for some #OceanOptimism

By Jennifer Selgrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting seahorses on the map

By Jennifer Selgrath

 Researcher Jenny Selgrath mapping a rare coral reef with local fishers.  Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse

Researcher Jenny Selgrath mapping a rare coral reef with local fishers. Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse

If I asked you to map the location of, say, your local aquarium, you would whip out your smart phone and Google would tell you where it is. But what if I asked you to map the location of corals and other important habitats in the Danajon Bank, a coral reef ecosystem in the central Philippines and within the global center of marine biodiversity? You would have had trouble because that map did not exist — until now.

I moved to the Philippines to work on conserving coral reef ecosystems and seahorses, but I could not find an accurate map of things as simple as where different villages were located. I took a few trips to local government offices where friendly staff showed me the maps that they had on their walls. With that information and a bit of computer time I made a digital map of the villages I was going to do research in. A first step. But the next step was to make a map of coastal habitats (including the underwater ones), and that was going to more complicated.

Why map ocean habitats when I work for Project Seahorse? Seahorses are the most charming fishes in the sea, but a lot of seahorse populations are threatened. One major threat to seahorses is the loss of their habitats. In tropical oceans, seahorse habitats include corals, seagrass and mangroves. These connected habitats provide shelter for seahorses, and they also support a lot of other biodiversity.

But these habitats can be seriously degraded by overfishing, coastal development, pollution and climate change. An important step in protecting seahorses — and other amazing marine wildlife — is to know where their habitats are and how healthy those habitats are. To do this we need good maps.

Mapping things that are underwater is challenging, but I wanted to compare how useful two approaches were for conservation. One approach for making maps involved using satellite images and remote-sensing software. This is cutting edge because, for a number of technical reasons, like the sections of the light spectrum that satellites photograph, it’s been hard see what was underwater from space. New satellites have fixed some of these problems, opening up this possibility.

To make satellite-image-based maps, I did snorkeling surveys and took coordinates of the habitats I found. Those surveys helped identify color, texture and location patterns specific to each habitat in the satellite image. I made the remote-sensing maps in collaboration with Chris Roelfsema at the University of Queensland.

The second approach involved making habitat maps by interviewing local fishers to map the habitats that are in their fishing grounds. I interviewed approximately 250 fishers from 21 villages located in different regions of the Danajon Bank. Then I combined the maps each fisher drew into one map representing local knowledge about habitats. This is a lot less technical and expensive, and it can get fishers excited about protecting important habitats.

 

Remote-sensing map

When I compared these two approaches, both maps were fairly accurate, but each approach had different strengths for conservation programs. The remote-sensing map was slightly more accurate and did a better job of showing fine-scale details, such as indicating the amount of habitat edges present. This is important because some fishes, along with invertebrates such as scallops and lobsters, are strongly affected by habitat edges. Other species, however, such as highly mobile fishes, are not affected by habitat edges. Conservation programs focusing on them do not necessarily require such finely detailed maps.

Fisher map

The map I constructed with fishers was better at documenting habitats that were in murky waters (which the satellite-image map missed) and was informative about coarse habitat patterns. But the fisher maps were blank in places where the fishers did not fish, such as local marine protected areas (MPAs).

Because there are benefits to both techniques, at Project Seahorse we are planning to combine both maps to use in upcoming conservation projects. We recommend that conservation programs that are planning to make marine habitat maps identify their goals (i.e., what they are going to use the map for) early in the process so that they can make an informed decision about the best mapping approach to use.

If you want to learn more about the Danajon Bank, you can check out the iLCP photo exhibition in the Wild Reef exhibit at Shedd. And if you want to get involved with mapping and help protect seahorses, check out iSeahorse.org. iSeahorse is a new citizen science initiative that allows people to upload information and photos whenever they see seahorses in the wild. Information you provide will help us make maps of where seahorses are located around the world and will help us improve seahorse conservation.

Jenny Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. Follow her on Twitter @JennySelgrath.

Glass ceiling-smashers: women and marine science at IMCC 2014

By Julia Lawson

 The four female plenary speakers (L-R): Drs. Patricia Majluf, Amanda Vincent, Emily Darling, and Heather Koldewey (photo courtesy of Dr. Patricia Majluf, via Twitter @panchoveta)

The four female plenary speakers (L-R): Drs. Patricia Majluf, Amanda Vincent, Emily Darling, and Heather Koldewey (photo courtesy of Dr. Patricia Majluf, via Twitter @panchoveta)

It’s been obvious to me since my early days studying marine biology as an undergraduate at Dalhousie University that the field of marine conservation is female-dominated. However, as we reach the upper levels of academia, the number of women thins out. The lack of women reaching high-level positions is not a problem unique to marine science – the glass ceiling is a well-documented issue for women and minorities and is widespread across many different professions.

I was happy to see that this year’s International Marine Conservation Congress made a point of highlighting the role of women in conservation. The majority of the plenary speakers at IMCC were female scientists – including Dr. Patricia Majluf, director of the Centre for Environmental Sustainability at Cayetano Heredia University in Peru; marine ecologist Dr. Emily Darling; and Project Seahorse co-founders Dr. Amanda Vincent and Dr. Heather Koldewey.

The group was a mix of well-established scientists who have managed to shatter the glass ceiling, and up-and-comers like Dr. Darling, who was selected to represent ‘the future of marine conservation.’ She shared her fascinating research, which characterized four life history patterns in scleractinian corals, and how these life history patterns can be used to predict coral reef assemblages under global climate change scenarios. Her poignant and enthusiastic plenary talk invigorated the IMCC audience and indeed provided hope for the future of marine conservation.

However, in order to fully understand the future of marine conservation it is necessary to reflect on where we’ve come from. The Dr. Ransom Myers memorial closing plenary was given by Dr. Elliott Norse, who walked the audience through the history of marine conservation and marine science. He acknowledged essential contributions from female scientists like Dr. Julia Baum, a former doctoral student with Project Seahorse, who is now a professor at the University of Victoria; Dr. Ratana Chuenpagdee, who has her roots at the UBC Fisheries Centre, and is now a professor at Memorial University; and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who served under Barack Obama as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator.

Dr. Baum worked closely with Dr. Myers to document to the staggering declines of pelagic sharks in the northwest Atlantic. This research was among the first to draw attention to the plight of sharks, and initiated massive conservation efforts.

Dr. Chuenpagdee drew attention to the impacts of bottom trawls on non-target species and critical bottom habitat. Her research incorporated the views of fishers, managers and scientists to rank the impacts of different fishing gears on habitats and non-target species.

Dr. Lubchenco may be best known as one of the first scientists to recognize the importance of communicating science to the general public. No doubt Dr. Lubchenco’s work caught the eye of President Obama, who appointed her the first female NOAA Administrator in 2009.

This group made it clear that the future of marine conservation looks very different from the past. In the words of Dr. Norse, itès getting "more and more female - and that's a good thing." I applaud IMCC for taking steps to acknowledge the contributions of women in marine conservation, and for bringing together the past and future of marine conservation by carefully selecting an inspiring panel of speakers.

 

Beyond marine protected areas

By Jennifer Selgrath

If you want to save money, you can invest in a blue-chip stock and it might grow. But a financial advisor would suggest that you improve your returns by diversifying your portfolio. We might take a similar, diversified approach to managing fisheries so that they are sustainable.

Just like your savings, the marine ecosystems that fisheries depend on need to be managed in order to ensure a healthy, productive future. But researchers working on small-scale fisheries have most often recommended one tool: marine protected areas, or MPAs. So at IMCC3 in Glasgow this August, my colleague Kyle Gillespie and I organized a symposium to broaden our view of the diverse tools and approaches which can support sustainable small-scale fisheries.

Small-scale fisheries employ about half of the world’s fishers and are critically important for food security. But many are in trouble due to overfishing and ecosystem degradation. MPAs, or no-fishing zones, are the management option that is most frequently recommended for these fisheries. MPAs are an important part of the marine conservation toolbox. Project Seahorse has helped fishing communities establish many MPAs over the years. We also, however, want to make sure that we are making fishing sustainable in the 99% of the ocean that remains “unprotected.”

Our IMCC symposium — Complementing MPAs in the Management of Small Scale Fisheries: Other Tools and Approaches — opened with talks by me, Dr. Marcia Moreno-Baez from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and Dr. Gabby Ahmadia from WWF. We spoke about our experiences with small-scale fisheries in the Philippines, Mexico, and Indonesia, respectively. The small-scale fisheries in these three countries are quite diverse. For example fishers in Mexico use modern boats that allow them to travel far offshore while the fisheries in the Philippines use boats that are similar to outrigger canoes, keeping them closer to their coastal villages. Our talks included discussions about management tools ranging from modifying fishing nets to increasing membership in sustainably-minded fishers organizations.

After the talks, we held a discussion about successful – and unsuccessful, but interesting – tools and approaches for managing small-scale fisheries. For the discussion, we were joined by researchers who work in many other parts of the world, but who are addressing surprisingly similar challenges. Through our discussion it became clear that there was no tool could act as a magic bullet to make small-scale fisheries sustainable.

But, importantly, our discussions led us to see that there were commonalities in the approaches that worked for many participants. For example, we agreed that it was important to start any conservation program with clearly articulated goals that are integrated with local and scientific knowledge and values. When researchers or resource managers are developing conservation programs to meet these goals, it’s also important to consider the local culture’s relationship to their fishing practices. Communities’ relationships with fisheries include both social and financial arrangements. For example, fishers may prefer fishing with specific gears and such preferences are important to understand.

On a pragmatic note, many researchers found that it was helpful to start with small conservation projects that have a good chance of success. When this happens, fishing communities can see the relationship between the changes that they make to their fisheries and the improvements in biodiversity and/or catches. This helped the communities to trust larger-scale, longer-term management measures whose impact isn’t as immediately obvious. Another bit of advice was that it is important to have regular feedback between research and fishers. This feedback is important, even before we have perfect knowledge. Overall it was a lively discussion that gave all of us a broader understanding of approaches that have a chance of success in making these diverse fisheries sustainable.

Getting on with marine conservation

By Julia Lawson

 Dr. Amanda Vincent at IMCC.  Photo: D. Curnick

Dr. Amanda Vincent at IMCC. Photo: D. Curnick

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) is the biggest global event of its kind, an opportunity to engage with some of the brightest minds in marine science and hear some of the big, inspirational ideas in conservation today. As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I was excited to attend this year’s event.

To kick off the conference, our own Dr. Amanda Vincent delivered a plenary talk that got the conference delegates buzzing. The thrust of her talk, which will be familiar to Project Seahorse supporters, is that we need to get on with marine conservation even if the science isn’t perfect (while collecting more information as needed). Ocean ecosystems are declining at such a rapid rate that research must always be geared toward action. “Do not end your [conference] talks with ‘we need more research,’” she implored the audience. “Instead, tell me what you’re going to do.”    

Many were inspired by Amanda’s fiery call to action. A number of delegates told me during the conference that they’d begun to rethink the future of their own work, changing the final message in their talks from “we need to gather more data” to “let’s get a move on with what we have.” During Rebecca Weeks and Bob Pressey’s connectivity and marine conservation planning symposium, on the last day of IMCC, several marine ecologists closed their talks by mentioning what they termed “the Amanda Vincent approach” – getting a move on with what data they had in hand. 

As you might expect, approval was not universal.  Some marine conservationists in the audience feared that moving on limited data might create more problems rather than solutions. One person commented that “the ‘just get going approach’ is why we have thousands of poorly designed, ineffective and unenforced marine protected areas.”

Hearing Amanda - and seeing the generally excited response to her talk - made me reflect on what I’ve learned during my time with Project Seahorse. I began my Master’s degree firmly believing that the role of a scientist was to conduct objective research and disseminate that research to decision-makers. I believed at the time that we must avoid activism at all costs as it compromises our scientific integrity. However, during my time with Project Seahorse my views shifted. While I still believe strongly in scientifically grounded advice, I awakened to the reality that everyone has core beliefs on the topic they study, even seemingly objective scientists. The best thing we can do is to be honest about those beliefs — with ourselves and our target audiences — when we share our work.

In the words of Amanda: “you are either an activist or an in-activist.”

Julia Lawson is a graduate student with Project Seahorse.

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

By Xiong Zhang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idealism tempered by my first CITES meeting

By Dr. Sarah Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On being part of the world’s largest conservation team

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

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

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

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

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

Unsustainable shrimp a jumbo problem

By Dr. Sarah Foster

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

How does shrimp harvesting impact our oceans?

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

Where do most of our shrimp come from?

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

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

Is farmed shrimp a sustainable alternative?

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

How can we end ocean clear cutting?

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

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

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

Three more countries required to take action for seahorses

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciling traditional livelihoods in Malaysia

By Julia Lawson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danajon Bank, three months after the earthquake

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

 Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes.  Photo: ZSL

Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes. Photo: ZSL

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

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

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

 Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor.  Photo: ZSL

Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor. Photo: ZSL

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

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

 The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon.  Photo: ZSL

The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon. Photo: ZSL

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more Project Seahorse coverage of Typhoon Haiyan and last October's earthquake in Bohol Province, Philippines, click here and here

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Project Seahorse's Co-Founder and Field Conservation Manager, and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London.