Project Seahorse: Sustaining environment and community (Asian Geographic)

By Steve Burrows

The dark Philippine night enfolds us like a cloak. The only sound is the gentle slapping of waves against the side of the boat. To the west, more than two hours away, the faint lights of Cebu shimmer on the horizon. Behind us rises the island of Bohol. Suddenly there is a rush of water from beneath the boat, and a diver emerges with a triumphant grin. Carefully he unfurls his hand and reveals the reward of his lung-bursting search among the coral reefs. A small Tiger-tail seahorse (Hippocampus comes), less than five inches long with a market value of perhaps seven pesos (US$0.14).

We are in the preferred fishing grounds of Bohol's seahorse fishers, the submerged reefs of the Danajon Bank, a few kilometres off the island province's northern shore. There were once a lot more seahorses in these waters, and they were larger. But the continuous pressures of over-fishing and habitat destruction are having a profound impact on the Danajon Bank seahorses. It is becoming harder and harder for fishers like Gorio Danio to find enough animals to support their families. But in Gorio's home village of Handumon, on the nearby island of Jandayan, a remarkable project is underway Its aim is to aid not only the fishers, but also the seahorses they rely upon, and, in so doing, to help secure the futures of both.

Few conservation projects are able to help both predator and prey simultaneously, but Project Seahorse is no ordinary undertaking. Since it first began operations in Handumon, late in 1994, the project has explored initiatives designed to promote the conservation of coastal and marine resources, while keeping the needs and wishes of the local community very much in mind. Species research goes hand in hand with student scholarships and the establishment of marine sanctuaries offshore is mirrored by community development programmes within the village itself.

Although Project Seahorse is making great strides with its community-based activities, it is unquestionably the group's marine conservation efforts that have attracted the most attention. This is due in no small part to the enchanting aquatic ambassador it has chosen as its flagship species. Project founder Amanda Vincent is under no illusions about the power of seahorses to attract positive publicity.

"Quite frankly, if the organisation were called Project Cardinalfish it probably wouldn't attract nearly as much interest. So, yes, we are aware of the seahorse's popular appeal. But our goal has always been to support and conserve the entire marine ecosystem here, not just one particular species," says Amanda. "We focus on seahorses because reversing their population declines will require the resolution of key coastal management problems. As species, seahorses seem to generate a great deal of public interest. We find we can use this as a good starting point to address a whole range of issues."

The public's fascination with genus Hippocampus is hardly a new phenomenon. With the possible exception of dolphins, there are few marine animals that can match the charisma of seahorses. Perhaps no creature conjures up the mysteries of the deep more than these strange aquatic fan dancers. Early sailors' tales of giant seahorses beneath the waves, bearing mermaids or pulling Neptune's chariot, entrenched the animals in maritime folklore across the globe.

Early naturalists were so confounded by the unlikely appearance that they catalogued them alongside insects. Even the genus name Hippocampus reflects their uncertainty about these "horse-sea monsters". Nor was it only the seahorse's appearance that observers found so. unusual. In many ways, seahorses seem to challenge the natural laws of the animal kingdom itself. Imagine, for example, a sea-dwelling creature that has problems with buoyancy. Or one, among the quicksilver fishes of the deep, that moves so slowly it looks more like a wind-up toy than a creature at home in its marine environment. And, without question, the seahorse’s most extraordinary characteristic is the male's ability to undergo pregnancy and give birth. After the female seahorse transfers her eggs to the male, they are then fertilised and protected within the male's brood pouch. And it is from here that the fully formed young are eventually issued.

If the seahorse's appearance and behaviour seem almost other-wordly, sadly, so too do the numbers relating to their harvest. At least a quarter of the world’s nations are involved in the seahorse trade, either as suppliers and/or purchasers. Estimates suggest that at least 20 million animals per year are being taken from the seas. Researchers acknowledge, however, that given the questionable record-keeping methods in some countries, and the inexact method of gauging the numbers by the kilogramme load, the actual figure is probably much higher.

Strangely, almost none of the animals taken in the phenomenal annual harvest become a food resource Many seahorses are taken for the live aquarium trade. Some are dried as ornaments for the so-called "curio trade". But by far the greatest number are destined for use in the traditional medicine industry. Seahorses are a staple of such diverse medicinal cultures as the Jamu of Indonesia, Philippine folk medicines and the traditional remedies of Japan and Korea. But it is the recent growth of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) industry in China that has provided the largest market for these aquatic antidotes. With the gradual increase in prosperity in China over the past ten to fifteen years, the ability to buy TCM products has risen exponentially. With TCM’s unprecedented popularity, and traditional medicine gaining worldwider recognition as a valid form of healthcare, the market for seahorses shows no sign of abating.

Ominously for the world's seahorse populations, many members of the TCM industry believe the supply of the animals to be limitless. Mr. Tsang Chui Hing is the vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Chinese Merchants Association (HKCMMA). He has seen a noticeable increase in demand in the past decade, but finds it hard to believe seahorse numbers are in decline. "Our suppliers have had no trouble meeting our increased orders," says Mr. Tsang. "In fact, the industry price per head has even dropped over the past few years.

Samuel Lee of TRAFFIC East Asia, on behalf of Project Seahorse, monitors the use of seahorses among TCM practitioners. He confirms that the supply is still, but notes that this is because the suppliers are expanding their operations into new areas, as their traditional sources of supply become depleted. Still, as he explains, the current market indicators profoundly shape the views of the TCM industry towards the availability of seahorses. "These people are first and foremost businessmen," explains Samuel. "To them, a steady supply and a decrease in unit cost suggests no "shortage of seahorses. Quite the reverse in fact."

But research in traditional seahorse territories suggests otherwise. Bohol's fishers have reported a drop in catch size in a single decade, and now say that supply cannot keep up with world demand. Elsewhere in South-east Asia it is a similar story Apart from the numbers, the average size of seahorses is getting smaller, and more juveniles make up the fishers' catches.

As part of its work to expand into a national project in the Philippines, Project Seahorse is undertaking a series of "rapid assessments" of seahorse populations in selected areas around the country "We are working with local 'host' communities," says assessment coordinator Aileen Maypa, "trying to build up a picture of seahorse populations across the region." Although she does not know yet what the findings will reveal, Aileen already has some suspicions. "Based on interviews so far, we know that in the 1970s and 1980s, 'incidental' seahorse catches in fishing nets often numbered between 10 and 20 percent. These days there is sometimes one seahorse netted, but often there are none at all."

However, it is not only fishers who are putting pressure on the wild seahorse stocks. In addition to over- fishing and pollution, seahorse populations worldwide are also threatened by loss and degradation of estuarine habitats, mangroves and sea grasses, while coral habitats in the Philippines are still being destroyed by "fishing" techniques as dynamite blasting and cyanide poisoning.

The project's research is also beginning to reveal how the seahorses' own reproductive behaviour adds to the population pressures. Producing only a few thousand young per year, the seahorses' fecundity is low for marine fishes. Repopulating over-fished areas therefore is a slow process. Their monogamous habits, too, contribute to the problem. Tiger-tail seahorses are extremely faithful partners. Such is the bond between pairs that when one loses its mate it can take a long time to re-partner, thus missing valuable reproductive cycles.

Faced with increasing anecdotal and research evidence of severe declines in seahorse populations, Project Seahorse borrowed a page from TCM philosophy And decided to adopt a preventative, rather than curative, Approach. "We were able to make the interested parties listen and respond based only on the perceived trends,” says Amanda Vincent, "proving that it is not necessary to wait until you are down to critically low numbers Before you can convince people to act. “The decision to act Sooner rather than later now appears to have been crucial, buying the project valuable time to develop its conservation initiatives and implement them effectively.

Amanda Vincent's research on syngnathids (seahorses and pipefishes) has taken her all over the world. Even so, the remote village of Handumon in the central Philippines seems a long way from her home base at Montreal's McGill University, in Canada. Today, "Project Seahorse is working with its Philippine partner. the Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, to expand its activities nationwide, and it has already developed partnerships for seahorse research and conservation in many other parts of the world.

But the 150-kilometre stretch of coastline around northwest Bohol remains very much at the centre of the project's operations. Intensive research is continuing at six separate marine protected areas (MPAs) along the coast, including one on the project's own doorstep, along the Handumon shoreline. Brian Cabrera is a survey biologist with Project Seahorse. "We use a BACI (Before, After, Control, Impact) method to assess the sites, so we are looking at fish sizes, numbers and coral cover, both inside and outside the MPAs." As the research data is collected, it is analysed by project members and used to guide further MPA management techniques.

But amid all the science, there is also a very human element to Project Seahorse. Living and working alongside locals, the project's members have developed strong personal ties with the community. Today, some of the staff are on their way to take a gift for a new baby born in the village. In a small village like Handumon, the importance of such events is understandably magnified, and the researchers are keen to share in the joys, as well as the difficulties, of the local community Alan Mondido is Project Seahorse's community organiser in Handumon. Alan believes one of the keys to the project's success has been its continued interest in the social aspects of village life.

"Project Seahorse is every bit as much a social operation as an environmental one," he says. "We never undertake operations in one area without considering its impact on the other. In Handumon, this is the only approach that would work, really When people are as interconnected with their environment as they are here, every action you take in one field will have important consequences for the other." The engagement of local people in many aspects of the project's work is another way in which bonds have been created between the two groups.

From the very beginning, this tiny community of 900, under the aegis of barangay (village) captain Gregorio Botero, has welcomed the project into its midst. Today it continues to offer its support, maintaining the MPA boundaries and providing a guard to watch over the sanctuary. The locals also take part in gathering much of the research data used by the project. Fishers record their catches on specially designed calendars, while other villagers participate in surveys to monitor tagged seahorses.

Education and community involvement are two cornerstones of the project's work in the village, and children are often taken on educational trips around their marine environment, while special community events like the mass planting of mangrove propagules to enhance and protect the Handumon coastline, have also been organised. The locals, too, have been engaged in their own project-sponsored surveys, producing everything from meticulously detailed topographical transects of the island to records of individual fishing methods.

"We began by asking the villagers to collect specific data for us," says Alan Mondido. "But lately, it has become more a case of asking them what information the community would find useful, and then helping them to go about collecting it.

It is 4 a.m., and the seahorse fishers of Handumon are back out on the Danajon Bank. A small flotilla of outrigger boats dot the waters, each marked against the inky blackness by the gas-fed lantern on its bow. Since seahorses occur at relatively shallow depths, between one and 10 metres, these lanterns light up the waters sufficiently to allow the fishers to search for them by night. In other parts of the world seahorses are diurnal but here on the Danajon Bank they are most active after dark. Project Seahorse researchers postulate that this may be a response to fishing pressures in these waters but, whatever the cause, it means Gorio Danio and the others only have until dawn to make their haul.

Armed only with a pair of goggles and a single wooden "fin", and with the rope of his subiran boat tied around his wrist, Gorio Danio makes an exploratory dive. As he disappears beneath the boat his head moves back and forth, scanning the waters to the very edges of his light source. Gorio works tirelessly surfacing only for the shortest of rests before submerging again It is exhausting work, towing his boat and diving repeatedly into the cold waters for almost six hours without a break. But Gorio is determined in his efforts to find "enough seahorses to support his family.

When you come to write a story about the exploitation and over-fishing of seahorses, the last thing you expect is to develop a new respect, even admiration, for the fishers. But here, on the dark waters of the Danajon Bank, I begin to understand something of the inter-connectedness between these people and their prey, and of Project Seahorse's commitment to help them both.

In many ways, Bohol's seahorses are a fisher's dream quarry. As seahorse biologist Amida Diwata Macansantos explains, the behaviour patterns of H. comes make them very easy to catch. "The seahorses here have a small range and extremely low mobility," says Amida. "They rarely move outside their own small area. They are site faithful to the extent of even using the same grass or coral holdfast for days."

But it is their dedication to their partners that makes them most vulnerable to fishers. Because mated pairs rarely stray far from each other, once one animal has been found, a fisher need only to search the immediate area carefully and he is likely to turn up its partner.

Gorio surfaces with a "sample", a seahorse he will allow me to examine and return to the seas. Few people get the chance to examine a live seahorse up close, to see their swiveling eyes, their delicate tube-like mouths, or the tiny pectoral fins on their heads. Fewer still will have the opportunity to observe them in their native habitat. It is a great pity This female will spend much of the night closely curled up with her partner, separating at dawn when they will both disappear into the corals. Other seahorse species perform an elaborate dawn dance before separating for the rest of the day Few people would guess that such rituals of commitment and dedication are being acted out beneath the waves.

The call of a rooster rolls towards us across the waterthe dried and there is a perceptible lightening in the eastern sky. Dawn is coming and Gorio is nearing the end of his night's work. It has been a poor night, but the seahorses' peak breeding season is coming soon, and he hopes things will be better then. For now, though, Gorio is obliged to take any seahorses he can find, even juveniles less than three inches long. He is aware of the need to limit the juvenile catch, recognising that they should be left to mature and breed, but in the absence of a community-wide agreement to conserve them, Gorio would simply be penalising himself by releasing the smaller animals.

Such a regional agreement is in the process of being developed but, for now, the juveniles will remain part of Gorio's catch. In other areas of seahorse conservation, however, Handumon's fishers are already contributing more effectively Many are now inclined to let pregnant males give birth before selling them to the buyer, holding them in specially-built "corrals", set up in the MPAs, until the young are born.

The larger seahorses Gorio has collected are literally worth more dead than alive. The TCM trade pays on a sliding scale according to size, with the larger animals earning the Handumon fishers between 8 and 10 pesos each. The aquarium trade pays a fixed rate, a peso or two less per animal. Understandably these numbers have changed somewhat by the time the animals reach their destination. In Hong Kong, the world's largest entrepot for TCM products, and the mainstay of China's seahorse supply wholesalers expect to pay between HK$800 and HK$900 for a kilogramme of dried seahorses.

It is impossible to accurately estimate the current volume of seahorses being consumed by the mainland Chinese market, but the TCM market in Hong Kong offers a small window on the industry's potential impact on seahorse populations. Although the vast majority of the dried seahorse imported into Hong Kong are re-exported, almost all of Hong Kong's estimated 3,000 TCM retailers would keep at least a catty (600 grams) on hand. At an arbitrary figure of 350 seahorses per kilogramme, this means that at any given time, well over half a million dried seahorses are resting on the shelves of Hong Kong’s TCM stores alone.

Past President of the HKCMMA, Mr. Tong Lam, cites Thailand as his main source of seahorses these days, but he agrees that something like a quarter of the 25 million animals imported into Hong Kong since 1998 ave come from the Philippines. Like Mr. Tsang, he feels that there is no shortage of seahorses to supply the market. Mr. Tong does agree, however, that it is definitely more difficult to find larger seahorses these days.

“In the past we received many seahorses in excess of eight inches long, he says. "Now, seven-inch are about the largest we can expect. And some are much smaller.” This is of concern to TCM dealers since they hold that larger animals are more potent, and therefore more valuable to the industry.

Mr. Tong is aware of the work of Project Seahorse, and their view that seahorses should not be fished. In accordance with the project’s recommendations, he has written a letter to members of seven trade associations in Hong Kong asking them to buy only seahorses over four inches long. This is considered to be the minimum length required for a seahorse to reach reproductive capability, and such an undertaking would clearly be would be a welcome development. But whether there would still be sufficient supply of seahorses to meet China's burgeoning demand with this restriction in place remains uncertain.

Even if such measures were put into effect immediately It would be some time before their impact was seen In the seahorse populations in the Philippines. With other Project Seahorse initiatives, however the benefits are more tangible. More than a dozen children in the DanajonBank region already enjoy scholarships facilitated by and in part administered by, Project Seahorse.

For children like ten-year old Esme Santos, playing Coconut baseball outside her thatched home,the project has opened up possibilities unthinkable when she was born into this village. For the eighty or so seahorse fishing families in Handumon, the project's impact has been just as radical, but the results are even more immediate. During the high season, seahorses once represented as much as 100% of the household income for these families. Declining stocks meant declining fortunes. But now, through the intervention of Project Seahorse many families have diversified into others occupations to generate income. Undoubtedly, the most successful of these has been the handicraft operation by the local people's organisation, KANAGMALUHAN.

Formed with the help of Project Seahorse, KANAGMALUHAN, which takes its name from alocal language acronym for United Group of Fishers and Residents in Handumon, oversees a wide range of community projects in areas such as resource management, education and livelihood initiatives.

One of the latter was a craft-weaving programme that has now blossomed into a thriving cottage industry, using the fronds of locally grown romblon plants, the wives of the seahorse fishers weave mats, bags and various other handicrafts, which are then shipped out of the village to be sold elsewhere. Incredibly, through contacts developed by Project Seahorse, the products of this tiny island industry have even found markets half a world away, in public aquariums in Chicago, Monterey Bay and London. Beatriz Bolero, the head of KANAGMALUHAN, acknowledges that she now sends her handcrafted wares to places she never knew existed.

"Our crafts go around the world, but the people in this village do not usually travel far. Some have never even been off this island," she says. "It is not necessary. We can find most of the things we need here.

It is first light, and MPA and fisheries biologist Erwin Brunio has come down to the waters edge to record the returning fishers' catches. He smiles as he looks out over the 50 hectare marine sanctuary in front of the village. "It's strange to think that when the project started, the barangay gave us this site almost without a second thought," he says. "It was seen as barren, and therefore valueless to the community Now, due to the protected status, it is probably one of the healthy sites in the area. The coral is coming back, healthy fish stocks are starting to migrate out into the surrounding waters. Even the seahorses are starting to recolonise the underpopulated areas again.

From the shore, Erwin points to one of the unprotected areas outside the MPA. "It has been devastated by years of over-fishing and even dynamite blasting. It is very sad to see," he says.

The locals, who have a penchant for hitting on appropriate names, seem to share Erwin’s sentiments. To them, this area is known simply as “The Cemetery”. Such graphic comparisons have done much to convince the local fishing communities of the benefits of protecting manne areas, and numerous requests are now coming in for Project Seahorse to help set up and support MPAs in nearby villages.

Yet, as Erwin explains, the idea of setting aside protected "no-fishing” zones is not a new one to the people of this area. Among the coastal fishing communities, there has long been a tradition of barangay-run "sona" – areas preserved by the community and off-limits for fishing. Though these were traditionally protected only so that they could be harvested during fiesta times, the system shows that the practice of managed fishing is well understood in these parts. Sustainable harvesting is a concept which comes easily to a community so much in tune with the rhythms of nature. Exploitation here has come about because of economic necessity not ignorance.

With the growing involvement of the locals in Participatory Marine Sanctuary Monitoring (PMSM) programmes, and the on-going training of individuals in various other aspects of the project's work, Amanda Vincent accepts that her own role here may be nearing a conclusion.

"I know I don't need to be here as much these days, and I do have projects in other places to attend to," she admits, "but after all this time, Handumon feels like home to me now. I hope I will always find reasons to come back."

That seems likely. As the villagers, emboldened by the success of KANAGMALUHAN's craft business, consider other economic ventures, new challenges for the project are certain to arise. And if, as it is hoped, small-scale tourism can be introduced to the island at some point, someone will need to be on hand to make sure people do not lose sight of the ecological goals of Project Seahorse. At the moment, KANAGMALUHAN sets aside a small percentage from every transaction to support environmental activities in the community, and Amanda is keen to ensure such commitment continues.

"The ongoing challenge here is to rehabilitate and recover as many marine ecosystems as possible," says Amanda. "And an increasing human presence, with rapid population growth, will undoubtedly make that more difficult. But there is a good grassroots environmental movement here now, and the creativity and energy of the people offer plenty of reasons for hope."

But even as Amanda is speaking, a distant boom rolls across the waters. Somewhere out on the reef, someone is fishing with dynamite. It is a sobering reminder that the future of neither the seahorses nor the fishers is safe yet. In Handumon, and elsewhere, there still remains a lot of work to be done.