Weighing the impact of illegal fishing

By Danika Kleiber

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

Conservation through the back door

By Jennifer Selgrath

Day two of the International Marine Conservation Congress found me speaking about my Philippines-based research. I was sandwiched in a session of talks between Nishan Perea,  a Project Seahorse researcher based in Sri Lanka, and Felicity Burrows from The Nature Conservancy’s Bahamas’ office.  

All of us work on different aspects of sustainable fisheries and it was fascinating to compare notes from around the world. To set the scene, Nishan has been investigating how changes in Sri Lankan policy have influenced seahorse fishing and trade. Felicity spoke about the Bahamas’ effort to make their lobster-tail fishery sustainable. I study how fishing – legal and illegal — shifts across space and scale, in order to make management and conservation more effective. 

In Sri Lanka and the Bahamas, conservation has been happening in unexpected ways. The changes have been largely driven by seafood exporters with a financial stake in change  – conservation is a side-effect.  The Sri Lankan seahorse fishery has become illegal, and in countries with a thriving black market, that would simply drives the trade in seahorses underground. But in one part of Sri Lanka, an exporter got into the legal, captive-bred seahorse market and decided he made better money selling the seahorses he raised than the ones that he caught illegally in the wild.

In the Bahamas, the exporters decided to certify their fishery as sustainable through the Marine Stewardship Council – a move largely inspired by the European Union’s decision to import only sustainable seafood. Exporters started refusing to buy undersized lobsters, and dinged the fishers with steep fines if they tried to sneak undersized lobsters by.

I am inspired by these tales from other parts of the world!

Jennifer Selgrath is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse.