This is the second instalment of Project Seahorse graduate student Ally Stocks's three-part field notes from Vietnam. You can read the first instalment here.
On the central-eastern coast of Phu Quoc Island is the village of Ham Ninh, where I often slept at the home of a local family. They were happy to host my research assistant, Thanh, and me, giving us a roof over our heads and feeding us plenty of fresh seafood. In return, we’d bring them fruit and I’d help their daughters practice their English.
One beautiful calm evening, I walked to the end of the wooden dock by our house to gaze up at the stars. It was a serene moment — something I didn’t experience often during the hectic months of my field season. I could hear my host family chatting away happily, lying in hammocks or sitting on blue plastic stools. Thanh came over and told me they were preparing for a feast tomorrow. He spoke vaguely about something illegal, but I didn’t understand what he meant, so I brushed it off and lay down in a hammock to start reading.
A little while later, men drove up to the dock in a small boat. I didn’t pay much attention. I was engrossed in my book.
Thanh tapped my shoulder, “Look,” he said.
Dumped on the dock on its back, tied up in thick blue ropes, was a sea turtle. Its flippers turned in slow, desperate circles.
It was — to the best of my knowledge — a green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas. Green sea turtles can be found across the globe in subtropical and tropical oceans. They are listed as endangered by the IUCN and in Appendix I of CITES, meaning they are protected from exploitation in most countries, including here in Vietnam. It is illegal to collect, harm, or kill them, yet they are still caught for food in many countries.
According to local fishers, sea turtles used to be found much more commonly in the seagrass beds surrounding Phu Quoc Island. Other rare species, like the dugong, also used to frequent the area. However, due to habitat loss and the expansion of local fisheries, these species have become increasingly rare.
Though the sea turtle trade is banned, when trawl boats catch the turtles they fishers sell them rather than return them to the sea. Seeing the massive animal — it must have been 70 kilograms — flailing upside-down on the dock, I was shocked and couldn’t control the tears that started to roll down my cheeks. My host auntie grabbed my arms and shook me, concerned, while the boys laughed at me.
“Thanh,” I said. “Please tell them I will do anything if they will put the sea turtle back in the water. Anything.”
But there wasn’t anything I could do — by the morning, the sea turtle had been chopped up for soup and other delicacies. I politely declined our invitation to the feast, and we continued on to the next fishing village to continue conducting seahorse research.
Riding along on my motorbike, I passed a giant billboard made by Wildlife at Risk, an NGO that is dedicated to the long-term conservation of Vietnam’s threatened biodiversity. Wildlife at Risk aims to combat the illegal wildlife trade and promote the conservation of endangered species and their habitats. Despite their best efforts, Wildlife at Risk has a tough job — ending illegal wildlife trade is an immensely difficult task. Nevertheless, I got in touch with them and gave them every detail I could about the green turtle that had been caught.
During the four months I spent on Phu Quoc Island, that was the only sea turtle I saw bought and consumed by ocals. But I heard stories about other turtles being poached, and I struggled to understand how people could ignore the fact that these animals are endangered.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Thanh explained to me me that as species become increasingly rare, they become more valuable and a greater statement of wealth. So my host family purchased the green turtle as a symbol of their prosperity, and shared it with many people in their community. Attitudes toward conservation vary hugely from place to place, and convincing people that protecting threatened species is better than poaching them isn’t always an easy task. As conservationists, we have our work cut out for us.
Follow Ally Stocks on Twitter @Ally_Stocks.
We have a lot to learn from fishers.
There is a tendency in marine science and conservation — particularly in China, where I work, but in many countries — to overlook the wisdom and experience of these people who actually spend the most time on the water, working with fish. Instead we must look to the “experts,” the biologists and ecologists. Or so the thinking goes.
As a fish “expert” myself (I’m a doctoral student with Project Seahorse), the more I research I do, the more I realize how little I know about fish compared to the local fishers I’ve worked with. During my graduate study in China (2010-2013, before joining P.S.), I spent four months per year doing fisheries surveys in the Upper Yangtze River. Tens of thousands of fishers live on this highly productive river. During that period, I visited them at local fishing ports every morning and surveyed their overnight catches. Most of the fishers were in their 40s to 60s, and have fished for more than two decades. I was always surprised by the fact that they could name the species of every fish they caught without a second glance. They knew when and where the different fish species reproduce, what habitats they prefers, and if and when they migrate — the kind of things we scientists spend our professional lives trying to understand!
Unfortunately, I soon realized that fishers’ knowledge is totally ignored in many places. Of course there are notable exceptions to this, with journals like Marine Policy and some researchers publishing pioneering work on how to incorporate local knowledge into scientific studies; but in China, for example, scientists tend to dismiss these methods as non-scientific, and rarely tap into fishers’ knowledge as a result. I’m puzzled about why this is.
For my doctoral work on the conservation of Chinese seahorses, I still insist on learning from local fishers. As I learned during a recent research trip, they are an incredible resource when it comes to finding seahorses, since many have spent decades fishing and “studying” these rare creatures. They can tell which habitats seahorses use by checking substrate scraps trapped in the net. I’m very grateful for their generosity and do my best to draw on their knowledge in a scientific way.
If only more government and policymakers would take fishers seriously. More than one colleague has told me that although Western governments in theory allow fishers to participate in policymaking, few actually pay attention to what fishers say. In China fishers have even less input. And as a result, they ignore the policies that do get created, leaving many laws just words on paper.
As I continue my work, I’m increasingly convinced that fisheries governance will never be effective without fishers’ participation, marine conservation cannot be advanced without fishers' support.
Xiong Zhang is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.
Dr. Danika Kleiber recently completed a PhD on gender and fisheries with Project Seahorse. Over the next little while she’ll be documenting her post-doctoral life here on the blog.
I submitted the final version of my PhD thesis from a coffee shop in Missoula, Montana. I’d promised my partner that we would spend the autumn in his hometown as we figured out where life would take us next, and Missoula was a scenic stop on our way to Corner Brook, Newfoundland. I was done my doctorate and now I was moving into my in-laws’ basement in a remote part of Canada. Yikes. (Important note: my in-laws are wonderful and generous people and I am very grateful for their willingness to put us up/put up with us. Hi, guys!)
The good news is that a basement can be a great place to figure out your next move. In November, out of the blue, WorldFish, an international research agency, asked me if I could do a short contract for them. They had received my CV from my colleague Dr. Yoshitaka Oda, who had asked for it in passing as I packed up my office at UBC’s Fisheries Centre and prepared for the cross-country move. Which goes to show you that opportunity takes many different forms.
WorldFish emailed me on a Thursday and wanted me to show up in Bangladesh the following Monday. It was a sudden and exciting opportunity. I figured I should keep my options open, so on the way out the door I applied for yet another job, a post-doc position at Memorial University. Four flights and 36 hours later, I landed in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
The first part of my contract was to participate in a consultative workshop of fisheries stakeholders. WorldFish was starting a five-year program to improve the sustainability of small-scale fisheries in Bangladesh. I was there because gender was on the agenda. I sat there hoping my PhD would prepare me to contribute to a workshop on a fishery I had only just started to read about, and a culture that I had never experienced before.
The lessons I’d learned from my doctoral work were immediately useful. When alternative livelihoods were discussed as an important way to ease fishing pressure, I asked if that assumption was going to be tested because it wasn’t necessarily an effective strategy, as research has shown (thank you, Dr. Nick Hill). And when they formulated the project as comprising three pillars — science, management, and social issues — I had the critical background to realize that the strategy would be better reformulated to account for the scale and the connections between these different issues, something akin to Project Seahorse’s Onion World philosophy.
The second and perhaps completely unsurprising legacy of my PhD was the confidence it has given me. After the workshop, I made a five-day field visit to cities and villages in Southern Bangladesh. I was given very little information about the plan or purpose of the trip so my mantra quickly became “roll with it.” When visiting a fishing community our host suddenly turned to me and told me I could join a group of women to ask them questions. Our sightseeing trip had rapidly morphed into a rapid assessment. Great. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask.
When for the third time in a community meeting I noticed that the women were standing behind us like colorful wallpaper, I insisted that our chairs be turned so we could face the carefully maintained divide between women and men head on. And at every meeting with government fisheries officials I did not hesitate to ask how they incorporated women and men into their community engagement efforts.
I came back to Corner Brook two weeks later with a head full of ideas and an interview scheduled for the post-doc position at Memorial University.
|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|
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|
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.
Congratulations to Els Van Den Borre, Roberto Strafella, and Salvador J.R. Lao, this year's grand prize winner and two finalists for Guylian's Seahorses of the World Photo Competition! Here are their photos, re-posted for your viewing pleasure alongside images from the award ceremony at the Nelos Underwater Video and Photography Festival in Ghent, Belgium on Nov. 29, 2014. Thanks again to all who participated!
|Els Van Den Borre's grand prize-winning photo of a Denise's pygmy seahorse (H. denise). Bali, Indonesia.|
|Finalist Roberto Strafella's photo of a long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Taranto, Italy.|
|Finalist Salvador J.R. Lao's thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Anilao Batangas, Philippines.|
|Grand prize winner Els Van Den Borre (center) with Nelos organizer Ivo Madder (left), Guylian's Mieke Callebaut (right), and Project Seahorse's Dr. Lucy Woodall (far right).|
|Dr. Lucy Woodall gives a talk about iSeahorse, our pioneering citizen science tool for seahorse research and conservation.|
And here's the fifth and final batch of Guylian Seahorses of the World semi-finalists. Check back soon for the finalists and grand prize winner!
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Dahab, Egypt. Erik Geerts/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Dahab, Egypt. Luc Rooman/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Tiger tail seahorse (H. comes). Moalboal, Philippines. Jef Driesen/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Bargibant's pygmy seahorse (H. bargibanti). Dumagette, Philippines. Rudi Rombouts/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
Here's the fourth batch of Guylian Seahorses of the World semi-finalists:
|Bargibant's pygmy seahorse (H. bargibanti). Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Rudi Rombouts/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus). Taranto, Italy. Roberto Strafella/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Taranto, Italy. Roberto Strafella/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Tossa de Mare, Girona, Spain. Rafael Cosme Daza/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Lanveoc, Brittany, France. John de Jong/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
Here's the third batch of Guylian Seahorses of the World semi-finalists:
|Satomi's pygmy seahorse (H. satomiae). Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Massimo Giorgetta/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Anilao Batangas, Philippines. Salvador JR Lao/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Bargibant's pygmy seahorse (H. bargibanti). Lembeh Strait, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Dirk Crutelle/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Negros, Philippines. Koen Willemse/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Pantai Nama Slope, Indonesia. Harvey Buyst/Guylian Seahorses of the World|