On Conservation
The Project Seahorse Blog

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On Conservation is a regularly updated mix of field notes, expert commentary, and miscellanea about marine conservation by the Project Seahorse team. 

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1. Seahorses are marine fish with several life history characteristics hypothesized to make them resilient but are of conservation concern because of their international trade and habitat loss. 2....

Posted by Riley Pollom
23 Oct 2014

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. 

Posted by Ally Stocks
8 Oct 2014

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. 

Three captured seahorses.

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. 

Boats at shore.

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.

Posted by Jennifer Selgrath
29 Sep 2014

#OceanOptimism“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. 

Posted by Jennifer Selgrath
23 Sep 2014
Researcher Jenny Selgrath with 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.

Pygmy seahorses. Jan Azier/Guylian Seahorses of the WorldWhy 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.

Map #1. Jenny Selgrath/Project Seahorse

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.

Map #2. Jenny Selgrath/Project SeahorseFisher 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.

Posted by Lindsay Aylesworth
17 Sep 2014

In our latest Field Notes blog, Project Seahorse PhD student Lindsay Aylesworth reflects on her recent work in Thailand. 

Port sampling
Studying dried seahorse specimens caught by Thai fishers. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

1) First Day of Fisher Interviews & Port Sampling

Back in our first year of research (2013), we only found eight individual seahorses after three months of scuba diving. This time around, on our first day of fisher interviews and port sampling, one boat shared with us his catch of 24 seahorses! It was fascinating to see so many seahorses at once, and several species we had yet to see in our diving research!

2) Research Assistant Topsi

My research assistant Topsi, nicknamed Top, is literally the top, one the best research assistants I’ve ever had. She is a dive instructor and former Greenpeace activist who is always smiling. She was my research assistant for both research seasons, 2013 and 2014, and my work would not have been as successful without her.

Observing seahorses
Diving with hedgehog seahorses. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

3) Training Workshop at the Department of Fisheries

At the end of April, I and another colleague from Project Seahorse did a half-day training workshop with our research collaborator the Department of Fisheries (DoF). I was nervous that not many staff members would be at the workshop. Much to my surprise it turned out to be a huge success.

There were 26 participants representing over 12 provincial offices. Everyone was enthusiastic about the training, and asked questions during the practice identification session. The workshop content was most applicable to divers, but several staff approached us to discuss how the training might apply to their DoF port sampling procedures. It was a great workshop, not only supporting our collaboration here in Thailand, but also providing an important opportunity for capacity building with DoF staff!

4) Spotting twenty-two seahorses at Pattaya

Near Koh Pai Island, off Bangkok’s popular tourist beach Pattaya, we found 22 seahorses in a single day. All were hedgehog seahorses (Hippocampus spinosissimus), and almost all were holding onto pencil urchins like the one in this photo. Most of the seahorses we found were juveniles and we found as many as four on one urchin alone! A very exciting way to start our underwater work in the Gulf of Thailand!

Lindsay and Top
Lindsay (left) and her research assistant, Top (right). Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

5) Thailand Dive Expo

The Thailand Dive Expo (TDEX) is the largest Dive Expo in Thailand, held in Bangkok each year to promote Thailand’s travel and dive industries. The TDEX organizers chose this year’s theme to be “Super Seahorse,” and in doing so hosted a seahorse photo contest and invited me to speak as an expert about seahorse research in Thailand.

One of the most exciting parts of the Thailand Dive Expo was that, immediately upon walking in, I saw our HUGE seahorse ID guides! Produced by Project Seahorse and Shedd Aquarium, these guides are used by divers to identify local seahorse species. My assistant Top had translated them into Thai and shared them with the TDEX organizers, and now here they were, front and center, right at registration desk!

With the family of Bang Lee at Koh Pu
With the family of Bang Lee at Koh Pu. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

6) One of the Family with Bang Lee at Koh Pu

Top and I were welcomed into the family of a Muslim community leader on Koh Pu Island, in Krabi province, while doing research there on seahorses. Bang Lee is a conservation-minded community leader and in charge of the small-scale fishers group. He is actively involved in the community and provincial governments working to ensure the sustainability and health of the island, its habitats and people.

We stayed at his father’s house, which doubles as the village coffee shop. Located by the pier, it has a huge wraparound porch where community members gather to discuss the day’s events. His wife and daughter-in-law cooked delicious food – including pasta with squid ink sauce.

We found seahorses here in 2013 and 2014 in the seagrass beds around the island. The community is now using our seahorse information to support their efforts to protect the seagrass beds from the proposed coal power plant.

Tea with fishers
Afternoon tea with the fishers of Khuraburi. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

7) Afternoon Tea Parties with Fishers in Khuraburi

We received a festive welcome from the crab fishers of Khuraburi. They were excited to participate in our seahorse research and our host organized three days of afternoon tea parties where we could interview fishers, chat about seahorses, and answer their questions about life in North America.

One interesting fact we learned: a crab fisher in this village can make $10,000 baht (US $300) for one day of fishing in the monsoon season, whereas during the dry season they make only $1000 baht (US $30) per day. Although it’s more dangerous to fish in the monsoon due to strong winds and big waves, most of the fishers think it’s worth the effort.

8) Assistant Top Takes Charge in Ao Por

At one of our research sites in northern Phuket, Top moved from research assistant to researcher in charge while I traveled to Bangkok to take part in a training workshop. She oversaw an assistant to help collect data; she managed the budget, organized logistics, and best of all – she and her assistant found four tiger tail seahorses (H. comes) at that site! The icing on the cake was that she saw two of them breeding, a rare sight to observe in the wild. I was very proud that she had the training, skills and confidence to oversee research at this site while I was away. 

Lindsay being interviewed by Phuket Today
An interview with Phuket Today. Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

9) Interview with Phuket Today

My friend Isaac hosts a weekly magazine TV show called Phuket Today, and in April 2014 he did a segment on my seahorse research in Thailand. It’s about 12 minutes long, and we filmed it at the Phuket Aquarium. Phuket Today features the lively and diverse lifestyles of Phuket.

Featuring current news on local events, things to see, places to go and profiles of prominent island residents, Phuket Today informs and introduces viewers to the Pearl of the Andaman Coast, and reaches more than 4,000 hotel rooms around the island. 

10) iSeahorse Training Workshop in Pattaya

I joined two Project Seahorse team members - Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and Chai Apale from the Philippines – to host an iSeahorse training workshop for a group of enthusiastic divers in Pattaya.

As Project Seahorse colleagues and supporters will know, iSeahorse is an online database where people can report seahorse sightings. These data ultimately advance seahorse science and are translated into action in the form of increased protections for seahorse populations under threat. As part of this project, we’ve developed a training program for divers to teach them how to identify and search for seahorses, with the intended goal that divers will monitor their local seahorse populations over time.

Seafari and Dive Tribe became the first dive shops in Thailand to adopt an iSeahorse monitoring site. In April, three of us from Project Seahorse worked with these dive shops to host a training workshop, and increase the number of divers available for monitoring in the area. We trained 20 divers ranging from beginner to instructor level, both Thai and foreigners, in an awesome day of diving. One group found 14 seahorses in one dive! A big success for seahorses and a great way to kick off the iSeahorse monitoring program in Thailand.

Posted by Julia Lawson
9 Sep 2014

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, it's 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.

Posted by Jennifer Selgrath
29 Aug 2014

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.

Posted by Kyle Gillespie
26 Aug 2014

I hadn't planned on being there. In fact, I felt quite uncomfortable as the glare of the stage lights shone down upon me and a deep queasiness set in. This was not the type of scientific presentation I had grown accustomed to. No fancy figures, tables, or PowerPoint slides. No scientific jargon or mention of statistical models. Just words. A story describing a day in the field and the creatures I study. I was way out of the comfort zone in which I have lived for the past several years. There was no two ways about it — standing on that stage in front of the many expectant faces, I was nervous. 

Five days earlier I'd arrived ahead of the Third International Marine Conservation Congress for a scientific storytelling workshop. I was feeling rather smug. For every university science student, the elements of a science story are drilled in early and often: introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion. I was very familiar with the IMRDC (Introduction, Methodology, Results, Discussion, Conclusion) model. I knew my way around a science story. Things fell apart quickly for me on that first day of the workshop. It soon became clear that this system that we as scientists hold sacred will not be the tool that engages the decision makers and the general public. Don't get me wrong, IMRDC is an exceedingly important tool for communicating with fellow scientists, but it alone will not save the world.

Scientists need to be better storytellers. As marine conservation biologists we're in a privileged position: we have interesting stories about exciting marine locations or about the species we study. But we tend to go about explaining them in the most boring way possible: salinity this or turbidity that — hardly things that a policy maker or lay person wants to hear about. Heck, hardly things I want to hear about! Storytelling paints scenes in the mind and creates a connection between the listener and the cast of characters. Engaging the senses, having a story arc and creating a sense of empathy will help engage people in marine issues that are so often beneath the waves, out of sight and out of mind.

Back on the IMCC stage, I took a deep breath and began to speak. Using words and phrases I would never dream of using in a scientific paper I began to weave a story. The trepidation that I had been feeling quickly melted away as I saw people's faces light up on ways that even my most well thought out scientific figures never could. I was sold. Expect more stories from this guy. To be continued...

Kyle Gillespie is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.