Wearing a homemade mask, a boy searches for gastropod eggs.
A fisher shows off his catch. Many fishers wear masks and gloves to protect against jellyfish stings.
A boy and his family’s catch.
Outrigger fishing boats and a marine protected area guardhouse in the distance.
Expedition: Danajon Bank has wrapped up, but we’ll continue to post stories and photos in this space as we prepare for the launch of our international photo exhibition later this summer. More news coming soon!
As the island village of Guindacpan slides into view, we see raised bamboo platforms tumbling out from shore. Squatting and seated cross-legged atop these platforms are men and women, young and old. They sort huge piles of straggly red and green “weeds” to dry in the sun. This is seaweed – currently one of the most important economic resources for people on Danajon Bank.
We’re immediately surrounded by children who’ve spotted Claudio’s and Mike’s cameras. They’re incredibly excited by the prospect of getting their photo taken and strike instinctive poses. If we were here to document only the people of Danajon Bank, our job would certainly be very easy! Too bad the fish don’t pose so easily.
It’s mesmerizing to watching the villagers deftly sort the seaweed. The plants grown here unusual-looking, more like a branching gelatinous substance that easily snaps in your hand than the tough fronds that most of us are used to. But we’re more familiar with the species grown here than we may think. Once sun-dried, it’s sold to local traders who ship it to Cebu City, where in large factories it’s turned into a substance called ‘carrageenan.’
Inspecting the harvest.
But something tells us that won’t be a problem. With a price of around P10-50 per kg (depending on species), even the smallest frond is valuable. Everything is gathered up and sold. Seaweed is an important source of income for fishers who these days, thanks to overfishing, often struggle to catch enough fish for their families that day.
As we explore the seaweed farm, we notice loads of small to medium sized danggit and kitong hanging around near the seaweed farmers, grazing on whatever comes their way. These rabbitfishes (family Siganidae) are a locally very important foodfish that have been heavily exploited. But in these de facto marine protected areas the juveniles appear to be thriving.
Entire communities, including children and the elderly, work together to sort the seaweed crops.
Carrageenan used an ingredient found in all sorts of products that we use daily: cosmetics, food and drinks (including some of the local Filipino beers we’re keen on), pharmaceuticals, shoe polish, and pet food, along with hundreds of other products. Seaweed farming began here on Danajon Bank back in the 1970s, and has been an important and growing livelihood ever since, thanks to global demand for carrageenan. For many years, Philippines was the world’s largest producer of seaweed, and Danajon Bank one of the most productive areas. Now, Indonesia takes the crown.
To understand how the seaweed grows and where it comes from, we travelled on to Taglibas, an area of reef used by the people of a neighbouring village of Hambungan (we visited Hambungan earlier in the week). It’s difficult at first to spot the seaweed farm from the water, but a cluster of boats and a stretch of styrofoam gives the location away. Men and women on two boats are working hard to pull in the seaweed, trying to shake off some of the epiphytes as they work. It’s clear they’re nearing the end of their day’s labour, so we plunge straight into the crystal clear water and get to work.
Instantly we’re hit by two things. First, the sheer quantity of the seaweed, which sways in rows of long straggly pillars. Second, the amount of fish life hiding in and around the seaweed. As a farmer in goggles and wooden fins handles the crop, fronds break off and fall to the coral reef below. If too much seaweed ends up on the reef, blocking the sun, the corals will suffer.
Fronds covering corals beneath a seaweed farm. Left there, the plants can kill the corals by preventing sunlight from reaching them.
And it isn’t just rabbitfishes that are hiding away in here. As Claudio and Mike carefully navigate their way through the maize of fronds to position themselves for the best shots of the seaweed farmers at work, we see parrotfishes, batfish, cardinalfish and a host of small juvenile fish scatter and regroup under different fronds.
Seaweed farming can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s an important livelihood; on the other, careless farming can damage the reefs below, with issues such as trampling and shading threatening benthic habitat. However, our overwhelming impression is that it is better than many of the destructive practices in use on Danajon Bank – especially blast fishing. At least there is life here! What we need is to improve planning of seaweed farming to ensure environmental impacts are limited.
A diver secures seaweed to a line.
The sheer quantity of seaweed on the two boats and the frenzied work of the seaweed farmers point towards the economic importance of seaweed. Fishing is like a cash machine in the sea – providing opportunities for instant cash returns. But with the high population densities and declining catches, it rarely provides enough income for a daily basis, and certainly no opportunities to build savings. Whereas seaweed farming functions more like an investment account.
The crop takes 40-50 days to grow, and growth is exponential. Assuming that there are no problems (e.g. typhoons, stealing), they aren’t plagued by a disease called ice-ice (baby), and they have the guts to leave it the full 40-50 days, returns on investment can be substantial. There are some very successful seaweed farmers here!
Not surprisingly, commercial companies have, on occasion, attempted set up operations on the reef. So far, none has been approved, and for good reason. The presence of large-scale operators would threaten the livelihoods of local people and likely result in even more overfishing. Increased protections for the whole of Danajon Bank will prevent this grim possibility, and give the people at least some security.
Kids idling on a boat.
Children swimming near Hambungon, a fishing village on the central part of Danajon Bank.
Outrigger pump-boats at dusk.
Women gleaning for shells and gastropod eggs at low tide.
Photographer Luciano Candisani at work.
Children diving for gastropod eggs at low tide.
Over half a million people call Danajon Bank home. They live in coastal villages and on the tiny, teeming islands that dot the bank. All, or nearly all of them depend on the reef for food and income. It’s not an easy living. Overfishing is a problem, and over the years it has become harder and harder for people to catch enough food to eat and sell.
Out of necessity, fishers get creative. Some resort to fishing practices that can harm the reef, such as blasting, cyanide fishing, and trawling. Others find ways to live sustainably off Danajon Bank. Every community fishes, but some have adopted seaweed farming or established no-take marine reserves, practices that can (but, it has to be admitted, don’t always) reduce human impact on the ecosystem. Project Seahorse and other, local organizations have been working for years with communities to establish new reserves and sustainability in general.
One thing’s for certain: The communities of Danajon Bank are as vibrant as any coral reef. A great time to visit is at low tide, usually around dusk, when families go out together on the hunt for treats left behind when the water retreats from shore. Mainly it’s mothers and children, but fathers sometimes join too. They search the tidal pools and dig up the wet sand in search of crabs, gastropods, and other small, delectable sea creatures.
A woman gleans gleans for shellfish
Expedition photographers Mike Ready, Claudio Contreras Koob, and Luciano Candisani spent days with the fishing villages of Danajon Bank. They documented this practice, which is known as gleaning. They visited seaweed farmers and marine reserves, they met net fishers and free divers and everyone in between. Here are a few of their photos:
A fisher shows his catch. Dwindling fish stocks means fishers must catch smaller and smaller fish.
A boy wears a homemade mask.
A fisher mends his net.
Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.
The tiny island of Hambungon looks like a typical Danajon Bank fishing village. Ramshackle houses spill onto the beach and outrigger boats bob over the blue shallows just beyond. Women mend nets in the bright morning sun.Dogs bark, roosters crow, and kids chase each other across the sand. What sets Hambungon apart from other villages is that it’s home to a thriving — and, unusually, sustainable— trade in aquarium fishes.
This week, the expedition team paid a visit to Hambungon’s barangay captain, or elected chief. “Max,” as he calls himself, runs a small but important community fishery that targets reef fishes and invertebrates for sale to exporters in nearby Cebu City. Unlike many fishers in Danajon Bank, Max’s team of divers only collects species designated as sustainable by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) of the Philippines.
An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.
Max leads us to a covered space. He’s a friendly middle-aged man, quick to make a joke. When he laughs, which is often, his deeply tanned faces wrinkles with amusement. Here, twenty-five or thirty basins are fed by water pipes. Each contains something different. We see anemonefishes, colourful nudibranchs, small jellyfishes, a pair of electric blue mandarinfishes. Max picks out an eel and, gently lifting it out of the water, lets it slither through his fingers back into the basin.
“Moray,” he says. “Juvenile.”
He explains that his divers, a team of village boys aged 15 to about 25, have been trained by MAC to identify and avoid marine species vulnerable to overfishing, and to catch their target species in such away as to avoid serious harm.
Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.
Our tour’s piece de resistance is a scorpionfish. The craggy, brown-and-orange-flecked scorpionfish is famous for two things: One, its ability to blend in among corals and on the seabed, and two, its excrutiating venom. Max very carefully ‘milks’ the fish by pressing on its venom duct. A blueish white substance jets out from one of its spiky protrusions. He jumps back.
“You do not want to step on that fish!” he says, laughing.
The divers soon arrive on a pump-boat, carrying their morning catch. Clad in balclavas and long shirts to protect them from jellyfish stings, they look like a clan of soggy ninjas. Their catch buckets brim with silvery baggies filled with fish. The animals are catalogued and dumped into the basins. There are anemone fishes, mystic ras, boxfishes, a lionfish, nudibranchs, a frogfish, another scorpionfish, a long-snout butterflyfish, and more.
An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.
The animals will be sold to a distributor in Cebu for anywhere between 10 and 100 pesos, or about $0.25 to $2.50 each. Compared to the retail prices the animals can fetch — a blue mandarinfish that sells for less than a dollar here can eventually be resold in stores for up to US $100 — it doesn’t seem like much. But the sustainable aquarium trade provides an important source of income for the fishers, and, even more importantly, an alternative to other, more destructive kinds of fishing.
Whether the divers always follow the sustainability guidelines is another question. We spot a tiger-tail seahorse, a threatened species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, in one of the catch buckets. When Luciano points it out, a diver quickly returns the seahorse to the sea. But given how valuable seahorses are — a single animal is worth the equivalent of a kilogram of rice, enough to feed a family for a few days — you can imagine how difficult it would be for fishers to resist temptation now and then.
The following day, expedition photographers Tom Peschak and Luciano Candisani return to Hambungon before dawn to document the divers at work on the reef a few hundred meters beyond the village. It quickly becomes clear why it’s a young man’s game: Aquarium fishing is hard work.
Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.
Everyone freedives using only homemade wooden flippers, swimming down as far as seven meters to reach the reef. Small, weighted nets are set near coral heads on the one dive, and on the next, fish are coralled into the mesh. Next, the net is scooped and closed and prized species are transferred into baggies. In between the divers jet to the surface for lungfuls of air.
One diver proudly brandishes his catch for Luciano. You can see the smile in his eyes through his mask. The baggie shines like quicksilver in the sunlight seeping down through the blue water. A large anemone fish squirms inside. The day’s first iconic photo.
This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.
After four or five hours, the day’s work is finished, and the aquarium fishers say goodbye. They chug off in their pump boat, destined for home.“Unbelievable,” Luciano says, shaking his head. “Tom and I were swimming with professional gear and we couldn’t keep up with those guys. I’m in good shape, but compared to them, no way.”
A seaweed farmer gathers his crop near Hambongan, Danajon Bank, Philippines. It will be dried and then eaten or sold. Seaweed farming is an important livelihood in the region. Photo by Luciano Candisani/iLCP.
More photos of Danajon Bank’s wild array of reef fishes from expedition photographers Michael Ready and Claudio Contreras. Today the duo is headed out to explore the seagrass beds and mangrove forests that circle some of the tiny islands on the inner part of the reef.
Watch this space for more great biodiversity as well as stories by the entire team on community-run marine protected areas, the sustainable aquarium trade, and blast fishing, where fishers using dynamite to blow up sections of the reef for larger catches.
Unidentified crab species