Musings on the 4th Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium

downloadI am writing this blog while in transit in Kuala Lumpur, traveling from Cebu (the Philippines) to Perth. I was in Cebu to attend the Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium (APCRS 2018). In the past I have written about the reasons why as a scientist I like visiting conferences, such as IPFC or ICRS. Those reasons have not changed: hearing about new research, meeting up with colleagues and friends, discussing new collaborations, and sharing my own research with people working on similar topics.

What was different atthis conference, is that it was my first international conference after submitting my PhD thesis. This was also the first time that I was invited as a  keynote speaker (for a mini-symposium that was part of the bigger conference). The conference had a strong regional focus, so many of the people attending conduct their research in the same region as I do. So there were a lot more opportunities for developing new collaborative projects than on larger conferences.

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Presenting my first keynote on the Sustainable Coral Reef mini-Symposium parallel to APCRS 2018 (Photo credit: Sugbu Turismo)

Here are some of my impressions while the last days are still fresh in mind….kind of fresh at least, the conference organisation was very generous in the amount of free San Miguel beer provided at the dinner last night 😉

More than other conferences I attended, APCRS 2018 had a strong management and practical feel to it. Many conversations I had and most of the presentations I heard had a strong underlying theme of developing solutions that could actually be used for managing reefs. What really made it interesting was that not only scientists, but also some managers and conservation organisations were presenting their work. I might be a bit too optimistic, but I feel that in the last years, many of the idealistic, but completely unrealistic ideas are being replaced by a more realistic approach that does not turn a blind eye to the real problems.

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Presenters of the Sustainable Coral Reef Tourism session (Photo credit: Sugbu Turismo)

Talking about how to use research results for management with the people working for organisations like Reefcheck, GreenFins, or CMAS was sometimes confronting, but also a great way to start having an impact beyond mere suggestions in scientific papers. Besides discussing future projects that will result in helping management, I also had some very inspiring talks with other researchers. If all goes well, the end of 2018 could become even more fun than I already expected. Hopefully more on that later!

There was another interesting theme that kept on coming back through many of the conversation I had: “What are we trying to achieve as scientists?” Or even more fundamental: “Why are we REALLY doing what we do”? It might seem obvious; most scientific papers will state that one way or another they want to understand the world better, and usually that they want to make a positive difference. But it can be interesting to ask if that’s what we are really doing? To what extent are we actually making a difference, or just following our curiosity? Are we willing to do the extra effort that is needed to truly have a positive impact? Or are we sometimes forgetting about the world beyond academia and writing papers because that is what you do when you want a career in science?

There is no judgement in any of these motivations, most of the scenarios are equally valuable. But realising why you do the research that you do, might help you to be more focused and get the results you aim for. At least it does for me…

This conference was probably one of the most productive and inspirational conferences I have attended since I started my PhD in 2014. I am very much looking forward to the next one in Singapore in 2022, and the new projects that I’ll be working on in between!

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Audience at the sustainable tourism session – APCRS 2018 (Photo credit: Sugbu Turismo)

 

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New publication: Finding the species that make a muck diver tick

Now that my PhD thesis has been submitted, it is time to start blogging again! In the very near future I will write a new blog about this whole PhD-writing experience, but for now I will tell you about a new paper that has been published recently in the scientific journal Ocean and Coastal Management.

The paper, “Known unknowns: Conservation and research priorities for soft sediment fauna that supports a valuable scuba diving industry“, describes which species are most important to muck dive tourism, and how much research and conservation work has been done on them. I investigated this using a specific method that is pretty new and has not been used in conservation work until now.

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Who doesn’t like a frogfish (Antennarius pictus)?

Since these the method and the results will be of interest to different people, this blog is split in two parts:

  1. How did I do the research?
  2. What are the results?

If you are a scuba diver, a dive professional, a travel agent or otherwise mostly interested in the cute animals, it’s completely fine to head straight to number two (even though you will be missing out). If you are a resource manager, work for an NGO, are interested in marketing, or conduct research on flagship species, definitely read the first part of this blog as well!

First section: the Best – Worst Scaling method and why everyone should start using it

wwf-logoIt is important to first think about why anyone would care about which species are important to muck dive tourism, or any kind of tourism by extension. The obvious answer would be “marketing”, if you know which species attract the tourists, you can use them in your advertising and that way attract more tourists. If that is too capitalistic for you, remember that dive tourism provides (mostly) sustainable incomes to thousands of people around the world. But there is more, people might not visit a destination, but still care very deeply about certain species. This principle has been used (very successfully) by many conservation organisations to set up fundraising campaigns. The best known example is probably the World Wildlife Fund, which uses the panda bear as a logo, even if they are trying to protect many more species.

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Blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena sp.) are popular with divers, maybe because of the cuteness combined with its deadly bite?

With that in mind, how do you find out which are the animals that people care about? You can obviously just ask people what they like, get them to make a list of top 5 animals, rank a number of animals in preferred order, give scores to certain animals, etc. But there are some serious problems with most of these methods such as:

  • They are not always reliable, since some people will be consistently more or less positive, or have cultural biases, throwing off your scaling
  • They can be very labour-intensive (=expensive) to properly design and collect data on
  • Statistical analyses of the results are usually very hard to get right
  • It is very difficult to say how the preferences vary between different groups of people (male-female, age, nationality, etc.)

To overcome these issues, we used the “Best-Worst scaling method” and compared it to a traditional survey. This method has been around for a few years, but is mostly used in food marketing (wine!) and patient care in medical research. The big benefit of Best-Worst scaling is that doing the stats is really easy, and without too much extra effort you can also easily interpret how different groups have different preferences.

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Flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) might not be popular with researchers, but divers love them!

Without going into too much detail, the basic design of Best-Worst scaling is that you ask people what they would like MOST and LEAST from a fixed set of animals (or any other thing you are investigating). There are plenty of online platforms (we used Qualtrics) that allow you to design this kind of question, so it’s quick, easy and cheap. Getting results is as simple as subtracting the amount of times an animal was picked as most preferred and the number of times it was least preferred.

Figure 1

Example of a Best-Worst Scaling question

The reason I am describing this method here, is that it is just not known enough in the conservation, or even tourism world. It has the potential to allow all kinds of organisations with limited funding (NGOs, marine parks, or even dive centers) to investigate why people would visit / where they will go / what they care about. Which, eventually, might lead to more research and conservation on those species.

Second section: Which species drive muck dive tourism?

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The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), number 1 on many muck divers’ wish list

The results of the surveys won’t come as a shock for avid muck divers or people in dive tourism, but do seem to surprise from people unfamiliar with muck diving. Here is the top 10:

  1. Mimic octopus / wunderpus
  2. Blue ringed octopus
  3. Rhinopias
  4. Flamboyant cuttlefish
  5. Frogfish
  6. Pygmy seahorses
  7. Other octopus species (e.g. Mototi octopus)
  8. Rare crabs (e.g. Boxer crabs)
  9. Harlequin shrimp
  10. Nudibranchs

While other species such as seahorses or ghostpipefishes are also important to muck divers, a dive location that does not offer the potential to see at least a few of the top 10 species is unlikely to attract many divers.

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Nudibranchs (Tambja sp.) are always popular with photographers

Some differences did occur between diver groups of divers. Older and experienced divers seemed more interested in rare shrimp than other groups. The preferences of starting divers was poorly defined, but their dislikes were most pronounced than experienced divers. Photographers in particular are interested in species like the mimic octopus, potentially because of their interesting behaviour, although that would have to be investigated in a follow-up study.

The final step of our study was to look at how much we know about the animals most important for muck dive tourism. The answer is simple: not much. For most species researchers have not yet investigated if they are threatened, or not enough is known about them to assess their risk of extinction. It does not look like this will chance soon either. The combined amount of research conducted on the top 10 species in the last 20 years is less than 15%  of the numbers of papers published on bottlenose dolphins (1 species) in the same time. Which are not threatened by extinction in case you were wondering. To give you another comparison, from 1997 until now, 2 papers have been published on the flamboyant cuttlefish, compared to more than 3000 on bottlenose dolphins.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should stop researching dolphins, but perhaps it is time that some of the research effort and conservation money is also invested in the critters that make muck divers tick?

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Harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera elegans), popular with divers AND the aquarium trade

Fish nerds, critters, sharks and shirts

As I have written before, attending scientific conferences is an important aspect of working as a researcher. One of the benefits of being a marine scientist is that these conferences tend to take you to nice places (Hawaii for example), and this was proven once again at the 10th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference (IPFC), which just finished in Tahiti.

IMG_7936IPFC is the largest fish-focused conference in the Indo-Pacific region, and is held once every 4 years. This year was the 10th time it was organised, with more than 500 fish nerds scientists joining the fray. It is hard to explain to non-scientists just why these conferences (IPFC in particular) are such interesting events. They’re obviously good for learning about the newest research in your field, but it is also a great chance to catch up with old friends, or to meet the experienced researchers whose research you might know inside out, but have never actually met. It feels a bit like getting to mingle with the “celebrities” of the marine biology world. Besides celebrities and old friends, fish conferences are also THE BEST excuse in the world to whip out your finest/loudest fish themed shirts!

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Fish nerds rocking the fish-themed clothing at IPFC in Tahiti!

From a scientific point of view, some of my conference highlights were:

  • A big session with multiple talks dedicated to cryptobenthic fishes. It was fantastic to meet more people who study similar oddballs as I do, learn more about their research, and discuss important future research steps.
  • Hearing really bad news about how we are still overfishing most fish-stocks and how government subsidies make this problem much worse.
  • Then hearing good news on how well-managed marine protected areas have helped shark numbers in Australia recover from overfishing.
  • Plenty of new  and exciting developments in understanding the behaviour of fish larvae (I’m not even being ironic here, it’s awesome science, trust me!).
  • Learning more about why deep sea fishes look so weird and how their looks change with depth.
  • Thought-provoking questions on how to deal with oil and gas platforms in the sea after the wells run dry.
  • Finding out that parrotfish are a bit like hamsters, storing excess food in their cheeks while they’re feeding.
  • An important and super-interesting session that focused on women in marine science, which are (unfortunately) still underrepresented in our field.
  • The enormous kindness and willingness of experienced scientists to help and encourage the new generation.

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Squadron of blacktip reef sharks

Obviously while we were in Tahiti, we did more than just sit and talk about fish. We also went exploring to see what Tahiti had to offer and to find some actual fish. And oh boy, the fish we found!!! I might find a lot of very cool small critters for my research, but I rarely come across big sharks. During a shark dive just off Tahiti we saw 3 big tiger sharks, joined by a whole lot of other sharks for good measure. While tiger sharks are obviously not quite as interesting as small critters, they are impressive, awesome, and beautiful beasts! And while they get big (close to 4 meter), I did not feel worried about getting attacked at any point. They are undoubtedly top predators, but far from the monsters the media would like to make them out to be.

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Two tiger sharks and a blacktip reef shark

Besides sharks, we were also lucky to see humpback whales (from the boat), and went exploring on land. I’m sure you won’t be surprised if I tell you that Tahiti is a stunning place. Waterfalls all around, jungle, ocean, waves, super friendly people,… So you can imagine that this week I was mostly wandering around with a big grin on my face. On top of this, Tahiti is also a great place if you like tattoos, and I was very (very!) tempted to get a new one done here, but managed to stop myself. Only just though, so it’s probably a good thing that I am leaving tomorrow 😉

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Happy fish nerds exploring Tahiti’s beaches

So what next? I am writing up the last chapters of my PhD-thesis, so the search for new challenges (postdoctoral research!) is slowly getting started. There is more good news as well, an article on my biofluorescence research just got accepted in the journal Conservation Biology, so you can expect a new blog about that paper soon. But before that, a new guestblog is coming up that delves deep into the world of frogfishes…

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View over Moorea

Seahorse and pipefish blog collection

syngbioI am currently in Florida at the University of Tampa, to attend Syngbio 2017. Syngbio is the global conference about Syngnathidae. “Syngnathidae” is the scientific name for the group of animals that consists of seahorses, pipefishes, etc. The conference is being attended by over 100 experts from across the world, who are discussing topics ranging from behaviour, to genetics, husbandry and conservation.

Once the conference is over, I will write a blog about the main conclusions of the conference. But since I am currently in a syngnathid mind-set, I figured it made sense to have a look at previous blog posts I wrote about seahorses and their relatives and combine them for anyone interested to learn more about these fascinating animals.

  • Little known seahorse facts: an overview of interesting facts about seahorses you might not have heard of before
  • Winged pipefish: one of my favourite pipefish species that I feel deserves more attention
  • Seadragons and other critters found in the cold waters around Sydney
  • Ruby seadragons, deep sea seahorses and other critters beyond the reach of divers
  • Keeping seahorses in tanks: a rant on how I struggled keeping West Australian seahorses in tanks. Read this blog if you are considering keeping seahorses in tanks yourself
  • Ornate ghostpipefish: ghostpipefishes are gorgeous animals, but very understudied. This blog is an overview of what we know about the ornate ghostpipefish.
  • Fluo seahorses: A photo compilation of some of the fluoresence work I’ve done, including fluo seahorse shots

Seadragon