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!

Fishy shirts

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.

Blacktips

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.

Tigers

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 😉

IMG_0332

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…

IMG_7377b

View over Moorea

New publication: Big bucks for small critters

One of the most important chapters of my research has recently been published in the journal Marine Policy. The paper explains that scuba dive tourism focused on small critters (“muck diving”) has a very high value and how muck diving can be a sustainable alternative to more destructive uses of the environment. This is the link to the paper, but since it is behind a paywall, is rather detailed and perhaps a bit to dry for those of you who are not economists, below is a summary that is easier to digest.

Seahorse_muck

A typical muck diving scene: a sandy bottom with few defining features. In the foreground an Estuary seahorse (Hippocampus kuda) holding on to algae (Photo by Dragos Dumitrescu).

If you don’t know what muck diving is, I invite you to have a look through this site to get a feel for it. But in short: muck diving is scuba diving in sandy areas, usually without coral or other landscape features. The goal is to find weird critters (like flamboyant cuttlefish or hairy frogfish)  that you’d rarely see on normal dive sites. It is very popular in places like Lembeh Strait and Dauin in Southeast Asia, but it is done by divers and photographers all over the world.

Typical for muck diving is that the people doing it are very experienced, with an average of 580 logged dives. Most of them (73.5%) use underwater cameras, often the expensive dSLR cameras, to photograph all the weirdness down there. Many of the divers are well-educated and have a high yearly incomes. Importantly, most divers would be willing to pay for marine conservation if it benefits the species they come to see.

So what does it matter if some fanatic divers like to spend their holidays rooting through the sand instead of cruising by pretty coral reefs? Well, for starters, those fanatic divers spend a combined whopping $152 million per year in Indonesia and Philippines alone. The real value is probably much higher, as this estimate is only for dive centres that specialise in muck diving, and does not include liveaboards or more general dive centres that visit muck dive sites. The real value could be over $200 million per year! Also bear in mind that this number is for Indonesia and Philippines only, it does not include muck dive tourism in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, or the rest of the world. With more than 100,000 divers visiting Indonesia and the Philippines to go muck diving, you would expect to get the attention of people managing tourism or ocean resources. Especially since many of the divers said they would not have visited the region, or even the country, if they could not muck dive.

OrnateGhostPipe_RedBlack_Diver

Diver and Ornate ghostpipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) in Dauin, Philippines

While these numbers might not change anything in your life, they make a huge difference for the thousands of local people that work in this branch of the dive industry. Muck diving is often done in remote locations with limited other forms of income besides fishing. Working as a dive guide and looking at fish is not only more sustainable than catching fish, it also pays a lot better. Roughly $51 million is paid in wages to the local staff working in muck dive tourism annually, and dive guides can earn nearly 3 times more than the minimum wages in the area….

Just stop and think about that for a minute. Imagine the minimum wage in your own country, now triple it. Got the number? OK, now imagine this choice: you can either make that amount by showing cool animals to divers, or you can work your ass off in a factory or risk your life fishing for a third of that amount. Small wonder that many people prefer the first choice, which is great news for marine life in the area, because it means less people fishing and more people trying to protect this valuable source of income.

photo-05

The future generation of muck dive guides? Not without a healthy ocean (Photo: Luke Gordon)

That is what it comes down to in the end, protecting these extremely interesting and valuable ecosystems. Make no mistake, muck sites can be threatened as well. Coral reefs might bleach because of climate change, mangroves might be cut to make space for shrimp ponds and seagrass might be dredged to mine for sand, but sandy habitats could face other risks with equally bad consequences. All the habitats above receive far more research and conservation attention than the “barren” sandy sites in the tropics. If this paper proves anything, it is that soft sediment habitats have a very high value, and that it should get more attention to avoid loosing amazing biodiversity and the subsequent loss of income for the thousands of people that depend on it.

And that does not even consider loosing that feeling of pure joy when you finally find a critter you’ve dreamed of seeing for years 😉

Luke_Snoot_Black Hairy

Muck diving scene: a diver (the science hobbit) taking a picture of a frogfish (black Hairy frogfish – Antennarius striatus)

Why the ocean matters and why we should talk more about how awesome it is…

This week I attended the CommOcean 2016 conference in Belgium. CommOcean was all about marine science communication and what the best ways are for marine scientists to interact with the general public. Science communication is about more than just reaching non-scientists, but also about making an impact and transforming how people perceive the ocean, it’s about making a positive change. But why would anyone really care about the ocean, or even more, change their day-to-day behaviour for it? A question particularly relevant if you live far away from the sea or don’t have a taste for fish.

15317838_337598576633265_7576656498167989292_n

The CommOcean2016 crowd in front of the beautiful conference venue in Bruges

The thing is, the ocean matters big time, for everyone, everywhere. On a global scale, the ocean produces more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe (more than trees!). If breathing isn’t your thing, the ocean also provides other trivial things such as food, cures to certain cancers and other diseases, a way to transport most goods around the globe (90% of international trade), and so much more. Current human impacts such as climate change can and will have effects on everyone, even those living furthest away from the sea.

For the people fortunate enough to live close to the coast, the ocean is even more important. Over 1 billion people depend on the sea as their main source of protein, which explains why overfishing is such a big issue. Besides food, the sea also provides a way to make a living as fishermen, through trade, industry, or tourism (muck diving being only one example). For people living on low islands, rising sea levels are a very real and very large threat. Entire countries might sink below the ocean and will have to move elsewhere. Countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati are already negotiating with Australia about possibilities to move their entire population there. Popular holiday destination Maldives has even gone further and is already buying up land in other countries to prepare for relocating its people.

Communicating ocean science is often challenging when people aren’t faced with the ocean in a way the Maldivians or other islanders are. Not being able to see what is below the waves might be the biggest challenge to get people to care about our oceans. It is hard to comprehend  just how amazing life in the sea can be without diving in it, or without the help of talented filmmakers and photographers to show us.

The fact that many scientists are still perceived to live in their “ivory tower of knowledge”, without interacting with people does not help either. The issues facing the oceans are often more complicated than those on land and often seem overwhelming. If the only news people hear about the oceans is bad news, they won’t be keen to listen to the yet another doomsday talk. Most marine scientists are not trained to be communicators and are often too worried about oversimplifying their message, resulting in nuanced, scientifically correct communication that is unfortunately understand by nobody else but scientists. Lastly, in a world where Twitter, Facebook, etc. are increasingly the main source of information for people, it is hard to get attention with a science message. After all, who wants to read about weird fish, if you could be reading about what a Kardashian had for breakfast or that your favourite soccer player went wild on a party last night?

15380513_10154757504941565_3592208402805027098_n

Rita Steyn explaining the ins and outs of Twitter

So what is the solution? How do you get the message across that the oceans matter? I’m in no way an expert, but luckily there were experts around at CommOcean. The first step is to adapt you message to the people you are talking to, don’t go wild on the crazy science talk, have a clear message. (in case you forgot: “Oceans are awesome! Get the news out there!“). Ideally try to interact directly with the people to whom your research is important, stop talking over people’s heads and listen to what they care about. Using social media is a good thing, but do it right and don’t get stuck on just one method. Not everyone uses Twitter or visits websites about science, many people don’t have smartphones and might prefer written media, etc. Don’t forget that humans are visual animals, presenting your message in a more attractive way than dry text will get more attention.

 

Lastly, maybe most importantly, don’t forget to give the good news. There might be a load of bad news out there, but the ocean is still a beautiful place, something I feel everyone should know about too. Telling people about the beauty that can be found and offering practical tips on how to do something about protecting it can go a long way.

In the long run, what we really need is ocean science to become ingrained in all levels of education. As one of the most important ecosystems in our world, the ocean deserves more attention. After all, as long as people are not aware of the importance of the ocean (and the issues facing it), they cannot change their attitudes about the ocean and they will definitely not change their behaviour to preserve it.

15391398_10157926887225473_5668082405720644482_o

PS: In the spirit of using different communication channels, crittersresearch is now also live on twitter as @DeBrauwerM.

PS: All photos sourced from the CommOcean2016 Facebook page

 

Photo Story: Hidden Treasures Amongst the Muck – Guestblog by Luke Gordon

Luke

Time to kick of December with a new guestblog, this one by none other than my good friend and science hobbit Luke Gordon! Luke is a very talented photographer whom I’ve been having ocean adventures with for many years. He is currently based in Canada, but continues his photography work there. Increasingly he uses his art as more than mere beautiful pictures, but instead uses it to tell important stories about ocean conservation issues. You really should have a look at his site, but until you do, here is an introduction to his most recent story.


Diverting the majority of my photography work towards conservation photo journalism has been an incredibly rewarding experience so far. I am very lucky to have met various people & organisations over the years which has now allowed me to get up close and personal to certain issues such as, establishing sustainable fisheries in Fiji, and now looking at salmon enhancement projects in British Columbia, (and of course Maarten, the first person worldwide to be dedicating a PhD solely to the soft sediment world & the creatures living there).

photo-01

A ‘barren habitat’ could not be further from the truth, life here as evolved in the most intricate of ways, mimicry is the name of the game on the muck slopes. Species such as this Giant Frogfish (Antennarius commersoni) have evolved near perfect mimicry of sponges as they sit in wait for unsuspecting prey.

The critters of the muck for me, and I am sure for the large majority of photographers who have experienced this world, are the perfect definition of evolution and beauty of the natural world. Everything about this underwater paradise captivates me. From the story of its discovery to the most elusive of its organisms, muck is a magical world.

Let us start at the discovery, muck was discovered by chance by Bob Halstead, a man credited for pioneering the liveaboard industry and diving in Papua New Guinea, the story goes that whilst on a liveaboard in PNG the boat had moored up in Milne Bay for the night where it was calm, Bob Halstead still wanted to go for a night dive and despite the attempted dissuasion from local dive masters they went for a dive right beneath the boat. As the dive masters had predicted the bottom was just endless sand (soft sediment) from where the name of ‘muck’ originated, however the dive masters were wrong about one thing, and that is that there was no life down there, quite the contrary, what they found were creatures that looked like extra terrestrials, creatures that even the like had never been seen before, muck diving was born.

photo-06

A tiny, recently settled juvenile Ornate Ghost Pipefish hangs above a crinoid. Even though this little critter doesn’t know it, the large ‘creature’ in the background is paving the way forward for future research into this unique habitat.

This all happened in the 1980’s, the diving community took a while to catch on, but boy has it caught on, muck diving now is a booming industry which supports thousands of people across Southeast Asia, as Maarten’s research will soon shed more light on. Divers and photographers (and now researchers of course) alike will travel half way across the world just to glimpse these weird and wonderful creatures, and these creatures are not behemoths like the African mammals, no, they are tiny critters which have evolved perfect mimicry and other adaptions to survive in a sandy desert, perfect photography subjects.

So how does a photo story fit into all of this?

Luckily enough for me (well not that lucky, I am referred to as a science hobbit by Mr. De Brauwer, yes, there is an earlier blog about this!) I was able to help Maarten with a large proportion of his fieldwork in North Sulawesi & Bali, Indonesia and on Negros, The Philippines. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to tell a story about this industry and now, the research being conducted. Currently it is quite staggering how many divers travel to muck locations around the world and it is equally staggering how little we know about the ecology, abundances and diversities of these creatures and the threats they face. This is a huge problem, as I have already mentioned thousands of people now rely on the jobs created by the industry and the money the industry brings into countries such as Indonesia and The Philippines. On top of this there is also no baseline data outlining the abundances and diversities of the creatures that have traditionally existed in these habitats, we have no way of gauging how these habitats are responding to the huge increase of direct and indirect anthropogenic pressures.

photo-04

Arjay Salac is a dive master and one of the figure heads for Atmosphere Resort & Spa’s dive centre. Arjay is from a family of fishermen who live on the adjacent plot of land to the resort, after initially being employed as a landscaper when the resort first opened Arjay took a keen interest in the dive world going on. Enthusiasm and work ethic allowed him to move into a boat crewman position. Through continued excellence in the role he was offered the opportunity of being put through the resorts PADI dive master scholarship. Needless to say Arjay excelled and six years later is now one of the most respected dive guides in the area, eagle eyes are a description which fit Arjay perfectly.

This story is a way for everybody, diver or not, to understand how and why these organisms are so special, the pressures they face and how these tiny organisms have changed the lives of so many people across coastlines in Southeast Asia, and now, what research is being conducted to answer the many, many unanswered questions we have.

photo-03

A Juvenile frogfish is measured after being caught in one of the S.M.U.R.F‘s. Frogfish, like many of the cryptobenthic organisms, are still unknown to science, this particular individual is most likely a new, undescribed species of frogfish (Antennatus sp.). Note from Maarten: this animal was returned to the ocean alive and well

This blog shows a few small extracts of the story, please visit my site for the full photographic story.

photo-05

The future generation of instructors, dive masters and dive guides.