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)

 

Poll: alternative muck diving terms

voteAfter the recent blog about the history of muck diving I received some interesting suggestions about alternative names to describe the activity. Because this is a democratic blog, it’s time for a poll! Tell me (and the rest of the world) which name you prefer and who knows, it might just catch on!

While less talked about than the term “muck diving”, a few people suggested the world needs a fitting name for muck dive enthusiasts (maniacs?).  In bird watching the most fanatic bird watchers are called “twitchers“. I reckon finding an appropriate term for those divers that love nothing more than finding new critters could be interesting.

I have been offered some suggestions, but feel free to add others. For the sake of inspiration, the name “twitcher” actually stems from the nervous behaviour of a well-known bird watcher in the 50s and 60s. So feel free to make fun of your photograph happy critter-enthousiast dive buddies 😉

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Muck-enthusiast in action (can you see the black hairy frogfish?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 😉

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

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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