Saving Seahorses
- Ann Corvera () - April 13, 2008 - 12:00am

While Australia has the Great Barrier Reef, the Philippines has its own unique geological formation – the Danajon Bank, one of just six “double-barrier reefs” in the world and the only one in Southeast Asia.

This 150-kilometer stretch of parallel reef formations bordering 17 coastal municipalities in Cebu, Bohol and Leyte is home to diverse marine life, among them seahorses, which for years has been struggling to coexist with those who live on land. As its diversity remains threatened so is the livelihood of fishing communities.

Thousands of the poorest of families in the Danajon Bank area depend on seahorse fishing to put food on the table, no matter if a single catch fetches only between P5 to P8, and that in one night, when they are easier to find, only a handful of seahorses are netted. Fishers spend countless nights on the sea with only his small boat and gas lamp to guide his search for these dwindling creatures.

“You don’t get rich by catching and selling seahorses. You do it because you are becoming desperate,” observed Dr. Amanda Vincent, a biologist whose journey to the country some 15 years ago led to the establishment of an international marine conservation organization in the country that adopted seahorses as its “flagship species.”

Project Seahorse believes that efforts to protect seahorses can be done while still upholding the fishermen’s livelihood. “Let’s save the fish and the fishers, and that’s possible,” said Project Seahorse director Amado Blanco. “We truly believe that for seahorses, sustainable use is compatible with conservation. You conserve the fish at the same time as you look after the welfare of the fishers – the resource users.”

Seahorses used to thrive in the Danajon Bank and back in the 1960s, fishermen could catch hundreds in one night. The Philippines became a top exporter of seahorses widely used for medicinal purposes and also as curios and of course, as pets displayed in aquariums.

Annually, the Philippines sells about 4.2 million dried seahorses, or 12.3 tons, that are usually exported to Hong Kong while 1.4 million live seahorses are traded to North America and Europe, based on Project Seahorse’s 2001-2002 trade surveys.

As biologists like Vincent were studying these peculiar creatures, it became clear just how it was close to extinction.

It all started when Vincent travelled across the ocean then from one barangay to another to follow up on a lead on an intriguing electronic crawl she read at a plaza in Germany. Translated into English, it read: “Seahorses are the most valuable fisheries export from the Philippines to help men with weak tails.”

“And you could guess what they meant by ‘weak tails.’ So that was obviously somewhat interesting,” Vincent, Project Seahorse chair, said of this genus of fish which, in traditional Chinese medicine, is known to cure a variety of illnesses from asthma to heart disease to impotence.

In 1993, when Vincent reached the municipal city of Handumon, Bohol, very little was known about the seahorses that thrived in our waters – so little that even a director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) whom Vincent talked to at that time was “astonished” when asked about seahorse fishery.

“That led us to start trying to analyze more because BFAR only had export statistics. It had nothing about the actual catches or their impact,” Vincent, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation in the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told STARWeek.

Vincent, who grew up in South America and now lives in Vancouver, travelled to the Philippines at a time when she was working on questions around male pregnancy in seahorses. She proposed the idea to National Geographic for which she was writing about seahorse biology, and asked if they could support her to learn more about “this significant trade.”

The journey halfway around the world became a foreigner’s mission that ultimately transformed into a Filipino endeavor to help save not only the endangered seahorses but the degraded coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests of Danajon Bank.

Because of her fondness for Handumon, Vincent named her adopted daughter from China Andaya, which is derived from Jandayan Island where Handumon is located. “I hope that she would grow to love the country as much as I do,” she said.

From teaming up with Haribon Foundation in its initial years, Project Seahorse evolved onto its own and is now working on establishing its 29th out of about 90 Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Danajon.

Last November, Project Seahorse’s first MPA, the 50-hectare Handumon sanctuary, was awarded most outstanding MPA in the Philippines by the MPA Support Network, a multisectoral alliance of organizations seeking to protect the marine environment.

Even as its beginnings can be traced to a foreigner’s research work, Vincent stressed that Project Seahorse is “very much a Filipino project” with her as “technical adviser and friend” to the foundation, and getting technical and financial assistance from their international team.

This used to be one of the most productive fishing grounds in the Visayas,” Project Seahorse director Amado Blanco said of Danajon Bank.

“It used to be one of the most diverse ecosystems in central Philippines before its degradation due to blast fishing and other rampant illegal methods of fishing.”

The degradation of Danajon, he told STARWeek, is true to most of the coral reef systems in the country. “Twenty years ago, about only five percent of coral reefs was considered excellent. And now, it’s definitely lower than that,” Blanco said, citing a survey on coral reef sites conducted by the UP Marine Institute.

Equally important with the marine reserves established by Project Seahorse in Danajon Bank is its alliance with thousands of fishing families there along with the local government units (LGUs).

“In Handumon, we discovered that about a quarter of the community was dependent on seahorse fishing with up to 80 percent of their seasonal income coming from seahorses,” Vincent said.

Trade estimates at the fisher level pegged the annual economic contribution of seahorses at P40.95 million for fishers alone, based on 2002 prices of P8 per dried seahorse and P5.25 for live ones at Jandayan Island.

Blanco said that before the ban on any form of collection and trade of all species – one of them seahorses – took effect under the Fisheries Code in 2004, 95 percent of the seahorse catch were exported to Hong Kong for traditional Chinese medicine uses. Five percent, he said, were exported to Europe and the Americas as curiosities.

The Philippines is party to an international agreement among governments called CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES subjects international trade in selected species to certain controls for sustainability, drawing up a species list to encourage international support and cooperation for management of their trade.

“The policy from CITES is that the species on this list can only be exported if the exports are sustainable, and seahorses are now on this list,” Vincent said.

The Philippines’ however apparently misread the convention’s aims.

“Under Republic Act 8550, this policy was misunderstood or misrepresented,” Vincent said of Section 97 of the Fisheries Code of the Philippines which also bans the domestic trade and use of the CITES listed species regardless of its status.

This troubles Project Seahorse as it may affect existing traditional practices or indigenous communities.

The international rule is only about sustainable exports, but the domestic law “states that any species listed on any CITES appendices, we cannot even catch it for local personal use,” Vincent said.

“It is a huge exaggeration of what the international convention was trying to achieve. So when this international convention decided that all exporting countries must manage for sustainability, the Philippines code kicked in and it became automatically, with no further discussion, illegal for any seahorses to be caught or consumed locally. We are very concerned about this because it probably unnecessarily removed a lot of earnings from some of the poorest people in the world,” she stressed.

“Now clearly there may be a time when some sort of trade closure, some fisheries closures are necessary,” Vincent said. “But the argument that Project Seahorse team has is that those closures should be considered for their ecological value and social impact and should not just happen automatically because of an international rule that doesn’t even try to do that.”

Blanco, who has been part of Project Seahorse for almost five years now, explained that because the state is “adopting a wholesale approach, which is a ban,” there is no room for management options like implementing a “minimum size limit” on seahorses, which they introduced before 2004, basically asking fishers not to collect seahorses below 10 centimeters long, based on their general growth size.

“Based on the research of Amanda and her colleagues at our project international team, once they reach 10 centimeters, they have already produced three or four times and so they have already sort of returned back as juveniles to the wild population,” he said.

Another conservation tool, Blanco said, are sex-based management options like not catching pregnant male seahorses.

While rigorous analysis of their data is ongoing, Blanco however said these management options are potential explanations for the “stabilizing trend” in seahorse population in Danajon Bank at least in the last two to three years. “There is no major decline or increase detected at this point,” he said.

Project Seahorse also fears that the ban could lead to an underground trade that will undermine the intention of improved marine protection and management. “The ban gives you a false sense of security. But what is our capacity to implement a ban when in fact our research shows there are underground fisheries. Not in all cases is a ban effective,” he stressed.

In that respect, Project Seahorse is working with the Alliance of Small Fishers in Danajon Bank, collegiate organizations and academic groups to push for the amendment of Section 97 of the Fisheries Code.

Bohol Rep. Roberto Cajes, Vincent said, has agreed to put forward an amendment that would bring the Fisheries Code in line with international policy.

Project Seahorse, she added, is prepared to work with BFAR to try to regulate the trade for sustainability.

Project Seahorse is also involved in sustainable livelihood development, such as seaweed farming, although they are carefully treading the initiative amid concerns of its actual conservation benefits.

“We’re worried, for example, that children are often kept out of school to do seaweed farming. So there’s a benefit maybe economically but what’s the cost to those children? Or we are worried about the fact that when people set up seaweed farms, they often clear out animals that live on the reef flat so what is the ecological damage there and how does that map onto the gains?”

Consultation with the communities is paramount for Project Seahorse. On the regional level, it has formed an alliance with nearly a thousand fishing families called KAMADA, giving individuals a “collective voice.”

Vincent said that while most nongovernment organizations do advocacy work and most academic units do research work, “we try very usually to make certain that our research informs our management and our management drives our research.”

It has also “interesting” to Vincent trying to convince po-lice about problems with illegal fishing. “We’ve had many local police chiefs tell us that the problems all come from outsiders and that there are no internal illegal fishers. That simply isn’t true so we’ve had to work quite hard with the police sometimes to convince them to get serious about their responsibilities to assist communities in legal enforcement.”

Vincent said the team also has to deal with limited research capacities with Project Seahorse having only three marine biologists, four social development specialists or community organizers and their administrative staff in their Bohol and Cebu offices. Fishers are paid for assisting them in field activities then there are a few volunteers.

The enormous potential is there, she said, but cites the relatively few people who have experience of high quality field research in biology. “And so we’re trying very hard to mentor and develop a cohort of biologists who actually understand how to do rigorous assessment of the situation.”

Saying she knows of no country more engaged with the ocean than the Philippines, Vincent said the people must “insist with all layers of government that they pay respectful attention to coastal resource management issues and actually dedicate their financial and human resources to this significant challenge.” Readers, she said, can make a difference by starting to ask very hard questions about where their seafood comes from and how that fishery is managed. “Very seldom will they get an answer but if we ask enough questions, somebody would have to start providing answers.”

COUNTRY PLACE PROJECT SEAHORSE REGION SEAHORSE
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