HARIBON Foundation supports healthy aquatic ecosystems by disseminating valuable information on the current state of the country’s waters and marine life in the community. Through extensive fact-finding activities and examinations, its team of researchers is able to involve locals in protecting our seas.
The foundation, in collaboration with the Newcastle University of the United Kingdom (UK) under the Darwin Initiative, has implemented the project “Responding to Fish Extirpations in the Global Marine Biodiversity Epicenter.” It took the lead in efforts to provide novel information to help increase conservation efforts in five Philippine marine key biodiversity area namely: Lanuza Bay, Surigao del Sur; Verde Island Passage; Danajon Bank of northern Bohol; Honda Bay in Palawan, and the Polillo Islands.
The Darwin Initiative is a grant scheme by the UK government through the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). It was created during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The initiative seeks to protect nature and wildlife in developing countries through a grants system provision. UK experts partnered with the locals and stakeholders in countries that sport a rich biodiversity but are economically challenged.
The Philippines is one such country, abundant in natural resources, teeming with flora and fauna, but lags behind in terms of development. The country’s reserves are in dire need of protection, especially our seas and the marine life that thrives on its depths and shores. It is not just wildlife that is jeopardized if the situation continues; local communities dependent upon these natural resources for their livelihood and shelter are also put at risk. Our oceans are endangered by an upsurge of problems, and this grave threat falls to the wayside when stacked up against the many issues the country faces.
Erina Pauline Molina, Haribon’s research specialist and marine biologist working under the Darwin Initiative Project, expounds, “Extirpa¬tions mean the gradual local extinction of species. Basically, the Darwin project looks into the situation of locally depleted fish species across different areas of the Philippines.” She maps out the sites, noting that the location helps to account for the differing situations of the marine environment per each site.
The Darwin Initiative Project spans a total of four years, from April 2012 to March 2016. It‘s comprised of gathering local fisher folks’ knowledge about fish species through in-depth interviews and underwater surveys to validate that knowledge, and a quantitative and statistical analysis of the data. The first results will be published in a peer-reviewed journal by experts on the topic.
The project is now on its last year, and has finished all on-site data gathering. “A significant part of the interview we ask fisher folks are the kinds of fish they perceive to be disappearing and ask them how much they catch when they started fishing up to now,” Molina recounts some of her experiences as a researcher for Darwin Project. The research team usually spends a whole month in each area for data gathering. They ask the fishers about when and where they were born, when they started fishing, all the while recording their knowledge on local fish species and experience.
Gathering data through interviews, it was evident that there’s a sharp decline in the type of marine wildlife that’s seen and caught by the local fisherfolks, both young and old. “We categorize species in terms of vulnerability or what we call red listing. The big question is how we can properly respond to this problem and help the fishermen too? We hope to provide recommendations at the local, national and international level, specifically to provide information to help formulate plans and policies which may be used by the local government in the sites.”
She explains, “A lot of our marine species in the Philippines are not yet assessed in terms of its vulnerability and some have yet to be discovered. We do not have all the data to refer to so we have no way of knowing if the specific marine species is under threat or in the state of decline. That’s where the Darwin Project comes in—to provide conclusive data about our fish species and their state of vulnerability.”
The researchers do not rely solely on interviews, they also spend time on rigorous methods of data collection: diving and cataloguing the “presence or absence” of these species with their own eyes. This is another stage of the ecological mapping, which the project aims to ultimately contribute to policy recommendations at both the local and national level.
Foraying into research comes with its own set of obstacles. There are still illegal fishing activities like dynamite in the different sites that pose big risks to the research team while underwater. In addition, the boat traffic in some of the sites require you to be extra careful both underwater and while on your way to the surface. The research team has to constantly use surface balloons to mark where they are underwater.
The life of a marine biologist is not all fun and games, a common misconception that Molina wishes to address. Their everyday life on the field consists of waking up at daybreak to prepare and transport their scuba gear for a 60-minute dive into the depths for cataloguing. Each day covers two dives, and each dive is composed of five 50 meter transects wherein the researchers take note of the frequency of species sighting. The coral reefs to be surveyed must meet the criteria of being at depths ranging from five to 15 meters.
There were countless fascinating stories she encountered during one of the fishers knowledge interviews. “One of the men was ‘cooking’ dynamite in his backyard. It was weird for me since everyone knew what it was for, so to see them churning the white powder in clay pots was surreal. I also saw a bumphead parrotfish in one site during the underwater survey. When you’re near them, you will also hear the cracking sound because they are chewing the corals. And when they excrete these, the water becomes cloudy, spraying bursts of fine coral sand particles. It’s interesting for me because they are one of the bio-eroders. They eat corals but their excretion will eventually accumulate and turn into islets or small islands where migratory birds breed, but this process takes time. One time I also dove in Lanuza Bay, Surigao del Sur where the water was so clear that I could see 30 meters in any direction,” she shares.
“I wish for people to see the beauty of life under water so they will realize that marine life is vulnerable and also depends on us for survival too. Please help us save our waters,” the marine biodiversity advocate ends.
To learn more about Haribon Foundation’s research programs, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.haribon.org.ph.