BY ANNELIESE MOLL
For the UAS Whalesong
As many of you probably know, over-fishing and pollution are just a couple of the major challenges many marine organisms are facing. This is especially true for costal areas around poorer countries. One organism that is being hit particularly hard is seahorses.
In order to understand why they are being so heavily affected, it is necessary to know a bit about their biology. Seahorses are a monogamous species, when a mate dies they stop reproducing until they are able to find another mate that is suitable. They are also male brooders. This means that after mating, the female seahorse will deposit eggs into the male’s pouch, where they will stay until fully developed. Depending on species, their sizes can range from about half an inch to 14 inches.
Back to marine habitats surrounding poorer countries: over- fishing is huge because it is a source of income. The styles of fishing are can also be very destructive. In order to catch as many fish as possible some of the fishermen trawl (dragging a large net across the bottom of the ocean which disturbs everything in its way), cyanide fishing (sodium cyanide is poured into the water to stun fish), dynamite fishing (explosives are set off under the water and then the dead fish are collected), and ghost fishing (animals and fish become entangled in fishing gear that is either lost or abandoned). Unfortunately, there is also a lot of bycatch and habitat destruction associated with all of these fishing techniques. It is easy to see how quickly many different organisms are having a difficult time surviving in areas where this is taking place unchecked.
Earlier this semester I learned that a couple of UAS students had traveled to Cambodia in order to help save seahorses in these habitats. Over the last week I had a chance to talk with one of those students, Kate Hauch, about that amazing opportunity.
Anneliese Moll: How did you learn about this program? Did you fundraise?
Kate Hauch: Ben Derting stumbled upon Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC) after our mutual friend traveled to Southeast Asia. He was interested in diving opportunities and volunteer programs. He brought up the idea in November 2014 and, as we both looked more into it, we both became excited. It was an opportunity to do underwater surveys, help protect an Marine Protected Area, work with Cambodian Fisheries officials, meet awesome people, and have some fun.
‘Seahorseluv’ was our fundraising project. We sold t-shirts, hosted a 5 kilometer run, created a go-fund me, and also hosted a silent auction/spaghetti dinner to help raise funds, which were used to help cover travel costs as well as bring a heaping supply of English children’s books to the island.
AM: Once you arrived in Cambodia what happened?
KH: The daily/weekly schedule with MCC changed a lot due to day to day fluctuations. If you do not have your scuba diving certification, you have the opportunity to get certified on the island. Underwater surveys were conducted almost daily. The first and easiest survey to learn was to find seahorses. For the seahorse survey you were trained in identification of a suspected 6 different species near the island as well as how to document their location. Their location was also uploaded into project seahorse which is an international database. Three other surveys included documenting invertebrates, substrate, and fish all utilizing transect lines. Since leaving the island, the volunteers are now working actively tagging seahorses and collecting genetic samples for Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh who works at the Shedd aquarium in Chicago, Illinois.
Paul Ferber, the founder of MCC, was also willing to let you implement any ideas you had. We created artificial reef structures, secchi disks (these are used to measure water visibility and are usually very simple black and white disks that are about 8 inches in diameter), and began working on an underwater coral garden/underwater landscaping. Previous projects included creating an aquaculture system for breeding blue swimmer crabs as well as seahorses. One volunteer also created his own mapping computer program, so we could create a baseline of the seafloor. We were able to take 1 meter quadrants to start creating the map.
We actively performed beach clean ups, mangrove clean ups and restoration of several local areas, as trash is a huge problem. Most people simply throw trash into the streets because Cambodia does not yet have an efficient waste management system. Paul worked with the city to install trashcans. While it is a start, you might only see 3 in the entire city.
Illegal fishing poses a huge threat in Cambodian waters and is usually conducted by Vietnamese and Cambodians. They use illegal gear, causing massive destruction of reefs and sea grasses, and also over fish. Paul works directly with a Cambodian Fisheries government official to help regulate and enforce the laws. As a volunteer you were able to remove illegal nets and gear as you came across it while diving. Paul also had a team that would patrol almost nightly to confiscate gear from fishing boats.
Another part of the conservation process was conducting social demographic surveys from local fishing villages. A 6 page interview form was brought to the villages and we asked fishermen, through the use of translators, their knowledge of the ocean in hopes to help educate the importance of sustainability.
AM: How long did you stay?
KH: I stayed for 1 month and wish I would have stayed about 3 months.
AM: After doing this do you have any tips for others who might want to get involved?
KH: Working for MCC was one of the best experiences I have had. Not only do you get a lot of hands on experience, you learn how to approach things from a different way. Here in the United States we are lucky to have an abundance of resources, in a third world country you have to implement research with what you have and really become creative by thinking outside the box. If you are interested or pursuing a similar type of opportunity, try to be available for a reasonable amount of time: 2-4 months. You will have a lot to learn before you can begin to start working by yourself. Also look ahead for travel requirements. Get your visas and vaccines figured out well a head of time.
AM: What’s your favorite seahorse?
KH: My favorite seahorse is the Hippocampus kuda or common seahorse. It is generally what most people picture when they think of a seahorse. It is one of the larger species– growing up to 6 inches. It also has been a target for medicinal purposes throughout Asia for many years, leaving it listed as vulnerable.
For those of you who are possibly interesting in volunteering in this program (MCC) I have included the contact information and the website URL at the bottom. In regards to the price of the program, for people who are staying for less than a month the fee is $300 a week. Covered within that is your room and board and diving expenses. Some of it also goes into overall project costs. Volunteers wishing to stay longer than one month, MCC suggests contacting them to see what can be worked out.
Marine Conservation Cambodia also conducts quite a bit of research. As a part of their program there are also internships and research opportunities that span from biology and ecology, costal and fisheries management, and sustainable development.
Conservation and research are critical in many places around the world today because when recourses are consumed quickly and in destructive ways, the likelihood of losing that resource permanently becomes very real.
Paul Ferber founder of MCC: