Field season in the Philippines

It is May, and we have a larger-than-usual team this year headed to Visayas State University in the Philippines to continue our research on metapopulation dynamics in coral reef fish. Michelle is leading the tagging and sample collection, Katrina is trying new oceanographic measurement sand field experiments, Allison is getting her first introduction to the system in preparation for modeling efforts, and Malin is helping out all around and catching fish (thanks to training from Tony Nahacky last year). We also have the indispensable help of local assistants Gerry Sucano and Rodney Silvano, plus Apollo Lizano (visiting student from U. Philippines Marine Science Institute). It’s great to be in the water again!

Change Is In The [Water]

From Patrick Flanagan, Ph.D student in Oceanography, while doing fieldwork in the Philippines last week:

IMG_2060_smThere’s not much to listen to while scuba diving… mostly your own bubbles, and the Rice Krispies pops and crackles of coral-munching fish and disgruntled snapping shrimp. If they made underwater headphones, I’d totally be rocking out like Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, or getting into my Steve Zissou groove, while I spend my hours searching for and tagging anemones and clownfish.

But the quiet found, as you slowly glide over vast expanses of reef, pausing to observe an odd creature or jot down some notes, is definitely good for a little meditation.

Specifically, thinking about change.

I used to worry a lot about change. When I worked on Coho salmon restoration and marine science education in California, I was exasperated with the plight of the dwindling endangered fish, frustrated with the amount of pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing I saw, despondent over the swelling tidal wave of climate change coming to natural systems everywhere. It was paralyzing, and heartbreaking. I cared so much that it made me not want to care any more, which was contrary to my nature.

I decided to take a small step outside of my feelings about change, and instead put on my scientist hat and start thinking about change. I did my best to try to observe how the natural world is changing, instead of placing positive or negative values on those changes.

Change can be scary. Sometimes it’s exciting. Sometimes it is overwhelming, or invigorating, but it can just as easily go unnoticed. Depending on your perspective, change can be historically cataclysmic, or it can be mosquito-fart inconsequential. But change is inevitable, especially in nature. And nature, like a scientist, doesn’t place value on things.

This has turned out to be very important here in the Philippines.
DCIM100MICRO

The reefs we’re studying are not what they once were. It’s clear from the intricate and expansive algae-covered structures we see on every dive: these were once vibrant reefs, populated with countless species of thriving corals and fish. Over the last several decades, with overfishing, agricultural runoff, pollution, dynamiting, invasive species, tropical storms and climate change, these reefs have been hit hard. Much of the old reef is now a mossy brownish-green; ancient ruins in an overgrown forest. Even the banded sea snakes have become bandless pea snakes. And don’t worry about sharks: on these reefs, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fish bigger than your hand.

But it’s not dead–far from it. Life continues here, in between the rubble of blasted coral, the spiderwebs of discarded fishing net, the plastic bags and diapers. For one, it is a fantastic place to live if you’re a species of encrusting algae, or one of the many invisible jellyfish floating about, stinging unsuspecting marine biologists.

It’s also still a place where anemones can do well, and they and the soft corals are surrounded by a still diverse set of fishes, crabs, nudibranchs, worms, sea stars, and so much more. And the most bizarre creature I’ve ever almost-accidentally-touched: a six foot-long sea cucumber that looked like a swimming pool lane marker mated with a monster from Tremors.

I don’t know what these reefs looked like a hundred years ago, but I can make educated guesses.  A before-and-after photo would probably be a punch to the gut.

Or, it could be historically inconsequential.

Twenty thousand years ago, global sea level was nearly 400 feet lower. Where these troubled reefs stand would instead have been the lush foothills of the stunning mountains that tower over this island. The nearest coral reefs would have been on the other side of Leyte, lining the edge of the Philippine Trench.

Ten thousand years from now, sea level will likely have risen such that these waters would be far too deep for any light-dependent coral polyp to even consider living here. As they have for hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history, coral reefs will move up and down the peripheries of islands, following the shallow waters of the millenial tides.

Yes, it is hard on individuals, and on many generations of corals and the plethora of organisms, including Filipino fishermen, that depend on them. And on the scale of a human lifetime, this change is dramatic.

But ultimately, this is just change, on a larger scale–not good, not bad, just change.

Malin and his colleagues recently published a paper in Science outlining the trend of disappearing ocean species, pointing to a developing ocean counterpart to the Anthropocene Extinction Event well underway on land. This is change on a level seen only a few times in the history of the planet, Through our actions, our inactions, and our unintended consequences, we’re in the running to get a Most Change Caused trophy, like the one given to the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

At this point, it looks like our dependence on fossil fuels (like the leaded gasoline they sell in Coke bottles on the side of the road here) is far from dwindling. And our best models are starting to show that, even if all carbon production stopped tomorrow, global temperatures will continue to rise into the next century.

Change is inevitable. Perhaps, then, the question should shift away from “How can we stop (or reverse) it?” to “How are we going to adapt to it?” What do we want our oceans to look like in a hundred years? If change is going to happen, can we influence how it affects us and the other species we depend on, or will we just adapt our livelihoods, like the reefs, to the rising and falling tides?

There’s not a lot of options for food here… it’s mostly fried chicken, bananas, and white rice. I’ve tried the tiny, two-bite filleted-and-fried fish they serve in the cafeteria here. They’re a bit too bony for my taste.

I wonder what fish we’ll have to eat when I’m 100 years old.

I hope, at least, we’ll have waterproof headphones by then.

Dive slates become plates

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already been in the Philippines for over a week!IMG_2359_sm

Four fifths of the Pinsky Lab is here to conduct a census of clownfish and their host anemones. After two full days of travel by plane, ferry and van, we set to work surveying the coral reefs on the western coast of central Leyte. Surveys are conducted on SCUBA and we work in teams to tag all of the anemones and note the clownfish. Some sites have tons of anemones and others are very sparse with terrible visibility. Each dive is like a 2-3 hour Easter egg hunt and it’s our job to find all of the anemones before we run out of air. Besides a lot of anemones and clownfish, we’ve also seen clownfish eggs, a diverse array of fishes and an uncanny number of sea snakes.

IMG_2341_smWe have hired a boat to take us to our sites, which makes it very convenient for diving. It also means that we spend most of the day on or in the water, including eating our rice and fried chicken lunches off of dive slates and fins! In addition, commuting by boat allows us to admire the spectacular deep valleys and sheer green cliffs of Leyte that are dotted with long ribbon-like waterfalls. Often times, we arrive back to our hostel just as the sun is setting. With a coconut palm lined coastline, it is incredibly picturesque and a beautiful way to round off a long day of diving.

– by Jennifer HoeyIMG_2230_sm_modIMG_2334_sm

We’re in Leyte

Field season #2 on our NSF RAPID grant to study coral reef ecosystem recovery from Typhoon Haiyan in Leyte, Philippines. We’re continuing benthic cover, fish visual surveys, and invertebrate surveys, but our main focus is on clownfish metapopulation dynamics and identifying the origin of recolonizing individuals (using genetic tags as natural “license plates” to identify source locations). Here’s a photo from our first full day of diving, walking down the road on the campus of the Visayas State University with our dive gear in the amazing “pot pot”. From left to right: Gerry Sucano (field assistant extraordinaire), Michelle Stuart, Patrick Flanagan, and Jennifer Hoey. Visayas State University

Lab fishing trip!

Our plans to head out fishing for fluke (inspired by our fluke genetics project) were dead in the water when the party boat stayed in port for repairs. Instead, we went out fishing for bluefish. A good 4-6′ swell, but a great time on the water. Jennifer caught the first two, and Ryan caught the most (3). Turns out that the adrenaline of reeling one in is a good cure for seasickness. And they were delicious grilled that evening…DSC_1007DSC_1084 More photos here.

News from Leyte, Philippines

After a long day of diving in Tinag-an
After a long day of diving in Tinag-an

Pinsky Lab Phillipines is closing down after a great summer season! We (Michelle and field assistant Gerry Sucano) collected 540 clownfish samples and performed fish and coral transects on 600 m of reef off the western coast of Leyte.  While damage from Typhoon Yolanda (known as Typhoon Hayan in the U.S.) is still evident both on land and on the reef, there are still breathtaking stretches of coral habitat that are home to a diverse array of fish and invertebrates. We’ll be coming back here often over the coming years to observe the coral reef recovery, and in particular to understand how the dispersal of baby clownfish contributes to the recovery of their populations.

Sampling clownfish has its humorous moments, and it was especially fun to watch clownfish hide from our field assistant and clownfish wrangler extraordinaire, Gerry.  They would hide behind rocks and peek out at him from around corners. They would zip off to a neighboring anemone, and three or four would get together and watch him, swimming to face each other and then him in what seemed to be an animated conversation about the giant “fish” with bubbles coming out of its mouth.

Michelle at work watching clownfish.
Michelle at work watching clownfish.

The area of the Philippines where we work is a fascinating amalgamation of “primitive” with modern technology.  People live in thatch roofed huts and yet watch episodes of Game of Thrones on tablets. They use modern industrial materials to manufacture “off the grid” solutions, and the natural world is never far away. Even in our air conditioned hotel rooms, part of the wall was made of screen to allow air to move in and out (irony, anyone?). Being in a completely closed space started to feel odd, though the New Jersey winter will surely dispel that notion in due time. Meanwhile, it has been wonderful to enjoy living in this tiny piece of paradise.

Typhoon Haiyan: before and after

Michelle is still over in Leyte, Philippines with field assistant Gerry Sucano, but already, what we’ve seen of the damage from Typhoon Haiyan to the reefs has been stunning. This was the strongest typhoon in recorded history ever to make landfall, and even on the leeward side, the changes were dramatic in some places.

Caridad reef, Bay Bay, Leyte (2014)
After: Caridad reef, Bay Bay, Leyte (2014)
Caridad reef, Bay Bay, Leyte
Before: Caridad reef, Bay Bay, Leyte (2013)

Interestingly, though, other reefs were barely affected. A bit like a tornado that walks down a street, destroying some houses and leaving others unscathed.