Redefining field science

5 guys made quite an impression on me.  They are the Research and Monitoring Team (ReMoTe) of Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCE), the NGO I am collaborating with here.  CCE is a recognized leader in marine conservation and I had the privilege of seeing one reason why firsthand.

 

The guys sleeping everywhere and anywhere

Not only can the guys be so flexible as to sleep anywhere- be it above the rumbling engine of an overnight ferry, in the back of a truck in the pouring rain, or on the cold linoleum floor of an office (I didn’t sleep so well that night…) they are out “in the field” as we like to call it, fighting the good fight.

 

Though they do spend a fair bit of their work time in the office in Cebu, the guys also travel one week of the month to do social and ecological surveys of certain communities.  They don’t just go out diving anywhere; they are monitoring places where CCE has already helped people establish a marine sanctuary.  If you know how the fish and corals are doing, then you can decide if any management changes need to be made. For example, if you could tell by a certain pile of shells, or a damaged coral, that people have been exploiting what should be protected, then you can step up your enforcement efforts.  This is a really valuable tool for the people who manage the sanctuaries, as well as a tool for CCE to see how the projects they have invested so much in are doing.

 

The really unique thing about these surveys is that it’s not just the biologists doing the work.  This is science; natural science and social science, and it involves totally normal people, like fishermen and community leaders.  This is NOT normal.  It’s not even “acceptable” by some people’s standards for science.  I wasn’t even sure how I felt about it beforehand; but now I see how brilliant it is.

Dive slate with collected data

These surveys are called “Participatory Coastal Resource Assessment” because the staff gives lectures to locals on how to gather data about their coastal resources. The lectures cover multiple topics- how to assess mangrove abundance and growth, fish abundance and sizes, coral reef health, etc.  That’s the ecological assessment. And then everyone goes out and collects the data so that we can all get a better picture of the current state of the resources.  Then we can look at trends over time, and see where new housing and development is reducing mangroves (juvenile fish habitat) and increasing erosion, which may account for decreases in fish abundance or increase in murky water/siltation.

 

Three days later, after dive surveys, mangrove walks, and hours of interviewing local resource users, we had a map.  We actually had many maps, big satellite images blown-up and labeled with our new information.  Each sticker in the water represents fishing gears that are used in that community, and each sticker on the land represents concerns that the locals have.

Mapping community fishing gears and concerns

This process is brilliant because it is in part science, but it is also a community investing their time and energy into gathering data and then reflecting on the state of their resources.  This is true empowerment, and very necessary.

 

This detailed information allows each community to really see the state of their resources. What I heard during the social surveys were actually quite concerning.  The locals being interviewed talked about how there continues to be destructive fishing methods, even those that have been outlawed- like cyanide use (which kills corals but allows them to take live fish- mostly for restaurants in China), and how fishers from other communities are coming into “their” waters (there is no legal basis to exclude them, though).  In one community, there was a story about how they had set up oyster and crab aquaculture, but the guy who was guarding it one night took all the animals for himself and sold them off.

 

What can I say to that? Some days, I can only be a witness to these things and in the end, I am powerless to help the immediate situation.  So I sat and listened and absorbed it all so I can learn from them and repeat their stories for them. These heart-wrenching accounts are not the first I have heard, but they are the reason why I am trying to figure out how we can better conserve our resources- not to protect coral for an intrinsic value, but because so many people’s lives and livelihoods depend on the production of the ocean.

 

I am impressed by the guts the CCE guys have to do this over and over again and to not be broken down by the devastating destruction of the ocean they all clearly care for.  They are fighting the good fight.