Interview with Coral ecologist Mark Erdmann co auther of Reef Fishes of the East Indies
THE CORAL TRIANGLE – an area of approximately 5.7 million square km that includes the tropical waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste – is the global centre of marine biodiversity; home to hundreds of different reef-building corals and thousands of fish species. Mark Erdmann of Conservation International (CI) has spent the better part of a decade diving, cataloguing and protecting the tropical treasures found there.
His newly released book set Reef Fishes of the East Indies is the culmination of years of effort. Co-authored by fellow CI scientist Gerald Allen, it is the most up-to-date reference for the region, covering more than 2,500 species – 25 of which have never been described before. In honour of this week’s 12th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia, Erdmann brings us up-to-date on the state of tropical reefs today. Ola Jachtorowicz: Congratulations on the release of Reef Fishes. I understand it’s been a long time coming. How long has it taken you? And how did you get involved initially with Dr Allen? Mark Erdmann: About four years … prior to that, Gerry had been pulling it together for probably the last 30 years. It’s definitely been a work in progress for a long time. Gerry has been a long-term consultant scientist with CI, since the outset of our Marine Rapid Assessment program, as chief marine scientist. When I came on-board in 2004, we immediately started doing a number of expeditions together. Over the last eight years, he’s become a mentor to me. I was not a fish scientist before, but [I was] in crustacean science. He switched my allegiances.
OJ: When I saw that the book includes 25 previously unknown species, I immediately wondered how you know when you’re done with a work like this? What if there are more undiscovered species hiding out there?
ME: Without question, there are more undiscovered species out there. We discover them on a pretty regular basis. We just did a survey in the South China Sea and pulled up another five or six new species. Those are not in the book – the book was already at the printer’s at the time. Now that we’ve got it under control, we intend to do a regular update for this, just to keep it current, probably on a one-to-two year basis.
OJ: Can you share with us some of the species you found most interesting, maybe your favourites?
ME: I find most of the reef fish species pretty exciting. Definitely the new ones, the new species, are the ones that bring the most excitement to both of us. Some of the groups that most catch my attention are the dottybacks [family Pseudochromidae] which are a cryptic group of fishes with very restricted ranges. So, when we get in the trenches, there’s almost always a new couple running around there. They’re typically very beautifully coloured but also very cryptic and not so easy to see. They’re a challenge to find, but when you do find them, there tend to be quite a few new species. The garden eels [family Congridae] are another that I have a particular interest in. I don’t know if you know what they’re like, but they live in typically large colonies – anywhere from tens to thousands of individuals – on sand flats that are exposed to currents. They look like a bunch of waving spaghetti in the current. We found here in the East Indies, there’s a huge diversity of them. Over the last couple years, we’ve been running into a number that are new. Those are really exciting. Beyond that I’d say, probably the tilefishes [family Malacanthidae], which are a group not many divers see. They’re a little bit deeper; they tend to start showing up at about 30m and below. They’re really beautiful animals. They typically build these large mounds; rubble mounds that reach up to 2m in height and 4-5m across. They live communally within these mounds. They’re a stunningly beautiful fish to see and they’re interesting in that their social system is actually completely around mounds.
OJ: Tell us a little bit about what it’s like to dive in the centre of marine biodiversity. I’ve seen photographs but I can only imagine…
ME: It’s a mixed bag. As a biologist, it’s always exciting – there’s never a dive that you don’t see something that you haven’t seen before. That keeps diving very interesting and exciting. At the same time, in general, the reefs across Indonesia are not as well managed as they might be, for instance, on the Great Barrier Reef. You invariably run into areas with anything from minor degradation to severe damage. That always keeps it interesting as well, but it can be a bit of a bummer to run across a majorly bombed reef or a cyanide reef. [Cyanide fishing involves spraying a sodium cyanide mixture into water to stun fish for capture, damaging reefs in the process. It is illegal across most of the Coral Triangle but legislation is poorly enforced.]
OJ: You’ve been with CI for eight years now, what are some of the trends you’ve witnessed in the Coral Triangle?
ME: Indonesia is a classic example. The world’s largest archipelagic nation, the most reef area of any country and yet, even in the early 2000s, this country was very land focussed – it really didn’t look towards the sea. In fact, [Indonesia] only established a Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Affairs in 1999. Prior to that everything, including the reefs, fell under the Ministry of Agriculture. It’s been a very dramatic increase in the overall awareness about how important reefs are to them and what special reefs they have. There’s still a long way to go in terms of getting them to the level of management you might see in Australia, but there’s some great progress being made. I’m quite optimistic about where the ecology of the reefs is headed.
OJ: What is the state of the reefs today and what are the biggest threats?
ME: Overfishing is certainly one of the biggest threats. You’ve got pretty big human populations here and there is a strong focus on exportation … Destructive fishing practices have long been a huge threat to the reefs here, in particular bomb fishing and cyanide fishing … In some parts of the Coral Triangle it’s rapidly coming under control – in West Papua for instance – while in other parts it’s very much ongoing and a constant threat. That’s a huge one. Certainly climate change is something that we’re always concerned about, although that’s also a bit of a mixed bag here. A number of the reefs in the Coral Triangle appear to be quite resilient, to bleaching for instance. There’s such a strong current – the majority of the water moving between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans sloshes through Indonesia, and that means you’ve got constant current – that provides resiliency to the reefs here. Those are the big threats. Certain areas of course, you’ve got lots of land-based pollutant issues as well. Somewhat like what the Great Barrier Reef faces – there’s a lot of agricultural runoff and sedimentation. That’s quite variable across the Coral Triangle. Eastern Indonesia, for instance, doesn’t have that much of an issue with sediment and runoff. If you get into Western Indonesia, the Philippines, West Papua New Guinea, certainly it’s a very big issue.
OJ: Could you pinpoint one or two conservation projects that have been most successful?
ME: Sure. The area that I’ve been most actively focussed on has been West Papua, and in particular what we refer to as the Bird’s Head Seascape of West Papua – specifically focussed in at the area of Raja Ampat. Raja Ampat alone is about five million hectares. We, working with partners in the local communities and government, have set up a network of seven large marine protected areas, which are now being actively managed by the local Papuan villagers. They’ve learned from people from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, [and] people from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We had these local Papuan villagers with typically nothing more than at most a high school education. But they’re now actively working as professional marine park managers. We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in bomb and cyanide fishing. In general, the reefs are recovering beautifully – the fish biomass is coming back very dramatically at most of the sites. That’s certainly one area of the country that’s a real positive success story.
OJ: What are your hopes for the future?
ME: My hope is that we can take some of the lessons that we’ve learned from this intensive work in West Papua and apply that across the Coral Triangle. It’s the idea of not top-down marine parks but also not naïve bottom-up parks. [It’s] something in-between where you’re working at scale, you have large marine parks but you’ve actively invested in training locals to manage them. I hope that can expand across the Coral Triangle. I also really hope that the current major trend that we’re seeing towards the end of shark finning will speed along quickly because that’s without question one of the biggest issues that we see all the time; the really depleted state of the shark populations across the Coral Triangle. There are some great movements that are being seen right now in China, where there’s a number of hotels that are starting to reject serving shark fin soup, there’s a number of Western countries outlawing shark fin sales. I think the time is coming that we might see the end of shark fin soup. [Shark fin soup has long been a popular Chinese dish, usually served at special events such as weddings. Shark finning is the practice of catching sharks exclusively for their fins and throwing the rest of the shark, often still alive, back into the ocean to suffocate or be eaten.]
OJ: Could you explain why sharks are important to the coral reef ecosystem?
ME: Sharks are one of the top predators on the coral reef. In much the same way that top predators in a terrestrial ecosystem do – be they lions or tigers or whatever – they help control some of the other populations that are there, getting rid of the old, the sick, the weak and thereby preventing the spread of disease. And simply from the perspective of a diver – divers the world over would love to see more sharks; they’re just such beautiful, elegant animals underwater. It’s clear that they should be there.
OJ: Finally, what can we, the general population, do to help reefs?
ME: Of course, there are lots of conservation organisations that are working and they’re looking for support. But another thing that I think is important for the average public is actually to look carefully at what your consumption habits are. In particular, many people love to eat seafood, and it’s increasingly important to look at the sustainability of that seafood. [There are] different sustainable seafood watch applications for iPhones and so on. You can go to a restaurant and [check] is this something that I should be eating or not eating? I think this is actually really, really important. by – Ola Jachtorowicz