A Fish That Shapes The Reef

By Andrew E. Gray

Every three years, scientists from NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) visit Wake Atoll to survey corals, assess the fish populations, and collect oceanographic data for a long-term monitoring effort—the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP). Wake Atoll has clear water, healthy coral reefs, and is managed and conserved as part of the expansive U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. It has a healthy reef fish community with plentiful sharks, jacks, and groupers. As a fish research diver, it’s my kind of paradise. Sitting in the middle of the subtropical North Pacific Ocean, 1,500 miles east of Guam and about 2,300 miles southwest of Honolulu, it may be the most remote place I’ve ever been. But for me, and a few other scientists lucky enough to visit the island, there is one thing that makes Wake a special place: Bolbometopon muricatm, the Bumphead parrotfish.

Bumphead parrotfish

Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatm) at Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Bumphead parrotfish are an incredible and unique reef fish, differing from other parrotfish by their large size, appearance, diet, and by their ecological impact on coral reef ecosystems. There are a number of other parrotfish that sport a bump on their head, and these may be mistaken for a Bumphead parrotfish—that is until you actually see one. Bumpheads have a presence like no other fish on the reef and when they are around I can’t take my eyes off of them. The first thing I notice is their sheer size: growing to 4.2 feet long and up to a 100 pounds (that’s 130 cm and 46 kg for you scientists). Bumpheads are the world’s largest parrotfish and among the largest of all reef fish. When I get a little closer, I can’t help but focus on their incredible beaks. On coral reefs, all parrotfish species are tasked with the important job of keeping algae from overgrowing reef-building corals.

Corals chomped

Bumphead parrotfish chomp corals and help maintain the health and diversity of the reef ecosystem, Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Parrotfish bite and scrape algae off of rocks and dead corals with their parrot-like beaks; grind the inedible calcium carbonate (reef material made mostly of coral skeletons) which is excreted as sand back onto the reef. Larger parrotfish species can take small chunks out of the reef, removing algae and the occasional piece of coral. Bumphead parrotfish are unique in that they are continuously crunching large bites out of the reef, about half of it from live coral. In fact, that’s what they do most of the day. Bite the reef. Excrete sand. Repeat. Over the course of a year a single fish can remove over 5 tons of calcium carbonate from the reef! But by selectively eating fast growing coral species over slower growing species, they help maintain a more diverse coral reef ecosystem. Also, by munching down tons of dead corals every year each fish makes room for young corals to settle, grow and build up the reef. This means breaking down “dead reef” into sand rather than it breaking off in a storm and damaging other parts of the reef. And since Bumpheads often travel in groups, sometimes numbering into hundreds and traveling multiple kilometers in a day, this species can have quite an impact on the reef ecosystem. Bumphead parrotfish literally shape the reef.


Large bump on the head of a Bumphead parrotfish (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Then, of course, there is the fish’s namesake, its bump. All Bumphead parrotfish sport a large protrusion on their forehead which is similar in function to a pair of horns on a bighorn sheep. The largest males have the biggest bumps and will occasionally use them as battering rams around spawning time, smashing headfirst into rivals in an attempt to show their dominance and retain territorial and breeding rights. This incredible behavior was observed by CREP scientists in 2009 and first documented and filmed by researchers at Wake in 2011. During these mating events, the parrotfish gather or aggregate around a spawning site and can number into the hundreds, an uncommon site anywhere in the world and one that I hope to see sometime at Wake.

Historically, Bumphead parrotfish were plentiful throughout much of the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea. In recent decades, fishing led to sharp declines in abundance and they are now only common in protected or very remote areas. Bumpheads have a few traits that make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, which has led to local disappearances in many parts of their range. Bumphead parrotfish can live to be 40 years old; they do not reach sexual maturity until 5-8 years old and likely have low natural mortality as adults so there is not high natural turnover in the population. However, most detrimental to their survival in a human-dominated world is their aggregating behavior and preference for shallow water. Groups of Bumpheads could be easily netted, as they feed during the day, and at night sleeping parrotfish are easy targets for spear fishermen. With the introduction of scuba gear in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a steep decline in Bumphead abundances as entire schools could be removed in a single night while they slept. Juvenile Bumpheads are also hard to find or study throughout much of their range and raises concerns that some adult populations are too far from juvenile habitats. This distance prevents new youngsters from entering the population to replace adults that have been caught. In areas where juveniles can be commonly found, such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, they are associated with mangrove, rubble, and sheltered lagoon habitats. And this is why Wake Atoll may be such a hotbed of Bumpheads.

Reef at Wake Atoll

Coral reef at Wake Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/James Morioka)

In addition to having a sizable healthy coral reef around the island, Wake Atoll has an expansive, sheltered lagoon. This may be the perfect habitat for the juvenile parrotfish and allows Wake to have a healthy, self-supplying population of Bumpheads. And since Wake is protected from fishing, it may be as close to a pristine home as the Bumphead parrotfish are going to encounter in today’s world. Wake actually has the highest concentration of Bumphead parrotfish in U.S. waters and possibly the world (although certain areas of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia also have very healthy adult populations). During my time at Wake Atoll, I had a number of chances to see them, from loose groups of just a few individuals, to a school of thirteen.

School too

School of Bumphead parrotfish at Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

As I write this, the NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai heads west to Guam, our next survey site where I’ll be spending 8 days surveying reef fish. Bumpheads were once thought to be extinct around Guam due to overfishing, but there have been a few sightings by CREP and partners in the past few years, of both adults and juveniles. So while my expectations of encountering these giant bulbous-headed, coral-chomping fish are low, I sure hope I do, given how important they are to the natural function of coral reef ecosystems.

  1. Bellwood, D., & Choat, J. (2011). Dangerous demographics: the lack of juvenile humphead parrotfishes Bolbometopon muricatum on the Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs, 30(2), 549-554.
  2. Bellwood, D. R., Hoey, A. S., & Choat, J. H. (2003). Limited functional redundancy in high diversity systems: resilience and ecosystem function on coral reefs. Ecology Letters, 6(4), 281-285.
  3. Bellwood, D. R., Hoey, A. S., & Hughes, T. P. (2011). Human activity selectively impacts the ecosystem roles of parrotfishes on coral reefs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1906
  4. Donaldson, T. J., & Dulvy, N. K. (2004). Threatened fishes of the world: Bolbometopon muricatum (Valenciennes 1840)(Scaridae). Environmental Biology of Fishes, 70(4), 373-373.
  5. Green, A. L., & Bellwood, D. R. (2009). Monitoring functional groups of herbivorous reef fishes as indicators of coral reef resilience: a practical guide for coral reef managers in the Asia Pacific Region: IUCN.
  6. Kobayashi, D., Friedlander, A., Grimes, C., Nichols, R., & Zgliczynski, B. (2011). Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) status review. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-PIFSC-26. NOAA.
  7. Muñoz, R. C., Zgliczynski, B. J., Laughlin, J. L., & Teer, B. Z. (2012). Extraordinary Aggressive Behavior from the Giant Coral Reef Fish, Bolbometopon muricatum, in a Remote Marine Reserve. PLoS One, 7(6), e38120. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038120
  8. Munoz, R. C., Zgliczynski, B. J., Teer, B. Z., & Laughlin, J. L. (2014). Spawning aggregation behavior and reproductive ecology of the giant bumphead parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum, in a remote marine reserve. PeerJ, 2, e681.
  9. Sundberg, M., Kobayashi, D., Kahng, S., Karl, S., & Zamzow, J. (2015). The Search for Juvenile Bumphead Parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) in the Lagoon at Wake Island.
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An Ocean of Life

By Rebecca Ingram

Living on an island, it is easy to see how intertwined our lives are with the ocean. We benefit daily from the ocean’s many resources, whether it be going fishing, diving, or simply walking along the shoreline. But if you live far away from the ocean, you may not realize that the ocean also influences your life in significant ways. The ocean affects weather patterns, the atmosphere, and contributes to global food supplies. Simply put, no matter how near or far, the ocean contributes to all life on Earth.

Scientists boarded the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette on April 17th to continue researching biological and oceanographic aspects of the West Hawai‘i marine environment. This research is fueled by the need to develop a better understanding of why this particular island region is so ecologically dynamic and productive. Specifically, we are researching fish larval habitats, species distribution in the water column, and productivity hot spots. (You can read more about our expedition here.) However, this important ship-based research does not tell the whole story.

Off the ship, scientists are investigating another important aspect of this ecosystem. There is a need to understand more about the connections between these biophysical ecosystems and the humans who live near them. People do not simply live in or near an ecosystem, but are an integral participant and rely on resources produced. So the question remains, in what ways does the West Hawai‘i community impact and rely on the marine ecosystem?

Answering this question leads to the primary strategy of Ecosystem Based Management (EBM), a holistic resource management approach that West Hawai‘i has been shifting towards in recent years. EBM recognizes that an ecosystem cannot be teased apart into neatly manageable pieces, but must be viewed through a unifying lens. EBM also specifically integrates humans, both our impacts and our reliance on resources, into management plans. (Read more about the shift toward EBM on the Big Island in a previous blog post.)

The West Hawai‘i Integrated Ecosystem Assessment helps pull both sides of the social-ecological story together and facilitate this fairly new style of resource management. It is a NOAA program focused on merging biophysical and ecological data with human dimensions. Essentially, this is a program that wants to provide managers with the means not only to conserve a species or place, but also conserve the resources valuable to the community. This includes activities like the opportunity to fish, dive, or appreciate the inherent value of being at a place. It also includes resources that stretch far beyond the island, since the health and productivity of West Hawai‘i coral reefs can be traced worldwide.

Kealakekua Bay

Kealakekua Bay: Looking down at popular tourist location, Kealakekua Bay, Hawai‘i, with surface slicks visible offshore. Photo credit: Rebecca Ingram, NOAA.


Kona Coast Sunrise

Kona Coast Sunrise: Looking at the Big Island from the ocean. Photo credit: Jamison Gove, NOAA.


Sette Scientist

NOAA Scientist: Jon Whitney (PIFSC/UH), aboard a small boat operation launched from the Sette. Photo credit: Don Kobayashi, NOAA.

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Hawaii Bottomfish Heritage Project Will be On the Air this Weekend!

On Monday, our team joined Mike Buck in the studio to talk story about the Bottomfish Heritage Project. For the project, we’ve in turn been talking story with fishermen using a research method called “oral histories” to document their knowledge and experiences with bottomfishing through time. By comparing firsthand accounts from experienced long time fishermen across the archipelago we can better understand the origins of the fishery, why and what makes bottomfishing so special, when and why certain species are targeted, and the role of fishing in maintaining personal and community connections. We’re also learning about how changes in technology and management have affected fishermen, how fishing techniques and attitudes they have been using have changed through time, and what they now see for the future of bottomfishing in Hawaii.

Kirsten Leong NOAA Social Scientist, Kurt Kawamoto NOAA Fishery Biologist, and Clay Tam Pacific Islands Fisheries Group in the studio with Mike Buck.

The ultimate goals of the project are to preserve the wealth of history and experience existing within the fishing community, to provide documentation of this small but important fishery for future generations, and make the collected knowledge available for use in maintaining the sustainability of the fishery.

The program aired on Go Fish! with Mike Buck on Saturday afternoon (4/22) at 4 pm and again on Sunday (4/23) at 7 am, on AM 690. Give a listen to learn more about how the project is shaping up so far.

We’re gathering stories now, so if you or someone you know would like to add your bottomfishing knowledge to the project, please contact us!

Bob Moffitt interviews Leonard Yamada in support of the Hawaii bottomfish Heritage Project (January 2017).

Sampan bottomfishing with Masa Ibata. Masa will be sharing his bottomfishing heritage in the coming weeks. Photo courtesy of Masa Ibata

This project is supported by NOAA Preserve America Initiative and a National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Region Cooperative Research grant.

For more information about this research feel free to contact us:


Or visit our introductory blog post or the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group (PIFG) project page.

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts.

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Taking Out Trash

by Kevin O’Brien

A friend of mine from Idaho just said to me, “you know, it’s good to have a job that lets you make piles.” I smiled immediately because I totally agree with him. He said, “There’s nothing like stepping outside in the morning with your cup of coffee and just gazing at your pile.” He brought it up in the context of chopping wood, in Idaho, but I feel that the concept is particularly apt for marine debris removal.

I’ve found myself “gazing at the pile” repeatedly over the last week as our team of staff volunteers and I unloaded the debris that was shipped here from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. All too often in the field of resource management, your daily impact is hard to visualize or quantify. Not so with something like this:

Marine Debris pile

100,000 pounds of marine debris removed from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Kevin O’Brien).

This giant pile of marine debris13 shipping containers holding approximately 100,000 poundsrecently traveled back to Honolulu from Midway aboard the charter vessel Kahana. This debris was collected from the reefs and beaches of Midway and Kure Atoll Wildlife Sanctuary over the last six years. Some of the debris was brought back opportunistically by NOAA ships, but much of the debris had to be stored on the tarmac at Midway until it could be shipped to Honolulu.

Debris at Midway Atoll

Fishing buoys, derelict nets, and plastic debris stored on the seaplane tarmac at Midway Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Dillon).

Thanks to support from the State of Hawai‘i, personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were able to jam-pack containers full of marine debris, crane it onto the Kahana, and ship it here to be sorted, recycled, and repurposed. You just can’t ignore the size of this pile, both as a measure of job satisfaction, but also as an indelible visual reminder of the huge challenge that we all face in combating the pervasive problem of plastics in our oceans. A problem that isn’t going away.

For the past ten years, I’ve assisted in coordinating the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s marine debris removal project and have seen first hand the dramatic impacts that marine debris has on our marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Since 1996, our team’s annual efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, have successfully removed more than 1.9 million pounds of marine debris, mostly derelict fishing gear, from the most remote reefs and shorelines of this incredible, wild, archipelago.

Hauling nets

Kevin O’Brien and Frances Lichowski remove derelict fishing nets from the coral reefs and haul them away by small boat (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

Some of the debris in “the pile” is a result of our efforts at Midway Atoll where we worked to develop more efficient methods for large-scale shoreline plastics removal, enabling us to tackle this difficult aspect of marine debris for the first time. Removing debris from the sensitive environment of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is critically important in many ways. Whether it’s preventing a derelict fishing net from further smothering and fragmenting a vibrant bed of porites coral, disentangling an endangered Hawaiian monk seal, or preventatively cleaning all plastics from a mile of shoreline filled with hungry albatross chicks, these actions are one of the most immediate and tangible steps we can take to ensure the continued health of this fragile ecosystem. In addition to gazing at large satisfying piles, and the thought of lots of coffee, what continues to get me up every morning is the opportunity to continue this important hands-on work.

Albatross 2013

Kevin O’Brien carefully frees a Laysan Albatross chick that was entangled in fishing net on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll in 2013 (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

Imagine what would happen if the trash collector stopped showing up at your home. First the can would fill up, then a few trash bags would pile up, and after a week, you’d find it spilling over into the yard and the driveway. After a few weeks, you wouldn’t be able to back your car out of the garage, and after a couple of months, the dog in your yard would be trying to lay claim to the last scrap of grassy green real estate amidst heaps of trash bags. The same analogy applies to Midway Atoll, Kure Atoll, and every island within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monumentonly on a scale that is daunting and with the added element of sensitive protected species instead of your family dog.

Laysan albatross P&H

Laysan albatross chick surrounded by marine debris on the remote Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

A 2006 NOAA study estimated that 52 metric tons of derelict fishing gear alone accumulates in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands every year. That doesn’t even account for the unknown tons of plastics accumulating on the shorelines. The islands and atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are very remote. For example, Kure Atoll at the end of the chain is 1,368 miles from Honolulu. Conducting work of any kind here is difficult and costly due to the immense distances and tricky access to these islands.

The debris you see in this giant “pile” represents the collective cleanup efforts of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge Staff, the State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and NOAA, at both Midway and Kure Atolls. It also represents a significant investment by the State to transport this marine debris back to Honolulu via charter vessel- the final missing link. It was these agencies’ willingness to collaborate, pitch in resources, and think outside the box that enabled this effort to happen.

Highlighting this marine debris removal effort is, among other things, an effort to bring together the people and organizations who are actively involved in doing management work in Hawaii’s protected areasto keep the issue of marine debris in the forefront of our collective consciousness. It is my hope, that, using this successful collaborative mission as a model, we can find creative ways to continue this important work, together. Whether that’s through forging new partnerships, fostering existing ones, pooling resources to enable larger scale efforts such as this, thinking outside the box to close the loop on the open ended flow of plastics into the ocean, or tackling prevention through education and outreach, it is clear that we are stronger and more effective when we work together.

I’d like all of us who read this and find ourselves concerned with the issue of marine debris to see ourselves as a community. A community of stewards who are responsible for protecting an important natural resource. Let’s meet each other. Let’s get to know each other better. Let’s continue this dialogue in order to maintain momentum going forward. Because, despite the satisfaction we all get from looking at a big pile like this, the ultimate goal is to someday not even have one.

Midway derelict fishing nets

A black-footed albatross surveys a beach cleared of debris piles (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/David Slater).


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Checking the Ocean’s Pulse with Plankton


Phronima plankton. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jonathan Whitney.

By Joseph Bennington-Castro

At the very core of the marine food web you’ll find plankton, which are tiny organisms that propagate and feed the rest of the ocean’s marine life — indirectly feeding everyone who enjoys seafood. Plankton, by definition, are small drifters that are largely microscopic and live in the deep ocean, making it a challenge for scientists to study them.

But make no mistake: What these creatures lack in size or locomotion, they more than make up in importance. In a sense, plankton are the “lifeblood” of the ocean and studying them allows scientists to metaphorically give the ocean a blood test or check its pulse to determine its overall health, among other things.

Seeking to better understand the health and productivity of Hawaiʻi’s coastal ocean, PIFSC scientists kicked off a project last week to collect and study the plankton and micronekton (small intermediate-stage organisms that develop from plankton) off the leeward coast of Oʻahu.


Jar of plankton. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Joseph Bennington-Castro.

The NOAA Fisheries researchers and their partners will be comparing the data they collect with similar leeward surveys conducted 1951 through 1978, earning the project the moniker “Trawling Through Time.” Ultimately, the project will help the research team, led by chief scientist Dr. Donald Kobayashi from the PIFSC Ecosystems and Oceanography Program, determine if and/or how the pelagic marine ecosystem and underlying oceanography of the leeward region has changed over time.

For this project, the researchers are conducting a series of bongo net surveys and midwater trawls off the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

The bongo nets scoop up unsuspecting zooplankton, or animals that spend all or part of their life as free-floating plankton. The scientists are conducting day and night bongo net surveys at various depths, including 200 meters and 400 to 500 meters. They painstakingly sort the plankton by size (using mesh screens of various scales) in the ship’s wet lab, while the Sette continues to bob on the ocean.

Dr. Jonathan Whitney, a scientist with PIFSC-JIMAR (Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research), leads the plankton team. Dr. Erica Goetze from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM) Department of Oceanography and her recent graduate Dr. Michelle Jungbluth (now at San Francisco State University) assist Whitney as experts with copepods, one of the most abundant plankton. One of the objectives of the “Trawling Through Time” project is to determine if copepod abundance or diversity has changed over time. Also part of this important team are Zora McGinnis from the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office and Shilpa Lal, a graduate student at the UHM Department of Oceanography.

The midwater trawls pick up micronekton, a category of organisms that sit between plankton and nekton, or larger marine animals that can swim freely without their motions being driven by ocean currents. Typically serving as food for nektonic species, micronekton are situated in the middle of the food web and include marine animals like small fish, cephalopods, crustaceans, and jellyfish. They have increased swimming ability compared with plankton, helping them to avoid the nets scientists use to collect them.

On the 4th day at sea, the team conducted a deep tow with a midwater trawl, reaching a depth of about 1,000 meters. Bringing the net back up was a slow and tedious process, as they had to pick out numerous snipe eels and other mesopelagic fishes (those living at depths of 200 to 1000 meters) from the meshes in the forward part of the net as it was hauled back aboard the ship.

The trawl was quite successful, however, and the researchers collected various unusual-looking mesopelagic fish and micronekton, which they excitedly categorized back in the wet lab.

PIFSC JIMAR scientist Dr. Johanna Wren leads the the trawl team, which also includes Dr. John Denton from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Justin Ossolinski and Rory Driskell from the PIFSC Science Operations Division, recently retired PIFSC scientist Robert Humphreys Jr., and UHM undergraduate Yuuki Niimi. Dr. Denton is an expert in myctophids (lanternfishes), a family of fish that’s ubiquitous in the world’s oceans and one of the most abundant type of fishes around. One of the objectives of the project is to determine if myctophid abundance or diversity has changed over time.

The scientists are finishing the last of their their bongo net surveys and midwater trawls, and will then begin analyzing their data back on land. Given scientific concerns about the impact of climate change and other anthropogenic (human-related) factors on coastal fisheries and ecosystems, this research is vital to help scientists understand ocean resiliency, health, and productivity.

Learn more about the project here. And check out some of the team’s other collections below.




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An Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management Planning workshop in North Samar, Philippines

by Supin Wongbusarakum

Vessel moored by the banks of the river in North Samar, Philippines. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Supin Wongbusarakum

“As a government employee, I will share all my knowledge and put in all my effort by doing my tasks the best I can to ensure success of the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) plan. Being new to the government and the concept, I will study and do more research on how to make this more effective. As an individual, I will encourage my friends to protect nature in any simple way they can in their every day life.”

– A commitment statement by a local governmental unit officer at the EAFM Workshop, Calbayog, Philippines, January 30–February 2, 2017
Fresh fish at a harbor market

Fresh fish sold at the local harbor market. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Supin Wongbusarakum

We arrived in the town of Calbayog in Visayas Province, Philippines the weekend before our EAFM workshop, supported by USAID, with partners from the USAID-funded ECOFISH project and officers from the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. We began setting up the room for the workshop activities and EAFM planning process. Collectively, we pooled our creativity to transform a long, narrow room into a welcoming venue where approximately 50 local governmental unit officials from 16 municipalities from the region could work together for the next four days. The objective for the workshop was to develop an EAFM plan for the fisheries management unit in the San Bernardino Strait and Ticao Pass—moving from theory to practice with an ecosystem approach to fisheries management and sustainable development. Because we needed to reserve wall space to display workshop output each day, we posted some of the posters on the ceiling. Surprisingly, everything looked great!

Abundance of Nipa palms in the wetland

Nipa palm trees line the coast of the wetlands. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Supin Wongbusarakum

From the windows of the meeting room, we could see a big river with incredibly lush and green vegetation along both banks and mountains in the distance.  The light evening breeze matched the slow and gentle flow of the river. As the sun dropped below the horizon we found ourselves wrapped in a pleasant stillness, with just the sound of the water slipping by and evening insects as company. Most of us were in deep thought about what we would need to do to ensure that this workshop for EAFM planning in the Philippines would be a success and set a good precedent for more to follow.

Sunset in Calbayog

The sun sets behind a boat on the Calbayog coast. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Supin Wongbusarakum

As night fell, a local ECOFISH staffer said we might see fireflies. Having been in many places where wetlands were paved over for development, I could not remember the last time I had seen fireflies. Then, in the midst of this reverie, I heard our ECOFISH colleagues shout, “Fireflies!” Here and there around us were tiny flashing lights. As the night got darker, some trees along the banks were filled with hundreds of fireflies. The effect was magical. Throughout the EAFM planning workshop, this image of firefly-lit trees kept surfacing as a reminder that there are still places where development has not covered over nature’s magic, and as an incentive for achieving a balance between people’s resource needs and the management and stewardship of ecosystems.

Boat by river bank

Fishing boat moored on the banks of the river. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Supin Wongbusarakum

In the workshop, we discussed this goal of balancing ecological health with human well-being through good governance. We outlined the principles of an EAFM that include coordination and cooperation for multiple objectives and precautionary approaches to address uncertainty. We went through a full EAFM planning process—the local governmental officials defined their fisheries management area, threats and issues, goals, objectives, management activities, monitoring, and financial plans. Similar to many of the areas where we work, the major threats and issues discussed in Calbayog were related to degraded fisheries resources, poverty, illegal fishing, and weak enforcement. These problems are interlinked and have to be addressed holistically, which is exactly what an ecosystem approach to fisheries management offers. We discussed different ways to sustain fisheries and develop alternative livelihoods that will help lessen pressures on marine resources. We also took into consideration different ways to engage other stakeholder groups that rely on these marine resources.

On the last day, I was asked to help close the workshop. I shared my thoughts about the fireflies of Calbayog, my impressions of the immensely valuable wetlands surrounding us, and how our work together would contribute to conserving coastal and the marine resources for future generations. The abundance of fireflies in Calbayog was not just a magic moment in my life, it was for me, a sign of how much nature around us remains intact. I asked all the participants to reflect on how each of us is committed to the goal of balancing nature and human well-being. One by one, participants came up and posted commitment statements as we thanked each other for contributing to a very productive workshop. We all agreed that it is important to continue working together so that future generations will be able to witness natural occurrences as magical as the fireflies of Calbayog.

With thanks to USAID, ECOFISH, and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources for supporting this workshop.


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