Why chilli crab is good, but shark's fin bad

How to save our reefs, according to Conservation International advisor and underwater photographer Mark Erdmann
Edric Sng Today Online 5 Jul 12;

SINGAPORE - When Dr Mark V Erdmann, senior advisor for Conservation International-Indonesia's marine programme, talks about saving the seas, you know it comes from the heart.

The underwater photographer and taxonomist is soaked in brine, having logged nearly 10,000 scuba dives and published 101 articles on all things aquatic. His latest work, co-authored with Dr Gerald Allen, is a masterpiece in the classic sense of the word: Reef Fishes Of The East Indies is a three-volume book set describing each of the 2,631 currently known reef fish species from the region and featuring more than 3,600 photographs, of which about 40 per cent have never before been seen in print.

Dr Erdmann was due in town last week, but a last-minute change of schedule meant he talked to TODAY's digital media and science editor Edric Sng via email, rather than over an environmentally-sustainable plate of chilli crab.

Of the thousands of photos in Reef Fishes Of The East Indies, which is your favourite?

Gerry (Dr Allen) and I were striving to photograph every known reef fish species from this region, and that includes a number that are either extremely shy or cryptic, or those that dwell in depths beyond normal scuba diving range.

One that holds special significance to me is the tilefish that is named after me, Hoplolatilus erdmanni. I found this fish while we were conducting a biodiversity survey of Triton Bay in West Papua in the 40m to 70m depth range.

When I saw the tiger stripes on this fish in the near-twilight conditions, I knew immediately it was something new, and did my best to capture it. Unfortunately it is a wily fish and my initial attempt failed. After a long decompression, I got back to the boat and told Gerry about it.

He was dubious about the stripes and reckoned I had imagined them. He remained sceptical, and sent me down to try to find it again. On my second attempt, I managed to catch a specimen, and while I was doing an hour-long decompression, the fish started to die and its stripes began to fade! I was terrified that by the time I got back to the ship to show Gerry, it would have lost its stripes and he'd just shrug his shoulders at me!

So I did everything I could to pass water over the gills and keep the fish alive. Fortunately, it survived and so I was able to show Gerry the live colouration, and he immediately agreed it was a new species. Later, he named the fish after me!

Which was the hardest fish to shoot?

Gerry took the vast majority of the shots in the book, and we will both tell you that the most difficult reef fish subject is the male "flasher" wrasse. These animals are only 5cm to 6cm long, and at most times they have quite drab colouration.

But just as the sun starts to set, they begin a display for the harems of females that follow them around. They rise up in the water column, erect all of their fins, turn on their neon bright colours and frantically swim around, "flashing" the females. Catching them in focus - all fins up and colours pulsing - is the ultimate challenge for an underwater photographer.

Why should the health of a coral reef in, say, Raja Ampat matter to the city dwellers in Singapore?

In the same way that the world is now increasingly "connected" via the Internet and social media, there are many other examples of increased connectivity on our planet today, such that the fate of the reefs in Raja Ampat most definitely has an impact on Singaporeans. Allow me to give a few examples.

Raja Ampat has become a top dive destination for many Singaporeans, so there is of course that direct link with those that enjoy the spectacular beauty of Raja Ampat.

Then there is the relatively cliched, but nonetheless important, connection that Raja Ampat - as the global epicentre of marine biodiversity - is in essence a globally outstanding "library" of tremendous biodiversity that has untold possibilities for uses to humankind, including medicines and industrial applications.

Beyond this, there are other links though as well. Singaporeans certainly love eating seafood, and this seafood comes from throughout the region, including Raja Ampat. If the reefs and the fish stocks around the region are not properly safeguarded and managed for sustainability, delicacies like grouper, lobster and even chili crab will eventually be nothing more than restaurant legend.

Moreover, the reefs in Raja Ampat and Indonesia are exceedingly important for the food security of the local communities; if this food security of millions of Indonesians and coastal southeast Asians is lost, the long-term threat to ASEAN stability is a serious consideration.

Where have you seen the worst damage to the reefs?

Unfortunately, I've seen horrible damage to reefs throughout South-east Asia - Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and all the way to Africa and the Caribbean. Within the vaunted "Coral Triangle" of South-east Asia, the worst damage is typically due to destructive fishing practices such as blast fishing, which reduces thriving reefs to lifeless rubble piles in a matter of seconds.

Large-scale net fishing can frequently be nearly as damaging. And increasingly, we are seeing massive reef degradation around the region due to smothering of the corals by sediment, sometimes due to active reclamation of coral reefs - such as the ridiculous reclamation going on in Manado, Indonesia, where the economy is based on marine tourism but the government is approving more reclamation on top of stunning reefs in order to build more malls!

Then there's coastal strip mining or bad development practices, like building roads with no coastal vegetation buffer.

Is there hope for the reefs of South-East Asia? What steps can be taken?

Without question I remain very hopeful, in large part because I've been fortunate to see a wide range of success stories throughout the region, especially those where local communities, dive operators, and increasingly governments are working together to sustainably manage their reefs.

I am a huge believer in the importance of creating marine protected areas (MPAs), in which the various marine uses are carefully managed and 20 to 30 per cent of the areas are set aside as "no-fishing zones" in order to allow the replenishment of fish stocks.

Strict enforcement against destructive fishing practices is also highly important - the reefs of South-east Asia are actually incredibly resilient - we just need to give them a chance by removing the most serious stressors like blast-fishing and they recover very well!

What can individuals do to help?

Obviously, individuals can consider donating to their favorite organisations who are working in the realm of marine conservation and management.

For those that are interested in marine tourism - snorkelling, diving, kayaking - choosing a destination where the local government and communities are actively managing their reefs is a big contribution to those local economies.

We also can all make more sustainable choices in our own lifestyles, from focusing on using mass transit like MRT to choosing only sustainable seafood when eating at local restaurants. Chili crab, for instance, is a generally excellent choice - these mangrove crabs grow fast and reproduce in the millions. Sharks are at the other end of the spectrum: They grow extremely slowly, mature late in life, and generally only give birth to a few pups at a time, meaning their populations simply cannot withstand intensive harvesting.

How would you describe what you do: A hobby, a passion, a job, a duty?

For marine conservation, I would probably classify it as "all of the above". While I get paid as a marine conservationist, it is far more than just a job for me - it is an all-consuming passion. I feel a strong sense of duty: Our oceans are in trouble, and I want to do everything I can to ensure that my children can see the same amazing sights and enjoy experiences I have had underwater for the past 30 years.

The fish photography and taxonomy are a relatively small part of my overall job responsibilities, but it qualifies now as my most consuming hobby and without question I'm happiest now when exploring South-east Asian reefs for new fish species.