13 September 2017

Collaborator of the Month: Dr. Charlie (J.E.N) Veron

If you have worked on corals and coral reefs, then you're probably well acquainted with the most comprehensive resource for corals there is, the 3-volume Corals of The World by John Edward Norwood Veron or as cited in the scientific community, J.E.N or Charlie Veron. Can you imagine your life without such a valuable resource? The thing is, Charlie Veron almost did not become a scientist. 

He is known today as the "Godfather of Coral" and likened by David Attenborough to Charles Darwin.

In his memoir A Life Underwater, Charlie chronicles his love for marine life as a child, his long holdup (how he almost didn't make it back to the sea), how one chance helped him pursue his true passion, and how he became a revolutionary self-taught coral specialist.

His work has been instrumental in our present understanding of coral reefs, from how they reproduce to how they evolve, and how they, in the light of climate change, have been dying. "Without his early work we wouldn't have had the basic benchmarks to see the nature of the changes that we are now seeing. He provided that baseline to put everything in context," says the scientist Tim Flannery [1].

Veron's contributions to coral reefs and marine biology are monumental. He was the first to compile a global taxonomy on corals. Also, contrary to common notion, he shed light that the the Indo-Philippines archipelago has the most diverse corals in the world, not the Great Barrier Reef. He is also known for his seminal theory, Reticulate evolution, on how corals have evolved [1]. 

To date, he he has worked on all the major coral reef regions of the world and has over 100 research publications, including 12 books and monographs on corals and coral reefs. 

Among his many books, his three-volume Corals of the World (2000), with his permission to use data and photos, has been invaluable to documenting the diversity of reef-building corals in SealifeBase. 

Over his 50-year career, Veron hasn't only been an insatiable learner of corals. He's been fearless in protecting the marine life he has reveled in his whole life. 

In his memoir, his adventures urge us not only to guard scholarly independence, but more importantly to learn to be persistent and take risks. He explains why today is the most pivotal time to protect our incredible marine life.

You may purchase Charlie's delightful memoir through this link.
[1] Elliott, T. (2017, July 14). Live near the beach? Coral reef expert Charlie Veron has some advice for you. The Age. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2vFfOMo

04 September 2017

Salute to the Gladiators of the Sea

Have you been vaccinated recently? Took medicine without any mishaps?
The merit goes to our clanky fellow—the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus)for its precious blue blood.
Nope, they are not royalty, their blood is literally blue—it contains hemocyanin, a copper-based molecule carrying copper [1,2] which, when oxidized, turns bluish-green [1,3]. Meanwhile, our blood uses hemoglobin which carries oxygen (has iron in it), thus the reddish hue [1,3].
These ‘crabs’ are not true crabs, not even crustaceans [2,3]. In fact, they are under the subphylum Chelicerata [3,7], more akin to scorpions and spiders than they are to crabs [2,7]. They boast 10 eyes: large compound eyes, in particular, aid in locating a mate [3,4]. Their tails may look like a scathing weapon against predators; in fact, they use it to propel in different directions [3,4], or to flip them right up when capsized [2,3].
Thousands of these ‘living fossils’ form throngs in Delaware Bay every May and June, ready to mate. A female can release as much as 90,000 eggs per clutch but only around 10 are deemed to reach adulthood [3].
Horseshoe crabs are fine, robust, armor-clad creatures, as the paleontologist Richard Fortney remarked [1]. Time has been their ally, predating the dinosaurs for more than 200 million years [2,7]. A big hole on the head, a lump on the thorax, or a cracked tail spike did not obliterate these 450-million-year old ‘gundams.’ [1,4].
What helps them become almost invincible?
When a horseshoe crab gets wounded, its blood instantly releases an army of blood-clotting granules which seal the invading bacteria, preventing further infection [1]— the same, humbling reason, why we get to be safely injected with vaccines for four decades now [3].
Today, their blood is extensively used to test products, intravenous drugs and medical devices that come into contact with blood. Essentially, its active ingredient is a sentinel against “negative” bacteria, which is confirmed present if the cells clot in contact with a product [1,2,4,5]. Suffice it to say, horseshoe crabs have been saving millions of lives from unsanitary injections [3].
Photo credit: Popular Mechanics

One quart (almost 1 liter) of horseshoe blood is sold by Atlantic fishermen to pharmaceutical companies for an astounding $15,000, a lucrative business with more than 600,000 'donors' being bled [3,6].
To obtain the blue blood they are hosed up, sucking 30 percent of their blood [2,3,6]. They are released back into the sea after 48 hours, dizzy after a clueless donation [3]. It is estimated that 3 to 15 percent of these crabs die after being bled [1], while those that survive become sluggish [3]. Also, scientists saw a decline in the population of horseshoe crab in Delaware and so prompted the creation of a sanctuary [1]. They have been assessed as Vulnerable since last year [8]. Scientists, hence, are on their way to creating synthetic amebocytes [3].
We may not live for as long as they have, but next time we receive a safe vaccination or feel well after a medication, we ought to thank a horseshoe crab.
To know more about horseshoe crabs, visit SeaLifeBase.

If you have more information on horseshoe crabs and other non-fish organisms, we'll be happy to have you as one of our collaborators. Let us know by sending us an email or visiting our FaceBook page.

[1] Krulwich, R. (2012, June 1).What the vampire said to the horseshoe crab: ‘your blood is blue?’ Retrieved from https://goo.gl/66sdMC
[2] National Ocean Service (2015). Are horseshoe crabs really crabs? Retrieved from https://goo.gl/J9zEw6
[3] Mancini, M. (2015, September 21). 10 hard-shelled facts about horseshoe crabs. Mental Floss. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/JNBSHT
[4] Walker, K. (2014, July 15). 10 facts about horseshoe crabs. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/WTmg7M
[5] Jones, L. (2015, April 13). Are there some animals that have stopped evolving? BBC Earth. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/y8AQ22
[6] Moss, L. (2014, March 11). Why is horseshoe crab so vital to pharmaceuticals? Mother Nature Network. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/23czRv
[7] Edgecomb, M. (2002, June 21). Horseshoe crabs remain mysteries to biologists. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/Tz9Hys
[8] Smith, D.R., Beekey, M.A., Brockmann, H.J., King, T.L., Millard, M.J. & Zaldívar-Rae, J.A. 2016. Limulus polyphemus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T11987A80159830. https://goo.gl/L8nZvT

15 August 2017

A Small Giant Makes Up For a House


Let's say we're the curious scientists here about to embark on a deep dive, an excursion to around 400 m down Monterey Bay. 

What what we're about to witness is a giant, floating... "tadpole"

They're called giant larvaceans, pelagic basal chordates [1]. Most adult species are barely half an inch [2] while giants are typically the size of a pinkie finger, even reaching 3.5 inches. They might look like tadpoles with a distinct head and tail. Aptly so, Larvacea derives its name from its semblance to a larval tunicate [1].

Now, back to our interest, let's maneuver with our remotely operated vehicle (ROV), a video, and a laser. Reaching the deep, dark waters, we spot a head, an undulating tail - a larvacean as we expected it to be. Until...

The Big, Transparent House

Lean closer and we see a fragile, mucus "house" which encases the larvacean. Depending on the species, the creature makes it a home either by being attached to it or by being cocooned within it. For instance, Fritillaria species attach to the outside while Oikopleura species usually live within it [1]. 

Photo of the giant larvacean Bathochordaeus mcnutti from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

It doesn't take much to build a bubble house. An Oikopleura sp. can inflate its house in a minute, and can construct 4 to 16 houses a day depending on the temperature and food availability. In a lifetime, it can construct 46 houses [1].

What's the house for?

It is a feeding apparatus: an efficient filter-feeding and trapping system [1,2,3].

Take the giant larvacean Bathochordaeus.

The Bathochordaeus' house can reach a diameter greater than a meter. It is basically an outer structure with a mucus screen that excludes larger particles, plus an inner filter which sieves and concentrates plankton and organic material. Attached to one another, the house's tail chamber receives the particle-laden water pumped by the creature's tail. The water is then directed into the inner feeding filter. When it's done, the concentrated particulate is delivered into the animal's mouth [2].

Food particles are shown in some species to be 100 to 1000 times more dense than the surrounding water: It's a rich broth like no other [2]. 

Fastest Zooplankton Filter Feeder

Larvaceans are second to copepods as ubiquitous marine creatures. In ideal conditions, their number could be massive. In British Columbia, each cubic meter of water holds 25,260 individuals. That's a lot of whipping tails and house expansion [1].

However, attempts to grow a larvacean's house in the laboratory proved impossible; the houses are way too fragile [2,3]. A recent study led by Katija used a tool called DeepPIV which permitted them to directly measure the filtration rates of giant larvaceans on site. To their surprise, each individual can filter 11 gallons (almost 42 liters) of water per hour [2]. 

That makes them the fastest zooplankton feeder, spearing them ahead of copepods, euphausiids, salps and small larvaceans [2]. 

At peak density and maximum filtration rate, giant larvaceans have the potential to filter their 200-m depth range in Monterey Bay within 13 days [2].

Fertilizing Discards

When its house gets clogged, the larvacean simply discards it and makes another one. These large, nutrient-laden houses immediately sink to the seafloor without time for mineralization by microbes.  Soaked with the ocean's upper productivity, these mucus houses contribute about one-third to vertical carbon flux from near-surface waters to the deep sea benthos [2,3]. 

Probing further into the mid-water filter feeders and their filtration capacities could someday shed more insights on the connection between deep water biota and their long-term removal of atmospheric carbon [2,3]. 

If you have more information on larvaceans and other non-fish organisms, we'll be happy to have you as one of SeaLifeBase collaborators. Let us know by sending us an email or visiting our FaceBook page.

[1] Ruppert, E. E., Fox, R. S., & Barnes, R. D. (2004). Invertebrate zoology (7th ed.) A functional evolutionary approach.

[2] Katija, K., Sherlock, R. E., Sherman, A. D., & Robison, B. H. (2017). New technology reveals the role of giant larvaceans in oceanic carbon cycling. Science Advances, 3(5), e1602374.

[3] Yin, S. (3 May 2017). In Disposable Mucus Houses, These Zooplankton Filter the Oceans. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/2qBhwgD

04 July 2017

Celebrating the ocean

Two events to celebrate the ocean and promote awareness.

Image may contain: text
Photo from event page.

To cap off the Month of the Ocean, celebrated in the Philippines every May, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources - Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) and the Department of Agriculture - Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR) in partnership with Bonifacio High Street and the PaNaGAt Network along with a number of NGOs, partnered to launch the first ever Ocean Festival. Held last 28th of May in Bonifacio High Street, Taguig City, it featured conservation and sustainability talks, exhibits, arts and live music. The activity aimed to raise awareness on issues confronting our ocean today, foster a healthier and more mindful appreciation of the ocean and highlight the connectivity of people and the ocean.


Participating agencies and organizations had booths where they had various gimmicks to introduce their advocacy and campaigns to participants. It was also a venue to distribute information and education materials regarding the state of our oceans and fisheries. FishBase Information and Research Group (FIN) participated and distributed species fact sheets and postcards highlighting popular Philippine marine species.

Photo from event page.

The international community celebrate Oceans month every June, and this year a small event: "Be Ocean Wise", was sponsored by Buku-Buku Kafe to promote ocean awareness for people in different walks of life and give them a chance to get involved and take part in various conservation efforts. This event was held last Saturday, 1st of July at Buku-Buku Kafe, SM Southmall. FIN along with Oceana Philippines, Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, Balyena.org, and Sip PH were invited.

No automatic alt text available.

Aside from booths by participating organizations, short talks were also given on ocean awareness: Making the right seafood choice, a step towards healthier oceans (by FIN), Single-use plastic and our oceans (by SIP-PH) and Philippine Rise (by OCEANA Philippines).

30 June 2017

A holistic global strategic plan to include Antarctica's biodiversity

The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, developed under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), provides the framework for curbing biodiversity loss by 2020. It consists of five strategic goals interspersed with 20 targets known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targetsacting as a flexible framework for addressing national needs, priorities, and progress. 

Biodiversity and conservation state of the Antarctica and Southern Ocean (which cover 10% of the planet's surface), however, has not been evaluated against the Strategic Plan
a clear gap if a holistic global biodiversity assessment is aimed by 2020. Providing an analysis of the region will generate a true representative of the state of global biodiversity; it will also allow the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) to compare conservation progress in the region with that being made globally. 

Scientists led by Steven Chown, together with Sea Around Us Senior Scientist and SeaLifeBase Project Coordinator Maria Lourdes Palomares and others, filled in the gap using empirical evidence, expert knowledge, and general guidelines for conducting biodiversity assessments. 

Fig 1. Progress for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean against the Aichi target elements compared with the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 (Accessed from Chown_etal2017, PLOS Biology).  

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean biodiversity prospects for 2020 (and beyond to 2050), surprisingly, are at par or similar to those for the rest of the planet.  Still, a lot can be done to improve the state in the region through support from the government, industry, and public, creation of new tools, and an integrated biodiversity strategy and action plan.

Access the full article published in PLOS Biology: 

01 June 2017

The Kraken's Timeline Unleashed Across Myth and Science

Photo of a Kraken depicted as a sea monster devouring a ship.

Have you ever wondered how much of myths and legends we know today are based on actual events or things? What inspired mythological monsters such as the Kraken? Isn't it curious how these various stories from different era, depict creatures with striking resemblance to each other and to some organisms we know today? Wouldn't it be short of amazing to trace back the identity of the organisms from which these monsters were based on? Journeying from legends to science fiction to scientific investigations before figuring-out that creatures like the sea monk, the sea monster and the sea serpent are all but the same organism?

That is exactly what biologists Dr. Rodrigo Salvador and Barbara Tomotani uncovered in their 2014 paper entitled: "The Kraken: when myth encounters science".

By bringing together myths, legends, and science, they have revealed the Kraken to be the giant squid (Architeuthis). They are historically depicted to be as humongous as an island or a mountain, lurking sea monsters that whip and sink entire fleets. Their mystery has been told with rich, cliff-hanging stories, around the world, which we can now access and flip like a storybook.

Gianpaolo Coro transforms the narrative of the elusive Kraken into a witty, compelling timeline - from Gessner's sea serpent in 1587 to the real dimensions of the giant squid in 1982 to the Clash of Titans in 2010 and so much more. 

A segment of the giant squid's timeline, where it is depicted as a sea serpent in "Historiae animalium."

The timeline also includes the first digital distribution map of Architeuthis dux computed using D4Science e-Infrastructure.

Photo from Coro et al (2015)

What made the timeline possible was a semi-automatic tool called the Narrative Building and Visualizing Tool (NBVT) which pulls information such as images and entities from 
Wikidata or Wikimedia Commons as a starting framework for a comprehensive visual narrative. NBVT allows selection among automatically generated semantic network of narrative ontologies, with the freedom to create new entities. Information is automatically saved and rendered graphically as tables, network graphs and timelines.

This can be a powerful tool to make your narrative come to life. You can also try it here.

To know more about the giantsquid, visit SeaLifeBase.

Salvador, R. B., & Tomotani, B. M. (2014). The Kraken: when myth encounters science. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, 21(3), 971-994.

Coro, G., Magliozzi, C., Ellenbroek, A., & Pagano, P. (2015). Improving data quality to build a robust distribution model for Architeuthis dux. Ecological Modelling 305, 29-39.

22 May 2017

Ocean in focus: Species Fact sheets

In celebration of Month of the Ocean, we have created species fact sheets that would highlight different marine organisms and their biology, distribution and conservation status. 

First up are these three:


These one-page species profiles were created using information from SeaLifeBase.

Watch our for more species fact sheets in the remaining weeks of Month of the Ocean and towards the World Oceans Day Celebration in June 8.


As promised here is another species fact sheet, created using information from FishBase.

We've also produced species postcards, which we distributed during the Ocean Festival event, a culminating activity for the Month of the Ocean celebration. 

15 May 2017

A Gargantuan of Wonder: Meet the Giant Shipworm

The giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia), dubbed as the giant ‘tamilok’ in the Philippines, holds a lot of secrets. That is, until scientists saw a Philippine documentary on this giant ‘tamilok’ [1] on YouTube.

What we know today is actually a result of a detour. A team of scientists led by Daniel Distel of Boston’s Northeastern University were working with local scientists from the Philippines when a student of his prodded him to watch the said videoDistel knew they were on to something big.
The creature is only known from fossils; it took centuries to finally study in detail the first live specimens of the giant shipworm [1,2].
Echoing Margo Haygood, one of the authors, finding them is out of this world. It's like donning the role of an early, seminal naturalist where every seemingly trivial thing becomes an opportunity to bridge the unknown.

Fortunately, that time is now.
The giant shipworm, as scientists had recently discovered, is the only known member of the family Teridinidae (shipworms) that burrows in marine sediments rather than drill in wood [1,2]. Unlike the wood-munching, notorious ship-sinking shipworms [3], it is distinctly encased in a tube made of calcium carbonate, vertically speared through the black, organic sediments in a shallow lagoon, wherein more than 75 to 80% of its body is buried [1].

Pulling one off from its murky bed reveals an adrift bleached staff… or is it?

The giant shipworm in its calcareous tube( Photo from Distel et al.)

"Tok tok tok..."

Distel, the lead scientist of the study, is mystified. He didn’t know how to get the shipworm out. Still, instinctively and carefully, he chiseled the chalky head. 

"... the shell came off, just like an egg.", Distel said [2]. 

Swiftly, here goes the flabby giant.

Photo from PNAS

First impression: It's like a worm - a really big one. But it's actually a bivalve, a type of clam. The modified pair of clam shells is positioned unto its head. The bulging head houses the mouth as it tapers to a y-tail containing the two siphons. For them to grow, they need to open the mouth’s cap, dissolve or reabsorb the cap, grow and bury further, then seal it off again. These rare, enigmatic creatures are the biggest (yet) among the existing bivalves today, reaching more than 5 feet [1].

Its gunmetal black shade stunned the scientists. "Most bivalves are greyish, tan, pink, brown, light beige colour. It is much beefier, more muscular than any other bivalve I had ever seen.”, said Distel [2].

How Did It Get So Big?

Scientists surmised that for the giant shipworm to grow so humongous, the key must lie on nutrient abundance.

But their anatomy is odd: The anterior end of its tube is covered with a calcareous cap which only periodically allows it to grow; when the cap is present, excavation and ingestion of sediments is impossible. Also, instead of a large wood-storing sac found in shipworms, theirs is a small, poorly developed digestive system (See Fig. 1). These characteristics could suggest that they don’t filter particulates, ingest sediments, or store wood [1]. 

Figure 1. Anatomy of the giant shipworm (Source: Distel et al.)

So how exactly did they get bigger?

In essence, the giant shipworms are the descendants of their wood-feeding kin. That is, instead of munching their way through a wood with the aid of cellulolytic bacteria in their gills, the giant shipworms are left alone buried in the mud, while their sulfur-oxidizing chemoautotrophic bacteria do the job [1]. 

As wood degrades in the presence of bacteria, one of the wastes is hydrogen sulfide. It's a long chomping process. The giant shipworm's symbionts then re-oxidize the sulfide into sulfate, making available the organic carbon for its host [1]. In short, unlike the typical shipworm, it is readily provided with the fuel it needs. 

Now, imagine the shipworm and its bacterial comrade for years end, perching in a slew of rotting wood and organic deposits. Wouldn't a seafloor teeming with hydrogen sulfide be the most fitting, generous, stench of a paradise? 

That's their big story. 

To know more about shipworms and the giants of the sea, visit SeaLifeBase. Our current information about this species is limited (and the online version has not been updated). If you have more information about this species, help us and be one of our collaborators.

[1] Distel, D.L., Altamia, M.A., Lin, Z., Shipway, J.R., Han, R., Forteza, I., Antemano, R., Peñaflor Limbaco, M.G.J., Tebo, A.G., Dechavez, R., Albano, J., Rosenberg, G., Concepcion, Schmidt, E.W., & Haygood, M.G. (2017). Discovery of chemoautotrophic symbiosis in the giant shipworm Kuphus polythalamia (Bivalvia: Teredinidae) extends wooden-steps theory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201620470.

[2] BBC (2017, April 18). Live, long and black giant shipworm found in Philippines. BBC. Retrieved from http://bbc.in/2nXOeLm

[3] Gilman, S. (2017, April 25). The clam that sank a thousand ships. Hakai Magazine. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2hd12Ki

27 April 2017

Mundus Maris' Awards 2017

Celebrate the Month of the Ocean with our friends at Mundus Maris!
Check-out Mundus Maris' Awards in celebration of the World Oceans Day 2017.
This year's motto: "Our Oceans, Our Future".

Hurry!!! Deadline is on April 30.

20 April 2017

Last Stretch Towards Saving the 30 Vaquitas

They ought to stay, these beautiful, shy vaquitas (Phocoena sinus), but the possibility of seeing them in our lifetime is immensely threatened. They are on the edge of extinction.

Vaquitas ("little cow" in Spanish), the world's smallest cetaceans, belong to the family Phocoenidae, the porpoises, which contains only 6 species worldwide. They can reach a length of up to 1.5 meters, and can only be found in Mexico's Gulf of California [1].

They live in murky, relatively shallow waters, feeding on various demersal and benthic fishes. Although they can be spotted in small groups, up to 10 individuals, they can be loosely aggregated across a wide expanse of water [2].

We are fascinated as we are intrigued by a dolphin's inherent "smile". Vaquitas are kindred to this anatomical configuration: with inward black lips and dark circles around their eyes, shaded like a mascara. Unlike delphinids which have conical teeth, porpoises have compressed, spatulate teeth [3].

Photo from Pinterest

While there used to be 567 individuals in the region (a best estimate in 1997) [2,4], a survey in November 2016 stated that there are only around 30 of them left - a staggering 95% decline in their population [4]. Left unprotected, the species may be forever gone by 2020 [7].

And we might lose them in exchange for soup.

Entangled for Too Long

The vaquita's population has always been precarious [9]. Often drowning from bycatch, the porpoise was decimated in 2015 by gill nets used to catch another critically endangered species, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi).

The fish, reaching 2 meters and weighing as much as 100 kg [5], is priced merely for its swim bladder which it uses for buoyancy [4,6]. The organ is remarkably reputed by the Chinese to cure many ailments and boost fertility - ultimately brewing as soup called fish maw [7].

Hunting for this enticing fish has been illegal since 1975. But, like drugs, the market holds too strong an incentive for this lucrative 'commodity', earning its title the "aquatic cocaine" [6]. The giant bladder - with its unusual 'tentacles' - bags around $10,000 each in Chinese black markets [7].

Totoaba's huge bladder is prominent with its two, dangling  tentacles (Photo from CNN

In April 2015, the Mexican government enforced a two-year ban on all gill nets across the species' niche, covering 11,595 square kilometers [6]. Millions of dollars were spent compensating local fishermen not to fish in the region, along with regular military surveillance. Conservationists also participated in this huge endeavor to save the vaquitas in the wild [8].

Despite incremental efforts, the situation hit rock-bottom.

As the market for totoaba had only proved grueling, two more vaquitas, lifeless ashore, were spotted in March [9]. 59 individuals existed in 2015 but now a mere 30 breathe [4]. More recently, on the lookout for poachers, the Sea Shepherd group exposed hundreds of illegal gill nets ready to hunt the totoabas, ready to drown the vaquitas [9].

Photo by Flip Nicklin

The ocean, its supposed sanctuary, has transformed into an inescapable trap. Omar Vidal, the CEO of WWF-Mexico, probably said it best: "We can still save the vaquita, but this is our last chance." [8].

The Audacious Plan

Some of the porpoises are bound to be rescued in October this year. The Mexican government has given US $3 million to the Vaquita CPR. Along with it, an international organization, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, donated $1 million [4].

Although acoustic data are available for preliminary detection, vaquitas are difficult to spot. They may wander alone or in pairs. Consequently, the plan to save them will rely on two US Navy trained dolphins to echo-locate their cetacean kin within the 2000 plus square kilometer home range [4]. However, scientists are concerned whether they can find them, let alone catch them without complications [9].

Also, scientists distill doubts in bringing them to captivity. The move poses high risks as no studies have been done to ascertain their survival [4]. They just don't know how the vaquitas will behave. And, even in the best of conditions, breeding in captivity is deemed unlikely to restore the population [9].

Still, some are hopeful that the plan could work [4]. Huge, dramatic measures will be considered in advance for the rescue. For instance, tissue culture can be secured for future studies. Also, veterinarians and captivity experts will board the mission and make certain that if vaquitas are stressed, the mission will be instantly called off. New plans will be conceived [6].

Saving the vaquitas remains to be an arduous battle. Securing them in a sanctuary may be the first bold step.

[1] Palomares, M.L.D, & Pauly, D (eds). 2017. SeaLifeBase. World Wide Web electronic publication. www.sealifebase.org, version (02/2017).

[2] Rojas-Bracho, L., Reeves, R.R., Jaramillo-Legorreta, A., & Taylor, B.L. 2008. Phocoena sinus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T17028A6735464. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2pzpE3i

[3] Berta, A. (Eds.) (2015). Whales, dolphins, and porpoises: a natural history and species guide. University of Chicago Press.

[4] Nicholls, H. (2017, April 7). Last-ditch attempt to save world's most endangered porpoise gets go-ahead. Nature. Retrieved from http://go.nature.com/2oMJBDn

[5] Froese, R., & Pauly, D. 2017. FishBase. World Wide Web electronic publication. www.fishbase.org, version (02/2017).

[6] Holman, J. (2017, April 12). Features: The race to save Mexico's vaquita from extinction. AlJazeera. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2oTZlnK

[7] Joyce, C. (2016, February 9). Chinese taste for fish bladder threatens rare porpoise in Mexico. NPR. Retrieved from http://n.pr/1Kawdz5

[8] Bale, R. (2016, May 16). World's smallest porpoise is on the verge of extinction. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/24UPdHX

[9] Malkin, E. (2017, February 27). Before vaquitas vanish, a desperate bid to save them. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/2l71NGZ

29 March 2017

Benham Rise: A Call For Connectivity and Action

Beyond The Journey

Benham Rise, an undersea territory, is located east of Luzon where its shallowest part, Benham Bank, is at least 50 meters deep. Its name originated from the surveyor Andrew Benham who first mapped the region in 1933 [2].

April 12, 2012 marks the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) validating the additional 13-million hectare extended continental shelf (ECS) of Benham Rise as part of the Philippines' continental shelf. Now, our maritime rights on the region stretched from the original 11.4 million hectares (within the 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone) to 24.4 million hectares, nearly equal to our land expanse - currently at 30 million hectares [1, 2].

What is clear here is that Benham Rise is not considered a part of the Philippine national territory but the country is bestowed "sovereign rights" (less than "sovereignty") over the region, allowing it exclusive and superior authority to explore, develop and utilize its living and non-living resources [4]. 

Map of Benham Rise showing the acquired extended continental shelf (ECS).

It could have been a viewed as swift success. The claim, however, was pursued tenaciously, thanks to over a decade worth of work by a team of public servants, scientists and legal experts. What was once a workshop in 2001 forged the first major successful claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) [1].

Recent Glimpse

Last May 2016, Oceana, Earth's NGO solely for marine conservation, joined government scientists from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), University of the Philippines, Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy on an expedition in Benham Bank. They did oceanographic, benthic (study of the seabed) and microbiological surveys, and documented large marine life [1].

They were thrilled to discover 100% coral cover in the surveyed area, which, if highly unlikely, is rare in the Philippines. According to Oceana’s Marine Scientist, Marianne Pan Saniano, the bank had crystal clear waters (personal communication, March 23, 2017). Rightfully so, the team reported the bank to hold a diverse, multitude of marine organisms [2].

The Twilight's Promise

The team documented at 50 m depth a huge ‘mesophotic’ or deep-sea reef ecosystem laden with impressive coral cover and associated fauna.

A colony of foliose corals at a minimum depth of 50 meters in Benham Bank. (Oceana / UPLB)

As shallow water reefs continue to degrade, scientists turn their hopes to the mesophotic zone. It’s also called the “twilight zone” as it signifies the transition between brightly lit surface waters and dark, deeper depths. The mesophotic zone (30-150 m) is often deemed as extensions of shallow-water reef ecosystems, dominated by light-dependent corals, sponges and algae [6].

Though widespread and diverse, mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs) remain largely unexplored. The good news, though, is that new technologies allow deeper exploration of our oceans.

One hypothesis that incited the interest of studying the mesophotic zone is the ‘deep reef refugia’ hypothesis which underscores its potential for replenishing  or “re-seeding” damaged reef ecosystems [6]. In one study, MCEs, seagrass beds and mangroves are found to likely to provide brood stocks - replenishing and sustaining damaged, heavily exploited nearshore reefs. Such was the case in the spawning aggregations of the red hind grouper (Epinephelus guttatus) which re-seeded shallow waters when it produced larvae in deep waters off US Virgin Islands [10].

Studies in the Indo-Pacific MCEs have also shown the region to hold diverse benthic communities. They also serve as refuge to shallow-water coral reef species experiencing environmental stress like light-enhanced warm water bleaching [9].

Using an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), scientists surveyed, at depths of 50 to 65 m, anemonefishes at Viper Reef and Hydrographers Passage in the Great Barrier Reef. The findings show that at least some species of host sea anemones and anemonefishes occur across a wider bathymetric range, stretching from reef flats and slopes into the mesophotic zone. This supports the hypothesis that mesophotic reefs contain many species only thought to be common to shallow-water reef habitats [8].

Over the years, the idea of the zone’s emerging importance has taken momentum. Take Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii where divers used mixed-gas dives. The study revealed that its mesophotic reefs host an unprecedented rate of endemism. At depths of 30 to 90 m, about 46% of reef fishes are endemic, significantly higher than previous shallow water surveys in the area, and almost two-fold higher than in any other tropical region [7].

It is possible to unearth high endemism rates as well in other protected, uncharted mesophotic regions such as that of Benham Rise, suggesting the importance of spreading awareness of its existence. 

MCE research is slowly gathering speed and with its rise, comes the critical need to better understand biodiversity patterns across depths, the connectivity of oceanic regions, and consequently create an  informed, holistic future reef policies and management practices [8, 10].

Bold is Now

Recently, the Philippine Department of National Defense disclosed that Chinese vessels' were spotted in the area, whose unusual movement pattern suggests survey activities rather than merely passing through the region [5].

Aside from this pressing concern, the region is also vulnerable to climate change, urging the Philippine government to assert its rights over the region through biodiversity research, creating a management framework, and consequently declaring Benham Rise as a ‘no-take’ zone [2]. 

We don’t know yet but it might be the last pristine waters we’ll ever lay eyes on. 

Oceana has an online petition urging everyone to declare their support for the protection of Benham Rise. If you are for it, then make your voices heard and put your thoughts into action!

A lone Philippine flag sits in front of a Sarcophyton soft coral at a deepwater reef in Benham Bank(Oceana / UPLB)

Written by:

[1] Batongbacal, J. L. & Carandang, E. P. (2012). Benham Rise: How the Shelf Was Won.  National Mapping and Information Authority (NAMRIA).
[2] OCEANA (2016). Now is the Time to Protect Benham Rise [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2o8NDX9 
[3] Perez, A. (2016). Exploring Philippines' Benham Rise Region for Fisheries Development and Management [PowerPoint slides].
[4] Francisco, K. (2017, March 18). Rappler IQ: Fast facts: What you should know about Benham Rise. Rappler. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2o8Dzxf
[5] Batongbacal, J. (2017, March 14). Opinion: Understanding the issue about Chinese survey vessels in Benham Rise. GMA News Online. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2nfaoU8
[6] Baker, E. K., Puglise, K. A., & Harris, P. T. (Eds.). (2016). Mesophotic coral ecosystems – A lifeboat for coral reefs? The United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal, Nairobi and Arendal, 98 p. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2oemgrf
[7] Kane, C., Kosaki, R. K., & Wagner, D. (2014). High levels of mesophotic reef fish endemism in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Bulletin of Marine Science, 90(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.5343/bms.2013.1053
[8] Bridge, T., Scott, A., & Steinberg, D. (2011). Abundance and diversity of anemonefishes and their host sea anemones at two mesophotic sites on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Coral Reefs, 31, 1057-1062. doi: 10.1007/s00338-012-0916-x
[9] Bridge, T. C. L., Fabricius, K. E., Bongaerts, P., Wallace, C. C., Muir, P. R., Done, T. J., & Webster, J. M. (2012). Diversity of Scleractinia and Octocorallia in the mesophotic zone of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Coral Reefs, 31, 179-189. doi:10.1007/s00338-011-0828-1
[10] Bridge, T. C. L., Hughes, T. P., Guinotte, J. M., & Bongaerts, P. (2013). Call to protect all coral reefs. Nature Climate Change Volume, 3(6), 528-530. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2nflb0v