Category Archives: Coastal Resource Management

Underwater Superhero

Want to be an underwater superhero?! That’s what it feels like to participate in crown-of-thorns removal.
SJ Byce: underwater superhero in action! Be careful not to touch the venomous spines on the back of the seastar. My right thumb recently discovered that it is, in fact, painful.
The crown-of-thorns seastar (Acanthaster planci) is a corallivore, meaning it consumes coral and does so at a rate of roughly 6 square meters per year (more during spawning season, less if immature). Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns (COT) are devastating reefs through the Indo-Pacific region to the point that a single reef might have hundreds or thousands of COTs, which consume coral faster than it can grow back. The COTs leave behind a barren trail of white feeding scars where there was once healthy coral. The origin of such outbreaks is thought to be an overfishing of predators such as Triton snails, Humphead wrasse, and Titan triggorfish as well as an enhanced larval survival perhaps the result of elevated water nutrient levels.
COTs extrude their stomach to feed so their acidic digestive juices will break down coral polyps to a nutritious slurry of food. When I pulled this guy off the coral you could see his stomach!
Notice the dead white coral called a feeding scar left behind by COTs. The one who ate this coral colony is currently in my net and trying to climb up the side
COT outbreaks and the corresponding management efforts have been documented since the 1960s in primarily Japan and Australia. Australia recently even developed a robot to target COTs. In small coastal communities COTs wreck comparable havoc, however effective and cost efficient management efforts have not yet thoroughly explored, particularly in the Philippines.
My research project will explore existing COT awareness levels, management efforts, and removal success in small coastal communities throughout the Philippines to help such communities improve their response in the future.
Local fishermen load COTs into our bamboo boat “banka.” Notice his traditional wooden goggles, underwater he is wearing a single wooden fin.
To complete my research project I often get the opportunity to play the part of underwater superhero. Donning my mask, fins and snorkel and equipped with kitchen tongs and a floating wash basin aside a Filipino fisherman equipped with his own wooden goggles and single large, flat fin tied on with bits of elastic rope we dive down in search of COTs. Scanning the reef for fresh white feeding scars is the giveaway sign that a COT is nearby often hiding under a coral ledge. On some reefs we have barely enough time to breath as we collect COT after COT, scooping them up with our kitchen tongs and filling our floating wash basin. In the past year we have collected over 10,000 COTs amounting to 60,000 square meters of coral reef saved from consumption! After we bring the COTs to shore they are buried on the beach above the high tide line.
Burying our collection of COTs on the beach above high tide
Educating locals about COTs

Snorkeling the Mangroves

If you have a mask and snorkel packed in your suitcase and a plane ticket to a tropical country, chances are you are planning to visit the coral reef. It’s true, the coral reef is a breath taking array of color and biodiversity, but the mangrove ecosystem lining the coastal shores may also hold tales of impressive beauty.

A baby mangrove seedling sprouting up. Notice the pencil-like roots from mature mangroves coving the sea floor.

Mangroves are only found in the tropics and subtropics, however climate change is slowly causing their range to expand further north and south from the equator. They provide a home for juvenile fish who will move out to the coral reef as they mature.

Look for sponges, tunicates, sea slugs, crabs, snails, sea stars, sea urchins and many different species of fish as you snorkel.

Want to snorkel the mangroves and the coral reef on an isolated island in the Philippines?! I would recommend Buenavista Fish Sanctuary in Looc, Romblon.

Buenavista Fish Sanctuary Island, Looc, Romblon, Philippines

From shore you will take a small boat out to this tiny island, big enough for a one room hut and a cooking area. It is the perfect place for a picnic cookout. Jump into the water and explore the shallow waters of the mangrove habit, then swim a bit further from shore and see the coral reef. Buenavista is the lesser known fish sanctuary in Looc Municipality, but it is a beautiful tropical retreat!

Coral, Fish, and Jellies

An important part of natural resource management is measuring exactly how much of that resource is present to determine how it changes over time. For a marine biologist this means scuba diving and counting all the live hard coral and soft coral under a transect line (a huge 50m tape measure)

John counts coral and records the data on a plastic underwater dive slate. Did you know that pencils write above water and below?!

The second part of our assessment is a fish population survey, where we swim along the transect line and count every fish and record the species and size class. The problem of overfishing in the Philippines means that most fish are <10cm in size, big fish are rare.

Notice the lionfish hiding upside down under the beautiful colony of boulder coral. Lionfish may look majestic, but those dorsal spines pack some painful venom, so don’t touch!
An Orange skunk clownfish (Amphiprion sandaracinos) stares at my underwater camera. This fish is named for the white line that runs along its dorsal ridge, like a skunk’s white stripe.
That scuba diver on the left is ME and that sting ray in the distance is a MANTA RAY!!! Checkmark on my life list, that moment was incredible!

The manta ray photo above did not happen during our coral reef surveys in Romblon. These creatures are a rare find, but Manta Bowl dive site in Donsol, Sorsogon is a great place to find one if it is also on your life list.

Dive assessments and manta rays…if only that was the happy ending, instead our team of scuba divers emerged from our last dive with a super itchy full body rash!

After some investigation we determined that our unfortunate participation prize was “Sea Bather’s Eruption,” a rash caused by invisible jellyfish larvae that get caught in your clothing and become stressed. The stress triggers their stinging cells to fire, which condemned us to two weeks of intense itching! 😦

Jellyfish spawn in the warm waters of summer. We were particularly unlucky because there was no current whatsoever on our last dive. My best advice to avoid 2 weeks of scratching: stay low in the water column if it is the season for jellyfish larvae. I was feeling somewhat cold and tried to stay in the higher warm water, but if you dive below the thermocline you may avoid the worst of their itchy wrath.

Sea Turtle Nest Hatching

Sea turtles live in the ocean, but lay their eggs on land. After mating just offshore, a female sea turtle will crawl up the sand on the very same beach where she was once born (or very close to it) to lay her eggs.


Sea turtle conservation is one of my many jobs as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If we discover a newly laid nest in an unsafe location (perhaps it is located below the high tide line and will be submerged or perhaps wild dogs are likely to dig up and consume the nest) we transfer the nest to our protected sea turtle hatchery.

Sea turtle hatchery in Binocot Beach, Ferrol, Romblon, Philippines. This fencing can protect the turtle eggs from excavation by dogs.

A nest is dug within this enclosure to the same dimensions as the original nest. Eggs are transferred with care to ensure that vertical orientation is preserved (within the first 10 hours of being laid a sea turtle embryo attaches to the roof of the egg, if this attachment is broken during transfer the turtle will not develop and then entire nest could end in mortality…thus immediate transfer and proper orientation are key!)

We have 3 nests still currently waiting to hatch.

After about 60 days the eggs hatch. Last week we greeted 44 hawksbill sea turtle hatchlings!

This turtle eats plankton and small invertebrates as a baby, but loves to eat sponges, crabs, and shrimp as an adult.
44 live hawksbill sea turtle hatchlings in transit from our hatchery enclosure to the open beach where they would crawl to the ocean

After hatching sea turtles use visual stimuli to orient themselves to the ocean and crawl into the sea. Turn off bright beach lights!! Otherwise these baby turtles may mistakenly crawl to the road instead of the naturally brightest horizon of the ocean reflecting moonlight and the glimmer of stars.

Some were resting and we waited about 4 hours until all had walked to the ocean. Usually they left in groups of 4 or 5. The movement on one turtle seemed to trigger its neighbors to also start moving. I snapped this photo just before sunset. After this point it was too dark to see the turtles clearly. 

Once in the ocean, these baby turtles will swim against the surf for about 15mins. As they get far from shore, turtles use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate their journey to the open sea, where they will live in floating beds of seaweed until they grow large and make the journey back to the beach where they were born.

Our care of this sea turtle nest had strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, only 44 eggs of a nest of over 100 eggs hatched. This low hatch rate is likely due to damage during the nest transfer process. Therefore do NOT move a sea turtle nest unless absolutely essential (in the US this is illegal without special permits and training). Secondly, the release of these hatchlings was delayed allowing many visitors and personal handling. In the future, I hope that hatchlings can be released as soon as possible with minimum human interference.

Our strengths include smooth sand, raked free from holes or obstruction. Also we camped out at the beach that night to ensure that no dogs stole off with baby turtles and we confirmed that all 44 hatchlings had successfully swam away by daybreak.

A red light was used when checking on the sea turtles at night, because sea turtles are least attracted to the red wavelength. We tried to minimize human distractions of bright lights or camera flashes.

Dolphin Rescue

Dec 17, 3pm “Nasa mababaw na bahagi ng dagat ang stranded na dolphin. Bilis!” [A dolphin is stranded on the beach. Come quickly!] With that call my training as a First Responder through the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network was put to use.

Victim: Subadult Spinner Dolphin, 1.85m. She had been tossed about in the recent typhoon and was covered in cuts and scrapes along her pectoral fins, back, stomach and nose. She was extremely weak and could not control her buoyancy.

Notice all the scrapes and cuts on her underside when I stuck my GoPro underwater to take a photo.

When I arrived a fisherman was in the water supporting the dolphin. He explained that he tried about ten times to return the dolphin to deeper waters, but she continued to return to the shallows. A crowd of people gathered on shore to watch.

How do you rescue a dolphin?! Luckily just one year ago myself and my Filipino counterpart completed a Dolphin First Responder Course (think CPR course where your dummies are actually trained dolphins. Read the Blog here) At the time I never expected to actually get to put our training into practice.

Rescue Protocol Summarized:

  1. Approach with care – 1-3 rescuers only
  2. Give supportive care – support the dolphin in an upright position
  3. Protect the blow hole, eyes, and pectoral fins – protecting the blowhole is most important so the dolphin can breathe
  4. Minimize noise – manage crowding spectators
  5. Assess condition and appropriate determine response
Peace Corps Life…often means working in an office where losing electricity is just part of the experience but today it meant riding in an ambulance alongside a typhoon-injured dolphin!

We decided to transfer the dolphin to our Marine Breeding Station for recovery away from the still turbulent post-typhoon waters. With the help of local police and government officials the dolphin water placed onto a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance for transport.

The dolphin was placed in a saltwater holding tank. Wet towels and frequent splashes were placed on her back to keep her skin moist, even so it started to become dry and wrinkled by day 2. The life jacket was essential, without it our weakened dolphin would fall to the bottom of the tank unable to resurface for air.

How does a dolphin drink? Although dolphins live in the ocean they need water without salt to stay hydrated. Once our dolphin was safely in a tank we began to worry about dehydration. In the wild, dolphins get enough freshwater by eating fish. Despite our best efforts Sara (they named the dolphin after me once they found out it was a girl) did not want to eat any fish. Next, Ma’am Rita tried to hold her mouth open while I spooned in ice cubes, but Sara spit those out too. Our only option was force feeding a fish/ice smoothie:

Two towels were inserted into her mouth which Kuya Casear (yellow) and Kuya Albirth (green) used to hold her mouth open. After snapping this photo I held her body as tightly as possible to prevent movement, while Ma’am Rita (under veterinary guidance) inserted a feeding tube and pumped in fish smoothie.

By Day 2 We thought that Sara, the dolphin, was improving but then on the morning of Day 3 her cuts started to look infected. Dolphins are conscious breathers meaning they must choose to take each breath and cannot ever sleep like we do. Instead they rest one hemisphere of their brain at a time, while the other side remains awake and breathing. When Sara died on the evening of Day 3, I would guess that it was a combination of stress from losing her family and living in a foreign place, superficial infection, and physical weakness from typhoon-sustained injuries. We conducted a necropsy before burying her remains and photos/reports were submitted to the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network for analysis.

Dolphins are extremely intelligent. They live in groups called pods and can communicate via clicks and calls. The brain of a dolphin contains 3xs more spindle cells, used for feeling emotions, than human brains have. They can recognize themselves in a mirror.

Today, dolphins are threatened by fishing nets, habitat destruction, and chemical pollution. The underwater explosion of illegal dynamite fishing can damage a dolphin’s hearing so that it cannot hunt for food. Although our dolphin did not survive, I hope that our response led to greater public awareness to the need to protect both dolphins and their habitat. And should another dolphin wind up injured on our beach, this community is ready to respond!

Lahat ng mga dolphin at whales dito sa Pilipinas ay nasa tala ng nanganganib na species sa ilallim ng Fisheries Administrative Order No. 208 in 2001. Kaya illegal lahat ng aksyon na sangkot ang mga dolphin at whales at sino mang mahuhuli ay papatawan ng pinakamataas maparusa. Kung may makikita kayong dolphin at whales na stranded agad-agad tawagan ang Ofisina ng Provincial Agriculture 5393567 (cell 09088662872 or 09487339431) at Bureau of Fisheries 5676011 (cell 09399385006).

More fish inside = Better fishing outside

A 1.5hr bike ride to one of my favorite snorkel spots

If I ride my bike one and a half hours across mountain ridge-tops, covered in coconut trees, overlooking beautiful aquamarine ocean water, I’d arrive at one of my favorite snorkeling spots: a calm remote inlet with beautiful boulders of coral reef and massive fields of foliose corals.

A fish here seems to have countless places to hide, swim, and play. And yet I struggle to find any fish. A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.

A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.
A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.

I think I catch a glimpse of a grouper’s tail, but it disappeared so quickly it may have only been a hawkfish. Almost all the fish I see are less than 10 centimeters in size.

Then, I reach a section of coral not nearly as beautiful. This colony has been entangled in fishing nets.

Fishing nets
Fishing nets
More nets!
More nets!

If I were able to remove it all, I’d guess it could fill a truck bed. Just then, I hear the hum of an approaching fishing boat and look up to see a fisherman tossing out his large net.

“Wag muna!!” I want to yell, “Stop! Don’t!” This coral reef, more than any I have seen, needs to be protected. Its populations have been severely overfished, and yet the habitat remains largely intact with the potential to support a recovery. If this reef continues to be fished both the coral and its inhabitants will surely cease to exist in a matter of years.

Snorkeling in Hinag-Oman, Ferrol
Snorkeling in Hinag-Oman, Ferrol, Romblon

I am a US Peace Corps volunteer assigned to work in the Philippines as a specialist in coastal resource management. My office requested a volunteer to assist with the establishment of three large marine protected areas (MPAs) within our province.

MPAs are the primary tool for coral reef conservation and marine fisheries management. The idea is to designate a section of coral reef habitat off limits to fishing, a no-take zone. This protected area is then a safe haven for fish to breed and grow, replenishing fish stocks and improving coral reef habitat.

Within the past 50 years the Philippines has seen dramatic declines in both fish catch per unit effort and the health of coral reefs. Overfishing is a major part of this problem. Hence an MPA may be the saving grace for many coastal communities. And yet, I falter just a little as I try to explain this to a fisherman. I can see from the children that run half naked on the dirt roads, the old women pumping water and washing clothes day in and day out, and the taut muscles and callused hands of each fisherman that my timeline and his are not the same.


“More fish inside = Better fishing outside.” This is the slogan we were taught during our technical training before beginning work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. I have featured this simple slogan on educational videos and mentioned it during numerous presentations. But each time I say it I feel a twinge of guilt, the reality is not so simple.

It is true that MPAs can increase fish numbers, and then these same fish may swim over the protected area boundary line and could be caught by a fisherman. Residents of Apo Island, Philippines, have witnessed this reality and their gains in fish catch have demonstrated this ‘spillover effect’[1]. However Apo Island Marine Reserve was established in 1985, and has been properly managed ever since.

Apo Island Marine Reserve est. 1985 and a haven for turtles, corals and tourism.
Apo Island Marine Reserve est. 1985 and a haven for turtles, corals and tourism.

The success of an MPA depends on many factors, most notably successful management: Is the no fishing rule actually enforced? Given successful management, gains in fish populations have been widely documented inside MPAs. “More fish inside = Better fishing outside” or the “spillover effect” has also been documented, but not nearly to the same degree. I am not lying as I advocate to the fisher folk that they abstain from certain grounds to increase their yields in the future, however this timeline for spillover occurs about 15-40 years after the MPAs creation, given proper management. And so as that fisherman stares back at me, his eyes cry out, “I need food for tomorrow.”

Despite my guilt, I preach to establish MPAs and continue justify it with the idea of spillover. Although short-term needs are strong incentives, all MPAs within my province are community-managed, built on the support of local fisher folk and People’s Organization in coordination with the local government. This long-term planning is essential to community prosperity.

As a government staff member, I also work on alternative livelihood development, so that these closures, which may save declining fish populations, can coincide with options for displaced fish folk. Tourism options from a successful MPA could reap more benefits than the reef even brought at the start. Even so, the solution is not perfect, but for a coastal community overfishing is not a simple issue.



Russ, G.R., Alcala, A.C., Maypa, A.P., Calumpong, H.P., & White, A.T. (2004) “Marine Reserve Benefits Local Fisheries.” Ecological Applications 14(2): 597-606.

[1] Note: No study has literally tagged fish inside and provided concrete evidence of the same fish being caught outside an MPA, however Russ et al 2004 have demonstrated a rise in catch per unit effort in waters surrounding the MPA in the years following its creation when no such gains were found in waters further from the MPA.

Crown-of-Thorns Removal in Action

From Sept 25 to October 1, 2015 a team of fishermen, municipal and provincial staff members, and your local Peace Corps Volunteer worked to remove over 250 Crown-of-Thorns (CoT) sea stars from a single reef in Barangay Canduyong, Odiongan, Romblon, Philippines. Here’s the video with English and Tagalog: Crown-of-Thorns Removal

Crown-of-Thorns seastar (Acanthaster planci) feeding on coral.
Crown-of-Thorns seastar (Acanthaster planci) with its numerous arms and venomous spines feeding on coral.
White dead coral skeleton remaining after CoT feed in contrast to the remaining live colored polyps. Over time algae will grow and cover this white skeleton.
White dead coral skeleton remaining after CoT feed, in contrast to the remaining live, brown colored coral polyps in the foreground. Over time algae will grow and cover this white skeleton.
Jerome snags a CoT with tongs.
Jerome snags a CoT with tongs.
It is important to remove CoT from the water immediately because if this animal becomes stressed it will release its eggs as a last ditch effort to reproduce.
It is important to remove CoT from the water immediately because if this animal becomes stressed it will release its eggs as a last ditch effort to reproduce.
Our removed CoT kept high and dry to avoid propagation if its gametes were to be released in the water.
Our removed CoT kept high and dry to avoid propagation if its gametes were to be released in the water.
Removed CoT were buried on land.
Removed CoT were buried on land.

Removing CoT was like working as an underwater superhero! The thrill of working hard to save coral reefs and kill venomous CoT. It was hard to stop once our bucket was full because you would see more and think, “Okay let me just get one more then I’ll go back.”

Now as I prepare to leave for Washington DC and the Blog It Home Winner’s Tour, my office will share the photos and videos of our extraction to educate other Barangays (towns) about the need and process of extraction. We plan to expand our efforts to tackle CoT outbreaks throughout Romblon province.

Story time with kids and sea turtles!!!

“Hi I’m Xyrex. I’m 4 years old and I am learning to speak and read in English by pointing to photos and asking for a translation. My favorite English word is ‘Elephant,’ just like ‘Elephante’ in Tagalog!”

Several months ago a huge box (large enough to fit me instead!) arrived at the Libertad Daycare in Odiongan, Romblon Philippines. It felt like Christmas as 400 storybooks including Dr. Suess, Goodnight Moon and Itsy Bitsy Spider were unpacked and placed on the brand new book shelf installed in the new reading corner of the day care.

The Daycare Reading Corner!!
The Daycare Reading Corner!! And there are even more books not shown in this photo!!!

Our Santa Claus was Pinoy Reading Buddies or PRB, an initiative that promotes engaged reading and  spreading literacy through a buddy mentoring system. They generously mailed us a shipment of storybooks for beginning readers. Check out there website and get involved!!

This past Friday, I visited the daycare for a read-a-loud storytelling. The 15 preschoolers, who made it to class despite the heavy rain and soggy roads of the rainy season, learned about the life cycle of a sea turtle in One Tiny Turtle by Nicole Davies.

Story time with sea turtles
Story time with sea turtles

I even brought a pretend baby turtle to demonstrate what it is like inside a sea turtle egg!

Inside a sea turtle egg for the visual learner
Inside a turtle’s egg for the visual learner.

Now I am hoping to make story time a regular activity with a different theme each week!

Love the Ocean Creed

I believe that the ocean harbors life – life that I must protect.
I believe that the ocean is mankind’s greatest common heritage.
I believe that the diversity of the ocean is important to sustaining human life.
I believe that I am part of but one ocean, and that everything I do affects the delicate balance of life on Earth.
I believe that it is my duty to protect the ocean.
I believe that by protecting the ocean I help to protect the future.
Therefore, I pledge to always live in harmony with the ocean.

Scuba diving with sea turtles off Apo Island protected area established 1982
Scuba diving with sea turtles off Apo Island protected area established 1982

Notice the amazing coral coverage on this pristine reef! Can you find the turtle?
Notice the amazing coral coverage on this pristine reef! Can you find the turtle?

"I'm ready for my photo shoot!" This turtle loved the spotlight and permitted us to swim close for a multi-angle shot.
“I’m ready for my photo shoot!” This turtle loved the spotlight and permitted us to swim close for a multi-angle shot.

Las Tres Islas…pockets of pristine beauty!

Conception, Corcuera and Banton. Las Tres Islas. The three northern islands of the province of Romblon, reachable in 1 to 3 hours by a banka (small Filipino boat) depending on the size of the waves. The three most remote municipalities of Romblon, but potentially the most beautiful!

Last week I conducted coastal resource assessments of coral reef, seagrass and mangrove habitats with the help of 5 other staff in my provincial office. The most exciting and most tiring of these was the manta tow.

Manta Tow means holding on to the manta board and being dragged behind the banka (boat) over the coral reef to estimate coral coverage and locate regions of reef, sand, seagrass…etc.
Manta Tow means holding on to the manta board and being dragged behind the banka (boat) over the coral reef to estimate coral coverage and locate regions of reef, sand, seagrass…etc. Later we will return to the islands with SCUBA gear to assess coral cover on specific identified reefs and fish abundance.
Hold on tight! Over 6 days we surveyed the circumference of 3 islands amounting to 90km.
Hold on tight! Over 6 days we surveyed the circumference of 3 islands amounting to 91km.
Our data sheet with categories for percentage of live hard coral, soft coral, dead coral, dead coral with algae and sand/rubble.
Our data sheet with categories for percentage of live hard coral, soft coral, dead coral, dead coral with algae and sand/rubble.

Accomplishments from our week of assessments:

  • 91km of coastline assessed by manta tow
  • 27 Seagrass surveys
  • 4 Transects laid in mangrove habitats
  • 34 Meetings held with local fisherfolk

Observations: 42 sea turtles, mostly green

Positives: Beautiful hard and soft corals with reef quality in some locations comparable to Apo Island Marine Sanctuary, which is one of the Philippines’ oldest and most renowned has been protected since 1985. With several deeper reefs the islands offer great potential for dive tourism.

Threats: Many crown-of-thorns were observed, along with coral bleaching and algal overgrowth, cuttings in some mangrove habitats, coastal pollution and future development.

Next steps: Crown-of-thorns removal and improvements to the management plans for existing protected areas. As a Peace Corps volunteer I will work with the provincial office to meet with the municipal mayors, other staff, and local fisherfolk to share these results and implement protection and restoration where it is needed.


Photo credit: Loren Tihanyi
Photo credit: Loren Tihanyi