Banggai Rescue Project: A Biologist’s Perspective

February 27, 2013 in Book Excerpts, General Banggai Info, Project Updates, Slideshow

Dr. Gerry Allen with first live specimens of Banggai Cardinalfish he collected in 1994. Note expelled Banggai Cardinal fry in bottom of bag, the first clue that the species was an extraordinary mouthbrooder. Image by Roger Steene.

Dr. Gerry Allen with first live specimens of Banggai Cardinalfish he collected in 1994. Note expelled Banggai Cardinal fry in bottom of bag, the first clue that the species was an extraordinary mouthbrooder. Image by Roger Steene.

Editor’s Note: For many of us, Dr. Gerald R. Allen, known throughout the aquatics world as Gerry, is one of the living heroes of reef fish science. A protégé of the legendary Dr. John Randall, Gerry has personally found and described a tremendous array of new fish species and published a wide-ranging library of marine guidebooks and scientific papers, while persevering in efforts to preserve marine species diversity in the Coral Triangle.

As the ichthyologist who introduced the Banggai Cardinalfish to modern science and the aquarium hobby, Gerry has graciously lent his support to The Banggai Rescue Project. Here is an excerpt from his Foreword to the soon-to-be-published Banggai Cardinalfish book, coming from the publishers of CORAL.
James Lawrence
Shelburne, Vermont

FOREWORD
Advance Excerpt from Banggai Cardinalfish, Official Publication of the Banggai Rescue Project

By Gerald R. Allen, Ph.D.

My personal quest for this extraordinary fish began just over 20 years ago, when I received a photo of an unusual discovery taken by a diver friend, Kal Muller. Kal took the photo during his recent visit to a remote island off the eastern coast of Sulawesi. The wide-angle shot showed a group of apogonids sheltering near a Long-Spined Sea Urchin. It was definitely something special. In fact, I had never seen such a spectacular cardinalfish and assumed it certainly must be new to science. Somehow I would have to find a way to visit the Banggai Islands and collect this fantastic fish!

It took two more years before I was able to arrange travel to the Banggai Islands, as a side trip in conjunction with a biodiversity conference I planned to attend at Manado, in northern Sulawesi. Timing would be tight as there were only two flights per week to Luwuk, the jumping-off point to the Banggai Group. I invited frequent diving companion and renowned underwater photographer Roger Steene to join the mini-expedition. The trip was arranged for mid-November 1994. We would fly to Luwuk on the Thursday flight, make a quick visit to the Banggai Islands, hopefully collect and photograph the fish, and return to Manado on the Sunday flight. It didn’t leave much margin for error, but the busy conference schedule didn’t allow for extra time.

Pterapogon kauderni, photographed in 1994: a cardinalfish unlike any other.

Pterapogon kauderni, photographed in 1994: a cardinalfish unlike any other.

We arrived at Luwuk around noon and spent most of the day arranging passage on the Banggai ferry and shopping for snack foods. The ferry finally departed at midnight and we prepared for a sleepless night on deck with the throng of about 100 passengers, vehicles, and livestock. But to our pleasant surprise we were able to bargain with the captain, negotiating the hire of his personal quarters for 50,000 rupiahs, probably more than he would earn in salary for the entire voyage. The cabin was very small, but nevertheless comfortable. There were two beds, a fan, and an adjoining toilet, and room to spread out the photographic equipment. The journey took 12 hours, but the time passed quickly, especially as we were able to sleep in relative comfort. The last hour of the voyage was spectacular, as the ship negotiated a narrow passage between two jungle-clad islands. At last the vessel docked at the main wharf at Banggai. It was 12:00 noon and time to put our much-discussed plan into action. We didn’t have any time to spare; the ferry would depart in six hours.

Race to the pearl oyster farm
We hired the ferry’s radio operator, whom we nicknamed “Sparky,” to accompany us because he spoke a few words of English. As soon as the ferry was securely tied Sparky went ashore to hire a small motorboat, and within 30 minutes we were headed south along the western side of the island. Kal had given us vague instructions—he had found the fish near a wooden jetty at a pearl oyster farm owned by a Chinese man, in a bay about one hour by motorboat south of Banggai town. Sparky relayed this information to our driver, who nodded in recognition at the mention of “orang cina,” the Indonesian translation of Chinese man. Several pearl oyster farms are located along the coast, but evidently only one is owned by a Chinese person. Forty-five minutes later we pulled in to a narrow wooden jetty at one side of a picturesque bay.

Banggai Island jetty, 1994. Image by Roger Steene.

Banggai Island jetty, 1994. Image by Roger Steene.

It was a race to be first in the water. In less than a minute we were both submerged, but the fish was nowhere to be seen. I finned slowly away from the jetty, methodically checking every square metre. Kal had previously located the fish in only 6.5 feet (2 m) of depth, so the search was limited to shallow water near the shoreline. The bottom was an uninteresting blend of sandy silt and clumps of seagrass. After a dozen breath-hold dives I sorely missed the luxury of our usual scuba equipment. I inhaled another big breath and plunged down. Swimming close to the bottom, I rounded a large patch of seagrass, and suddenly there it was—a group of about 10 adults huddled around a long-spined Diadema sea urchin.

It’s difficult to describe the level of excitement at that moment, but suffice it to say there was a maximum adrenalin surge. The beauty of this fish in its natural habitat is something to behold. The combination of a striking color pattern and long, graceful filaments on the dorsal and tail fins is truly spectacular.

We had to work fast. I calculated we should spend no more than three hours at the site to allow ourselves ample time for the ferry departure. Further searching revealed several more groups, invariably huddled close to urchins, including a large aggregation containing more than 50 fish. Our first priority, and the most time-consuming chore, was underwater photography. Over the next two hours we took more than 200 shots. This, of course, was the predigital era, so after each 36-shot roll we had to tediously exit the water, towel off, and change film. Finally, with only half an hour remaining, it was time to collect a small sample. This proved a simple task, as the fish retreated among the sea urchin spines where they could be easily sandwiched between a pair of small hand nets. The first attempt yielded six adults, which were summarily placed in a plastic bag. One of the fish spat out an orange-coloured egg mass—not unusual, as male cardinalfishes are well known for their habit of oral egg incubation. A few more specimens were captured and placed in a separate bag. I could scarcely believe my eyes when I checked the second bag a few minutes later. There were more than two dozen miniature replicas of the adult fish that apparently had been expelled from the mouth cavities of two large fish that appeared to be incubating eggs, judging from their swollen throats. Brood care of live young was previously unknown in cardinalfishes.

Soul of a marine biologist: Pinning out a collected specimen for preservation and further study on the sole of a flip flop.

Soul of a marine biologist: Pinning out a collected specimen for preservation and further study on the sole of a flip flop.

Back aboard the ferry, I carefully pinned out the fins of the collected fish and preserved them in formalin solution for later study. We were ecstatic that our carefully laid plans had unfolded with clockwork perfection. Not only had the fish been successfully photographed and collected, but we also gained a sneak preview of its unusual lifestyle and breeding habits. To make things even sweeter, I thought this amazing fish was a new scientific find. However, detailed examination of the specimens in my laboratory at the Western Australian Museum and a review of taxonomic literature proved this assumption to be wrong. The fish had already been described! My investigations revealed that two subadult specimens were collected at Banggai Island in 1920 by a Dutch physician named Kaudern. The specimens had been sent to the Natural History Museum in Leiden and the species was eventually described in 1930 as a new genus and species, Pterapogon kauderni.

Sudden limelight for an obscure species
It seems hard to believe that this magnificent fish escaped the attention of collectors for decades, considering that Indonesia is a leading exporter of marine fishes for the international aquarium trade. However, it remained elusive thanks to the lack of a pelagic dispersal stage typical of most reef fishes and the consequent extremely limited geographic range, confined to an area seldom frequented by outsiders. Suddenly the Banggai Cardinalfish was thrust into the limelight, becoming an overnight sensation. I recounted the tale of its rediscovery at the Louisville MACNA Conference in 1995, and again in an article that appeared in the May 1996 issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine. This was followed by a brief scientific paper reporting our observations of its natural habitat and unusual oral brooding habits.

Showing the first collected Banggai Cardinalfish to the Chinese owner of a pearl oyster farm where the species was found in abundance in 1994. Members of the Banggai Rescue expedition returned to the oyster farm in 2012 and found the fish’s population seriously reduced. Image by Roger Steene.

Showing the first collected Banggai Cardinalfish to the Chinese owner of a pearl oyster farm where the species was found in abundance in 1994. Members of the Banggai Rescue expedition returned to the oyster farm in 2012 and found the fish’s population seriously reduced. Image by Roger Steene.

I have experienced a certain degree of guilt for having triggered interest in this species, which almost overnight became one of the most popular species in the aquarium hobby. Considering its limited distribution, I was particularly disturbed to discover that thousands of specimens were being captured and exported each month—not an ideal conservation scenario for a fish that is geographically restricted and produces relatively few eggs compared to most reef fishes.

It is therefore particularly gratifying to see the initial results of the ongoing Banggai Rescue Project presented in this book. Hopefully, this welcome addition to our knowledge of this fascinating species will lead to reforms of the overfishing situation in the Banggai Islands and a solution to the baffling iridovirus problem that has had such a severe impact on imported specimens in recent years. Importantly, this book also includes the latest information for successfully rearing and maintaining Banggai Cardinalfish in captivity, a positive step that will certainly reduce the demand for wild-caught fish, thus making a valuable contribution to the conservation of the natural population.

Gerald R. Allen, Ph.D.
Perth, Western Australia

Addendum: On a subsequent visit to the islands in 1997 I had an opportunity to dive in Banggai Harbor, including next to the ferry jetty. To my surprise the Banggai Cardinalfish was exceedingly abundant among the jetty pylons and elsewhere around the harbor. Had we known this, we could have saved lots of time and energy, not to mention angst, on our initial 1994 visit.

Banggai Rescue - Banggai Cardinalfish Book CoverThe Book: Now in its final stages of production, the Banggai Cardinalfish book will be published in the spring of 2013. Starting with this excerpted Foreword and continuing with a first-hand look at the Banggai Cardinalfish in its native habitat, the book covers the fish’s natural history, conservation status in the wild, reproductive habits, and ways for small-scale breeders to become local suppliers of captive-bred Pterapogon kauderni. To sign up to receive notice of the publication date and to order the book, visit: Banggai Cardinalfish.

The Banggai Triangle

July 10, 2012 in Project Updates, Slideshow, The Expedition

Dr. Matthew L. Wittenrich, Ph.D. and a local fisher at Bone Baru village in the Banggai Islands discuss the Banggai cardinalfish fishery while consulting a chart

Dr. Matthew L. Wittenrich, Ph.D. and a local fisher at Bone Baru village in the Banggai Islands discuss the Banggai cardinalfish fishery while consulting a chart

The Banggai cardinalfish is a unique fish for many reasons, not the least of which is the extremely restricted geographic range this species has historically occupied. This is a fact the Banggai Rescue international science team saw firsthand today as we travelled by speedboat from our field headquarters in Bone Baru village in the north of the Banggai Archipelago to Bone Bone village in the southeast, Toropot village in the southwest, and then back to Bone Baru.

“Within the Coral Triangle, recognized as a global priority for conservation, lies a much smaller, lesser known triangle,” remarks Banggai Rescue international science team member Dr. Matthew Wittenrich, Ph.D., as our boat completes the last leg of what he has just coined ‘the Banggai triangle.’

“Marked by three not-so-distant villages, the Banggai triangle is incredibly important in the future conservation of Pterapogon kauderni,” muses Wittenrich, who points out the area contained by the Banggai Triangle encompasses an area smaller than the footprint of an average US county. “The Banggai triangle holds more than seventy percent of the world’s population of wild Banggai cardinalfish.”

As our boat alters course slightly to quarter a building swell, the late afternoon light bathes the interior of the cabin in a golden hue. Although tired from a full day on (and in) the water, the fact we just covered the bulk of the Banggai cardinalfish fishery in a single day is not lost on any of us. Given that the geographic extent of the fishery is fairly consistent with the geographic extent of the fish’s endemic range, the potential impact of the fishery on the species is profound. This is especially the case given the lack of effective fishery management, the level of illegal fishing we have observed, and what we have seen in the way of collateral damage to appropriate Banggai cardinalfish habitat secondary to destructive fishing practices (e.g., blast fishing and cyanide fishing).

Local children look on as Dr. Matthew L. Wittenrich, Ph.D. photographs Banggai cardinalfish in a less-than-pristine canal running through Monsongan village in the Banggai Islands

Local children look on as Dr. Matthew L. Wittenrich, Ph.D. photographs Banggai cardinalfish in a less-than-pristine canal running through Monsongan village in the Banggai Islands

“In virtually every example I can think of where an animal is collected in high numbers,” says Wittenrich, “there is typically somewhere in the remote reaches of its native range where the species exists in a relatively ‘natural’ state. The Banggai cardinalfish is being exploited through the entirety of its range.”

While we are confident the samples we have collected throughout the fishery will yield concrete results that will help us better understand the species and the virus which is contributing to well-documented mortality in trade, our attempts to better understand the fishery itself by conducting interviews with fishers, fishery managers and others involved with aspects of the Banggai cardinalfish trade has, at this point, yielded more questions than answers.

Can the Banggai cardinalfish fishery in the Banggai Islands sustain current levels of fishing for the marine aquarium trade, especially given other pressures on the resource such as illegal and destructive fishing practices and land-based threats like uncontrolled clearing of native forests for agriculture? Will the recommended reduced monthly quotas proposed by local stakeholders be adopted? If the quotas are adopted, will the resources be available to enforce those quotas? Are the recommended quotas consistent with what the science shows to be sustainable harvest levels? What impacts has the introduction of culled, confiscated and captive bred Banggai cardinalfish had on the naturally occurring populations?

We could go on and on.

Banggai Rescue International Science Team Member Yunaldi Yahya, M.Sc. at Bone Bone Village

Banggai Rescue International Science Team Member Yunaldi Yahya, M.Sc. at Bone Bone Village

The Banggai Islands are a place of sublime beauty, and while we no doubt appreciate this splendor as we close in on the rugged magnificence of Banggai Island and the promise of another delicious dinner provided by our hosts in Bone Baru, we’d be dishonest if we did not acknowledge today has left each of us somewhat disheartened. By no means are we suggesting the Banggai cardinalfish, its fishery or the fishers and fisher communities who depend on it are a lost cause, but there is much work to do. We, the Banggai Rescue International Science Team, now more than ever feel a deep responsibility to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing dialog about this very special fish and, in turn, the aquarium trade that has, most recently, put this species on the map.

Stay tuned, as you can rest assured there is lots more to come.

To see more photos and brief updates from the team in the field, be sure to “like” the Banggai Rescue Facebook Page.

Fish Quarantine and Inspection Agency

Banggai Triangle

Observing Wild Banggai Cardinalfish in Banggai Islands!

July 3, 2012 in Project Updates, Slideshow, The Expedition

A Banggai cardinalfish observed in shallow water by the Banggai Rescue International Science Team off Banggai Island

A Banggai cardinalfish observed in shallow water by the Banggai Rescue International Science Team off Banggai Island

The KM. Valentine 2, a presumably seaworthy ferry with a perceptible list softened somewhat by a cheery complement of passengers and crew, slipped its berth amid the rush and bustle of Luwuk Harbour at just after 9 pm. Bound for Salakan, the capital of the Banggai Islands, the ferry’s three decks are abuzz with activity. Banggai Rescue’s international expeditionary team gathers at the stern beneath an inky black sky punctuated by a swath of bright stars. Only one member of the team, Yunaldi Yahya, M.Sc., had spent time previously in the Banggai Archipelago, so the rest of us are a bit like kids on Christmas Eve.

After so much time dedicated to studying and working with the Banggai cardinalfish, it is hard to believe it is nearly here—the moment we will see the fish in its namesake isles.

The Banggai Islands, a vestigial set of microcontinental plates severed from the northern extent of New Guinea, collided with Sulawesi sometime in the Late Miocene…or so we’ve read. This geologic fender-bender created a deep ocean trench between mainland Sulawesi and the Banggai Islands, and this deepwater is thought to be one of the barriers that has contained the Banggai cardinalfish within the Banggai archipelago. For most of the Team, crossing this trench is significant, for it represents a concrete demarcation between the wild Banggais we had already observed outside the species’ endemic range and the ones we will soon be seeing living within their native habitat.

Arriving in Salakan a little after one a.m., the Team, bleary-eyed and luggage-laden, slouched down dirt streets in a sleepy haze to a nearby hotel for a few hours of sleep before meeting up with our contacts from Fisheries in the morning. Thanks to the work and relationships established through our host organization—Yayasan Alam Indonesia Lestari (LINI)—we have a local Fisheries’ speedboat at our disposal throughout our stay in the Banggai Islands, making it possible to cover a large portion of the archipelago in a compressed timeframe.

While no doubt tired after the long trip from Bali to Sulawesi and eventually onward to the Banggai Islands, it’s no problem getting out of bed at first light. We are finally here—in the Banggai Islands. Re-tracing our steps back to Salakan’s small harbour, we eagerly boarded a remarkably comfortable and fast boat for the trip around the northern extent of the island of Peleng to the village of Bone Baru on Banggai Island. Bone Baru has become the de facto epicenter of the legal Banggai cardinalfish fishery, although, as we have previously reported and will discuss at length in the book, the majority of the actual fishery remains illegal.

U.S.-based scientists and Banggai Rescue International Science Team members Roy Yanong, V.M.D., Tom Waltzek, VMD, Ph.D. and Matthew L. Wittenrich, Ph.D. arrive in Bone Baru ready to dive in (literally)

U.S.-based scientists and Banggai Rescue International Science Team members Roy Yanong, V.M.D., Tom Waltzek, VMD, Ph.D. and Matthew L. Wittenrich, Ph.D. arrive in Bone Baru ready to dive in (literally)

Making fast to the long pier extending from the village’s main street, we disembark and made our way into town. Invited to join some of the locals for decadently sweet hot coffee and the always amusingly awkward conversation resulting from loose translations, gesticulations and plenty of laughter, we immediately fall in love with Bone Baru and its residents whose kindness and generosity appears to know no bounds. This will be a very good base of operations for the Banggai Rescue international science team while in the Banggai Islands.

As charmed as we are with the village, and as much as we are enjoying getting to know its residents, we’d be lying if we didn’t acknowledge our burning desire to get in the water, where we are confident we will come face-to-face in short order with the objects of our study. Happy to oblige, a few local fishers accommodate our request, and soon we are donning masks, snorkels and fins and heading out over the shallow grass flats and sandy bottom of Bone Baru’s shallow bay.

Within moments, the first populations of Banggai cardinalfish come into view. Hosting around coral colonies and anemones living within the grass beds, it is difficult to move on from one grouping to the next. The groups themselves are not terribly large, but each provides an opportunity to assess, observe and simply be enchanted by the fish’s distinctive (and, anthropogenically-speaking, “cute”) pulsing movements closely choreographed with a persistent gentle swell and the undulations of the long blades of seagrasses against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of shoals of small fishes surging through the sun-slivered shallows.

Bone Baru has become the de facto epicenter of the Banggai Cardinalfish fishery and is the field headquarters of the Banggai Rescue International Science Team while in the Banggai Archipelago

Bone Baru has become the de facto epicenter of the Banggai Cardinalfish fishery and is the field headquarters of the Banggai Rescue International Science Team while in the Banggai Archipelago

As mesmerized as we are, the need to return to work soon gets the best of us. A couple local fishers are kind enough to show us the various collection techniques they have traditionally used to fish for Banggais. For anyone familiar with the species and its behavior, it will not come as a surprise to hear us report on how easy it is to collect very large numbers of this fish in extremely short order. Of course this is one of the primary concerns about the fishery and its sustainability. While there is a proposed quota of 15,000 Banggai cardinalfish leaving the Banggai Islands through the Fish Quarantine and Inspection office per month, we know from our previous interviews with exporters and middlemen in both Bali and Java that the actual numbers are far larger.

Still, we are encouraged to learn from the fishers in Bone Baru that there have been changes to the fishery that are moving it toward greater sustainability. The question, of course, is are these changes significant enough and happening quickly enough to positively impact the endemic population.

We are very much looking forward to the upcoming days of observing and sampling Banggai cardinalfish populations from across the species’ endemic range. Of course it will be important to see if we can identify the Banggai cardinalfish iridovirus (BCIV) in wild populations within the Banggai Islands, but it will also be noteworthy to hear anecdotal reports from a wide variety of fishers about the fishery. Relying in part on team member Yunaldi Yahya’s experience mapping Banggai cardinalfish distribution and densities throughout the islands, we will hopefully have a rare, first-hand look at places where the species is doing better and, unfortunately, places where local extirpation has occurred.

Stay tuned for more information from the Team, and thanks again for your invaluable support of this important project!