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

Luwuk Harbor Population of Banggai Cardinalfish Observed

June 28, 2012 in Project Updates, Slideshow, The Expedition

Dr. Matthew L. Wittenrich photographs Banggai Cardinalfish in Luwuk Harbor, Sulawesi.

Dr. Matthew L. Wittenrich photographs Banggai Cardinalfish in Luwuk Harbor, Sulawesi.

Banggai Rescue Science Team Field Report from Luwuk, Sulawesi – June 2012 –

As we’ve come to expect, it didn’t take long for U.S.-based scientists who are part of the Banggai Rescue (BR) international science team to find Banggai cardinalfish in Sulawesi. Upon arriving in Luwuk (Central Sulawesi) by increasingly smaller aircraft from Denpasar in Bali, the U.S.-based BR team members had most of a day to kill before meeting up with their Indonesian counterparts and heading by ferry to the Banggai Islands. What to do?

Look for Banggais, of course!

An introduced population of Banggai cardinalfish in Luwuk Harbour is oft-cited in the literature, and we suspected it would not be hard to find. So we arranged for a car and driver, loaded up the gear and headed out armed with pictures of the species on our phones and a rough approximation of local and trade names. We stopped at several places inquiring about the fish, and while the language barrier certainly exacerbated the situation, the fact a couple of Americans wanted to see a small fish in the busy and polluted harbour proper as opposed to diving on a nearby near-pristine reef was our biggest obstacle. Finally, with a little more directive leadership, we turned away from the road headed out of town toward the pristine reefs and instead made our way down to Luwuk’s port proper.

The harbour, chiselled against a backdrop of dense mountain forest, was hot with a miasma of odors colliding beneath a blue sky fringed by cumulus clouds skirting the horizon. Wide wood planked piers cut amidst a tapestry of brightly colored ferries and fishing boats, small traditional craft and a handful of government vessels. Flotsam sloshed in the shallows where freshwater runoff mixed with the stagnant backwater against the stone quay. Plastic bottles, foil wrappers and other sundry trash items were punctuated by the occasional fish carcus and a virtual Smörgåsbord of discarded food waste

Perhaps we wouldn’t get in the water here.

Our team, most of us glaringly white and no doubt wide-eyed by the sudden assault on the senses, elicited curious stares from locals who clearly don’t see a lot of tourists poking around the Harbour with cameras. Undaunted, we approached the water’s edge with eager anticipation. From several meters away, the blackspine sea urchin clumps were easy to see. A little closer, and there was no doubt there were fish hovering about the urchin clumps. A little closer…and…definitely Banggai cardinalfish…

…and lots of them!

While these were not the first Banggais we have seen in the wild in Indonesia (we’ve observed three other wild populations in Bali), seeing them here was still a thrill. After studying this animal for so long and from so many different perspectives, all of us could barely contain our enthusiasm. Pointing and talking in excited bursts, snapping photographs of what could only be described as severely degraded habitat, we must have provided Luwuk’s monthly quota of entertainment in a few short moments.

What is often referred to as a small population of “unknown origins” in Luwuk Harbor, appeared to be alive and well, and depending upon how one defines small, it appears anything but. As we travelled around the harbor, we consistently saw Banggai cardinalfish sheltering around urchins less than a meter from shore in shallow water. While there is some speculation in the literature that this could be an endemic population, the latest research (both scientific and sociological) seems to point to an introduction by traders in Banggai cardinalfish destined for the marine aquarium trade.

As previously reported, the Team has now observed two of the four or five sites where we have heard introduced populations of Banggais are thriving. In addition, the team observed Banggais in a location in North Bali we have not seen cited in the literature. These introduced populations–especially the now infamous Lembeh Straits population to the north–have, of course, been a significant talking point in the ongoing debate about the species and its conservation status. With introduced populations doing so well even in areas with such abysmal water quality, could this truly be a species on the verge of collapse? This is a line of reasoning put forth by some, including some members of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Agency for Marine and Fisheries Research we have interviewed in Indonesia as part of our research.

Of course, as others have pointed out in the literature, this is a complex question. Without looking at extensive population data and understanding the significance and origins of introduced populations versus endemic populations–without understanding the genetic diversity and the genetic flow (or lack thereof) of sub-populations of the species–a rush to judgement could be very damaging to the species’ future. As has been frequently reported, this is a species believed to have an extremely limited endemic distribution. When one combines this with the fish’s high site fidelity and mouthbrooding characteristics (e.g., individuals don’t move very far from their parents throughout their entire life cycle), re-stocking (especially if the stock represent trader’s culled fish as is believed to be the case in at least one situation) or in-situ culturing initiatives could have deleterious impacts on the species overall genetic diversity. Throw the virus we are here to research into the equation, and fishery aside, it could easily be argued this a fish that needs a management plan to ensure its fitness into the future.

Filled with renewed excitement for the Banggai Rescue Project and our role in that Project, the U.S.-based team members headed back to the rendezvous point with our Indonesian counterparts. Tonight we are off to the Banggai Islands by ferry.

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.


Banggai Rescue Update from Indonesia!

June 18, 2012 in Project Updates, Slideshow, The Expedition

Banggai Rescue Team and more, on location in Indonesia - photo by Ret Talbot

Banggai Rescue Team and more, on location in Indonesia - photo by Ret Talbot

Banggai Rescue is now in full swing, and we’re excited to share our adventures and investigations with you! As you know, Matthew Pedersen is hard at work in the fish room in Minnesota, Karen Talbot is working on scientific illustrations in California, the U.S.-based scientific team is now on the ground and collaborating with their Indonesian counterparts in Bali, and Jame Lawrence, in Vermont, is keeping us all moving in the right direction toward our publication deadline. We have already learned so much about the species, the culturing of the species, the trade in the species, and the socio-economic and environmental impacts of that trade, and yet it seems like every time we discover something new (or confirm something we have heard anecdotally), a whole new string of questions arise. While this could seem daunting, if not downright depressing, we on the Banggai Rescue team have embraced the conundrum of the Banggai Cardinalfish with enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity and plain old excitement!

The team in Indonesia is learning that, as expected, there are more unknowns about the Banggai cardinalfish than knowns. Sure, we know it is a beguiling fish with a set of fascinating biological characteristics. We believe it is a species endemic to a very limited area (the Banggai Archipelago to the east of Central Sulawesi, Indonesia) but introduced populations are on the rise. We know that since 2003-04, there has been a sharp increase in mortality of Banggai cardinalfish in public aquaria, aquaculture facilities and in the marine ornamental trade the world over. We know much of this mortality is directly related to a relatively indiscriminate and alarming virus with repercussions that extend far beyond marine ornamentals with potential impacts to food and recreational fisheries.

But where is the virus originating? How can healthy Banggai cardinalfish broodstock be be reliably obtained for home and commercial aquaculture and the marine aquarium trade? Is the virus a threat to wild populations? What is the real impact of the trade on endemic populations, host ecosystems, and local fishers and fisher communities? What are the potential impacts of what we are learning on Indonesia’s marine aquarium trade, and how is the Banggai cardinalfish emblematic of trade-wide issues that require greater transparency and wider discussion? These questions are ones that keep team members up late into the night discussing, debating and hypothesising, and with so many unique backgrounds and skill sets in play, these discussions are yielding truly exciting, interdisciplinary and novel approaches to the larger discussion about the Banggai cardinalfish.

In terms of nuts and bolts, the U.S.-based scientists arrived in Indonesia on Friday and Saturday, making the Indonesian expeditionary team complete. After meeting with Banggai Rescue’s in-country sponsor, Gayatri Reksodihardjo Lilley of Yayasan Alam Indonesia Lestari (Indonesian Nature Foundation or LINI) on Saturday morning, we headed to West Bali and then Java and the town of Banyuwangi on Selat Bali (Bali Straits), where several marine aquarium trade export facilities deal regularly with Banggai cardinalfish and where there are reports of introduced Banggai cardinalfish populations living in the wild. On Monday morning, we were hosted by the Gondol Research Institute for Mariculture in North Bali (GRIM), where one of the Indonesian scientists who will be working closely with the U.S.-based scientists in the Banggai Islands is based. The entire team was very impressed with the facility and the scientists who work there (more to come on our visit), and we are looking forwar d to collaborating fully with them. On Tuesday, the U.S.-based scientists, based on information provided by our Indonesian counterparts, set out to observe more introduced populations in Bali before briefly returning to the south and tomorrow’s flight to the Banggai Islands.

We will try to post another update before leaving for the Banggai Archipelago, but from here on out, Internet connection may be spotty at best. Rest assured we will be documenting all our activities, and we will update you when we are able. Thank you again for your interest and support of this important project. While we may be a small group made up of passionate scientists, fish breeders, aquarists, a journalist, an artist, and a publisher, we very much feel as if you all our part of the Team! Stay tuned…

Don’t forget to “like” the Banggai Rescue Facebook Page for more updates and photos from Indonesia.

Banggai Rescue Kickstarter Reward Surveys Sent Out

June 18, 2012 in General Banggai Info, Kickstarter Updates, Project Updates, Slideshow, The Expedition

Dr. Roy Yanong, DMV and Dr. Tom Waltzek, VMD, Ph.D., speaking with one of their Indonesian counterparts at the Gondol Research Centre for Mariculture (GRIM) in Bali, Indonesia. Photograph by Ret Talbot.

Dr. Roy Yanong, DMV and Dr. Tom Waltzek, VMD, Ph.D., speaking with one of their Indonesian counterparts at the Gondol Research Centre for Mariculture (GRIM) in Bali, Indonesia. Photograph by Ret Talbot.

The Banggai Rescue team is in Indonesia and is headed further afield to the Banggai Islands later this week.

To all our loyal Kickstarter Backers, the time has come to collect your reward info so we can start delivering on our promises.  Our first wave of thanks and appreciation is coming in the form of a handwritten postcard sent by the expedition team during their time in Indonesia.  For those of you who backed us at higher levels, the rest of your rewards are still estimated for a September, 2012 delivery at this time.

Be sure to fill out your reward surveys completely, fully, and promptly to ensure you get everything we owe you without delay!   It takes only a minute to complete.  If you didn’t get the email from Kickstarter, please do check your spam folders and either post a comment here, shoot us a message on Kickstarter, hit up our Banggai Cardinalfish Rescue Facebook page, you name it.

Keep a lookout for updates from the entire Banggai Rescue team in the coming days and weeks as the project continues to move forward.