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!


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.