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Reef life

What is a Danajon Bank?

By Michael Ready, naturalist photographer and iLCP Fellow |

After two and a half days of travel; four planes, a ferry, and two outriggers, I had arrived at Handumon, a remote village and field station on Jandayan Island in the Philippines.

Last year the International League of Conservation Photographers teamed up with Project Seahorse and the Zoological Society of London in an effort to raise awareness about a very special place.  Four underwater photographers, Claudio Contreras-Koob, Thomas Peschak, Luciano Candisani, and I traveled from Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and the US, respectively, to document a little known but extremely important part of the world called Danajon Bank.
When I first learned of plans for an iLCP expedition to document Danajon Bank, I said what most anyone would say — What’s a Danajon Bank? For most of the world, and even within the Philippines, this unique biological treasure is unfamiliar–but it shouldn’t be.

Danajon Bank (Da-na-haun) is a very rare double barrier reef in the central Visayas region of the Philippines.  It spans 97 miles, running along the islands of Bohol, Cebu, Leyte, and Southern Leyte and is one of only six double barrier reefs in the world.  Not only is Danajon Bank an extremely rare geologic formation, it is also considered to be one the richest areas of marine biodiversity in the world and a place where marine life all over the Pacific first evolved.

As ILCP photographers, we were there to document the beauty and richness of Danajon Bank, but also the destruction of this biologically sensitive and highly threatened seascape.
Coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass biomes are all vital habitats that are in global decline.  Danajon Bank is no exception and is perhaps a perfect example of the fragility of these systems and our connection to them.  Sadly, much of the once rich and overflowing reefs are now mere relics of Danajon’s booming primordial past.  Overfishing and the wide use of destructive fishing methods have emptied the pot and severely impacted the reefs to the toll of nearly 200 threatened species.  Human encroachment, population growth, pollution, and climate change have added layers to the complexity of the pressures at hand for this vast ecosystem and the people that it supports.

In the water, I was immediately struck by that absence of fish.  Compared to the colorful and lively reefs I was used to seeing in the tropical southern seas, the reefs and lagoons of Danajon are devoid of large fish. As a result, top predators like reef sharks have also ceased to hunt these depleted grounds.

Blast fishing, the use of explosives to instantly kill sea life, has long been practiced in this area.  Although very dangerous and illegal, it continues on a secretive but still devastating scale.  This quick-catch method, along with indiscriminate bottom trawling, has ravaged the reefs throughout Danajon Bank. Indeed, it was not difficult to find examples of dead or dying reefs–these eerie, aquatic ghost towns were too common.  Swimming through them, I felt like an archaeologist who has discovered the sad and fascinating remains of a civilization long lost, imagining what it was like before the wreckage.

An estimated one million people depend on the Danajon’s waters for food and livelihood. No one is more aware of the diminished fish stocks and paucity of large fish than the people of these island communities.  Meager catches of just a handful of small fish–an entire night’s work–were a common sight on the islands that we visited.

The issues here are complex, as will be the answers. Due to the work of Project Seahorse, ZSL and others, however, there is good reason for hope. Remarkably, their work within the past decade has resulted in the establishment of 34 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) among the islands of Danajon Bank.

Our dives inside these MPAs were a different experience entirely.  Within the protected boundaries, life seems to be returning.  The contrast was stunning in some cases, with beautiful corals in abundance – a biodiverse ecosystem is rebuilding.  Inside one MPA called Bilangbilangan, seemingly endless fields of hard corals cover the shallow sea floor.  Dropping into deeper water, enormous sea fans (or gorgonians) and sponges rise into the current.  Even endangered branch corals (Anacropora sp.) can be seen making a comeback.

Though large fish are still uncommon, these vibrant reefs are home to many smaller fascinating species of fish and invertebrates.  The expected tropical reef denizens, like anemonefish, parrotfish, angels, and wrasses, and the surprise discoveries, like a juvenile blue-edged sole (Soleichthys heterorhinos) and a troop of messmate pipefish (Corythoichthys intestinalis), made photographing inside the MPAs a great pleasure and gave me a sense of the myriad life forms that once sprung from this area.

The people of the Danajon region are gradually moving to more sustainable fishing methods as they also look for alternatives to fishing, such as seaweed farming.  Fishers now also have the option of earning additional income from collecting discarded fishing nets through Net-Works,a collaboration between ZSL and Interface, a global carpet tile manufacturer. These waste nets are unfortunately very abundant and detrimental when left in the local biomes. Once they are cleaned, the nets are packed and exported to be upcycled into carpet tiles.

With continued efforts like these, along with additional and expanded MPAs, perhaps large fish and sharks will one day return to Danajon’s waters.

When I travel to developing areas I am often reminded that even thinking about conservation is a luxury for many of us, or so it seems.  I’m grateful to the individuals and groups who are working hard for those whose lives depend on it.  I am also reminded of our shared humanity and the many ways in which we are connected.  The kindness and hospitality of my new friends in the islands of Danajon Bank made me feel right at home, so much so that I spent my last night with them gladly partaking in their cherished pastime, videoke.  I sang my heart out!

Our guest blogger Michael Ready is a naturalist photographer and iLCP Fellow based in San Diego, California

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