TEAM BLOG : Katherine Short - A warm embrace: Finding my way back to the tropical waters
I first dove into tropical waters off Pulau Aur in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia when I was six years old. The memory of all the colourful fish in those deep azure waters stayed with me as a constant inspiration for why I care so much for the marine environment.
If there can be so many fish, they must be able to have lots of young, I thought. And sure enough when I became an ecologist, I learnt they do and can! I then learnt about tuna, those super sleek, fast, tasty, muscle machines of the open ocean and I was in love. I found something I really wanted to do for conservation: to knit the deep diversity of WWF with the complex politics of international tuna mis-management and bring about change in their management and conservation.
And how fortunate I have been to be part of a diverse community of sustainable fisheries professionals doing just that all these years! What a global team and suite of tools I now work with, engaged in a number of significant issues: bycatch, turtles, circle hooks, sharks, responsible industry, policy, politics, lobbying, rights-based management, Marine Stewardship Council—and all with superb international teams, powerful market allies, responsible producing fisheries, and strident moral champions!
Making my way back to Asia-PacificAfter living in Switzerland for more than 7 years, I moved back home to New Zealand two years ago to work with Asia-Pacific cultures, countries, food, and norms that I grew up with in Singapore. I needed to be back by the sea and sought to bring many years of experience to some difficult challenges in this region, and to work to connect tourism, sustainable seafood, marine protected areas, and community livelihoods.
However, as a professional conservation scientist I still need to learn more about coral reef ecosystems. How much fish could a healthy reef produce? Which species? What are their life histories? What kind of management would that need? Where? How to establish? Who should benefit from the use of those marine species, those assets? What are they worth and to whom?
And who better to teach me than dive buddies Dr Lida Pet-Soede, Dr Jose Ingles, and Dr Geoffrey Muldoon, my WWF Coral Triangle core teammates, who between them have over 50 years of experience and knowledge of tropical marine ecosystems! And where better to go than Tubbataha Marine Park in the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea for this year’s core team retreat!
This is a place I’ve heard about for over a decade in WWF and this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary as a marine protected area. I’d seen the presentations so many times over the years about the rangers patrolling, their satellite-like station emerging from the reef, the management challenges, and success stories. And to be there, on a wonderfully old, solid, WWF-branded boat, with a kind, thorough, professional crew, and the WWF manager of the Tubbataha project of 12 years, was an amazing experience!
Getting in the waterIn between meetings, we had the opportunity to dive. Marine conservationists need to get in the water; we all need to see what we work on to understand. And in marine conservation, that is under the water! We don’t have gills, we can’t walk into a forest or a lab, under the water is our forest, and our lab!
At the surface, Lida, Geoffrey, and Jingles repeatedly exclaimed all the species they saw, but they used the Latin, scientific names! Plectropomus, the coral trout species; Naso, the unicornfish; Carangoides, the trevally’s; Lutjanids, the snappers; Elagatis bipinnulatus, rainbow runners that flash their shimmering blue scales as their schools change directions, as did the pipefish, Fistularia, shimmering electric blue. The easier ones to learn of course are the megafauna, the white and black tip sharks and grey reef sharks, the hawksbill and green turtles, the spotted eagle ray, moral eel and mantis shrimp. I was pretty sure I saw a small bigeye tuna too, off the deep edge of the reef!
We swam along the reef edge most of the time staring into the blue. I had to remind myself to look at multiple depths–micro, meso, macro as each contains a different suite of creatures, shapes, colours, and life. At times there were more than a dozen large diverse reef fish within several metres squared below me, including schools of humphead wrasse.
An honoured guest in the marine environmentI’ve spent over a decade working on growing sustainable seafood worldwide, supporting places like WWF-Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, and now China, to consider how to use sustainable seafood tools to protect the reef fish that arrive in those markets barely alive and live out their days in tanks in restaurants before being served. How heartening to see those same species in schools of 6, 8, 10, and be a guest in their environment! At one point I reminded myself to rise and there were shafts of light shining onto a patch of white sand. Lida was hanging there in the water, gently, quietly, above a white tip reef shark, itself just resting on the sand.
I had the chance to snorkel in the last afternoon we spent at Tubbataha. I followed Lida snorkelling along the edge of the reef, partly staring into the deep blue and partly hovering on the reef edge. It was a precious moment; what an honour it was to snorkel with Lida as she pointed things out. And, although we knew there were a lot about, we hadn’t seen any turtles on our dives. So I was thrilled when Lida called me over three times to see three turtles—two hawksbills and a massive old green with a really thick long tail that Lida reckoned could be over 60 years old.
In total, I saw five on that one-hour snorkel. On the way back, I noted it was the last time I’d be swimming there. I was feeling sad and reflective, and then a turtle appeared and swam below me. Smiling, I re-joined the team on the boat and with Geoffrey, jumped off the roof of the boat to celebrate it all—elated, informed, educated, inspired, proud, happy and challenged to continue working for the survival of these precious creatures and their homes.