One of the highlights of my trip to MACNA in Orlando this year was getting to meet many of the people who were involved in bringing the Lightning Maroon Clownfish from PNG to my home aquarium in Duluth, MN. While I documented this trip already in my 2010 MACNA recap on Reefbuilders, I wanted to elaborate and do something complimentary here.
I must admit that having been put in contact with David Vosseler by Ret Talbot, I’ve had the opportunity to share my questions, comments and concerns about PNG SEASMART in the past few months over email. I must say, the conversation has admittedly been relatively one-sided and tangential to other discussions I’m having at the time. For example, I still think that in the grand scheme of things, there is a big “fatal flaw” to the notion that a sustainable wild harvest industry will provide sufficient conservation and preservation of coral reefs. I say this, not because I don’t believe in sustainability, but rather because I don’t feel that sustainability is enough. Specifically, a sustainable wild harvest can defend a coral reef from localized issues such as shoreline or “upstream” development problems. It can protect a reef from dynamite fishing or other heavy impact fishing for sustenance. However, a sustainability program like SEASMART cannot directly stand in the way of ocean acidification or coral bleaching from rising ocean temperatures as a result of climate change.
I can’t say I ever got a response from David Vosseler regarding this “fatal flaw” of sustainability, but I simply take that as an acknowledgement of the problem and the reality that SEASMART isn’t meant to address climate change or ocean acifidification. No, it’s meant to create value to the local owners of the resource, as I learned that each village owns its own reef and ultimately decides how best to utilize that resource. What is perhaps most promising is that this program was actually started not by a private individual looking to plunder a developing nation, but with the cooperation and blessing and integral support of the government of Papua New Guinea itself.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, but I have to say that MACNA provided me the opportunity to meet with MANY people working in the SEASMART program as well as some of the government officials responsible for this program. The first person I met on Saturday afternoon was Simeon Daple (a SEASMART FMA Team Leader and RAM Scientist) who told me about the PNG lifestyle and his hopes for this program. Of course, the conversation took a turn when someone else (I think David’s wife Judy) recognized my name and realized that I was the person who has the Lightning Maroon. Admittedly, I was a bit caught off guard and felt a bit like a celebrity, especially with Selma Pamolak, another FMA Team Leader and RAM Scientist, asked to have her picture taken with me. Somewhere in the shuffle I got to meet Mark Schreffler (Communities & Market Development, Eco-EZ) and Philip Sokou, yet another FMA Team Leader and RAM Scientist. I gotta say, Philip really struck me with his enthusiasm and energy. He’s someone to keep an eye on, and someone I wish I had gotten to spend more time with.
In the short conversations I got to have with everyone from SEASMART that afternoon, I quickly realized just how much of an impact the PNG Lightning Maroon Clown had made not only on the marine aquarium world, but on the team @ SEASMART. The fact that the Lightning Maroon graced the SEASMART T-Shirt should have told me how famous the fish was. I must have told the story at least 3 or 4 times on Saturday of how I had let the Lightning Maroon go on its “first date” with the big Maroon Clown and how it went. Ironically, the reality I took away from this was very simple. My home is the USA residence of a very prominent PNG / SEASMART ambassador. It’s an honor to be charged with the care of this creature, and since the fish cannot speak itself, it’s my job to speak on its behalf. While I already do that with the website, it was definitely exciting to talk about the breeding prospects for this fish with everyone I met from SEASMART on Saturday.
Of course, I did finally get to meet David Vosseler, SEASMART Program Director, face-to-face. I couldn’t have met a more warm, optimistic man. I NEED some of that optimism…David do you bottle it? Of course, I mentioned some of the “tough questions” I’ve asked him in the past and explained where I was coming from, but quickly, again, the conversation moved to Lighting Maroons! There is just never enough time to talk. Fortunately for me, and for many of the other people who approach a program like SEASMART with cautious and healthy skepticism, David Vosseler was the MACNA Banquet Speaker. As a speaker, there is no higher honor than to be asked to present to a truly captive audience of over 1000 people. Talk about pressure.
Well, I have to say, David’s presentation on SEASMART was exceptional. He didn’t bore us with dull figures and a long lecture. No, he hit all the truly key points and explained how the program works within the unique culture of Papua New Guinea. What David may not know is that some of my other very hard questions, including one about the fledgling PNG coral mariculture program, were fully and adequately answered in this presentation. Yes, there were people who saw this presentation and felt they were being “pitched” or “sold to”, but to that end, I have to say if you felt you were being “persuaded” it’s because you were. The arguments put forth were BEYOND compelling.
Like I said, David didn’t drone on for an hour or longer with some boring presentation. Instead, after maybe 15 minutes of talking, he brought a 30 minute video directly from PNG of the SEASMART program in action. It covered the entire process start to finish. Of course, the surprise of the night was seeing the PNG Lightning Maroon Clownfish featured for almost a full minute in the video. Well, actually, that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was when the fish hit the screen, the entire room, over 1000 strong, erupted in applause. Brian Blank says it was a standing ovation. For a fish. That is now living in my basement. And has its own website. All of which leads me to ask “what the hell was I thinking?”! Talk about a feeling of renewed pressure!
Sunday I was due to depart at 1:00 PM, which left me just enough time to catch a couple more presentations. At 12:00 PM, I had to make the very tough decision between Ret Talbot’s talk on PNG and Ken Nedimyer’s talk on the Coral Restoration Foundation. Honestly, were it not for the fact that Ret and I have chatted online for what feels like a couple years at least, we had only shaken hands the entire weekend and had never met before. So of course, friendship, and PNG, win out over Ken. Sorry too Ken, because I really, really, really wanted to be in your talk too – you’re doing very important work, keep it up!
So yeah, Ret’s talk on his trip to PNG provided another perspective on the country, the people, and the SEASMART program.
I even got to learn about the true home of the Lighting Maroon Clownfish, SEASMART’s first Fishery Management Area, known as Fisherman’s Island!
Of course, it figures that I’d be sitting in the front row snapping a picture when he puts up a slide of the Lightning Maroon and points at me! I wish I had a better camera with on this trip, but we captured the moment!
If there’s one thing I could say about Ret’s talk – bring him and David out to your local club events and have them give their talks together…perhaps Ret’s first, and then David’s. We’re at a time in our hobby when we need to think more about where our fish come from (I’ve seen talks on that topic from Richard Ross and Kevin Kohen as well), and we’re at a time when we need to talk more about the sustainability of our wild collection (another good person to talk to about alternatives to traditional collection might be Matt Carberry of Sustainable Aquatics, and their revisiting and promoting of “grown out” tank-raised juveniles offered under the Sustainable Island brand).
After Ret’s talk I actually got to meet several more people although my time was really limited (a ride to the airport with Tom Frakes was waiting for me at 1:15!). I still remember once agian telling Bede Tomokita about the Lightning Maroon’s “first date” the week prior, and expressing my hope for the SEASMART program to continue strongly. There was one big thing I wasn’t going to leave without, and that was this picture below. Everyone from PNG and the SEASMART program left you filled with hope, optimism, and a deep desire to see this project succeed.
Back Row, from left to right:
Bede Tomokita – PNG National Fisheries Association (NFA) Board director representing the Commerce and Industry Dep’t
David Vosseler – SEASMART Program Director
Simeon Daple – Fisheries Management Area (FMA) Team Leader and Resource Assessment and Management (RAM) Scientist
Paul Nivori – PNG NFA Board Chair
Matt Pedersen (“me”) – 2009 MASNA Aquarist of the Year and very humble Lightning Maroon Clownfish caretaker
Felix Tapie - Fisheries Minister’s First Secretary
Kawoi Songoro – PNG NFA Baord Director representing coastal fishers
Ret Talbot – MACNA presenter, CORAL author, journalist and editor, all around cool fish dude
Front Row, from left to right:
Philip Sokou – FMA Team Leader and RAM Scientist
Selma Pamolak – FMA Team Leader and RAM Scientist
Jordan Ross – SEASMART Volunteer (makes me think of the unpaid interns in The Life Aquatic)
SEASMART as a project is only slated to go through something like the end of this year since it’s a trial project funded by the government. The message we walked away with was BUY PNG FISH…this program needs to show profitability to continue! Of course, I’m always a proponent of voting with your wallet. PNG fish are available through multiple wholesalers / importers. If you want SEASMART fish, you need to ask for them. Some of the key points include all hand caught, all caught in less than 5 meters of water (no risky deep diving, it’s safe for fishers). Fish are held in the ocean after collection, on site, and are screened before they ever enter the supply chain. Those that don’t make the grade (i.e. could be something as simple as a split fin) are returned to the reef.
More than one person left that weekend mentioning that they were so inspired that they wanted their entire tank to come from PNG. I have a project in the works and it will be a PNG biotope aquarium, the future home for the Lightning Maroon and his ultimate mate. I’ve sent a request for information up the chain to Mark Schreffler,who I know is busy, but hopefully in the coming weeks and months we can talk more about what a PNG Biotope tank filled with SEASMART critters might be!
And to the government of PNG, I’ll send this open request. Please do not let this project go unfunded. This is a starting point, critical mass is just starting to form. Do not pull the rug out from underneath and leave us all scratching our heads. Everyone outside wants to see this project work and more specifically, wants to see your citizens derive the most benefit with the least impact. I personally want to know that the person who collects my fish is doing so in a safe, non-impactful manner, bringing me a high quality fish, and all the while being WELL-PAID to do so. We’ve all heard what we think are the right things being said and done as part of the SEASMART program, but we need to see it continue. Efforts like this take time. SEASMART is clearly employing many PNG natives (I see over 40 on the SEASMART Team Pages). It is creating jobs in PNG, but in the worldwild Marine Aquarium Trade it is also creating a lot of hope for a shining example of a new, better way to get our livestock and create local value, and thus an incentive to preserve coral reefs, in the process.
Frankly, I’m not convinced that such a program should ever be handed over solely to private hands. No, I kind-of like that the government is involved and working with the scientists to set catch limits and such. This partnership and collaboration, where the government works together with the people to create and regulate this trade for the long term benefit of the resources and the local community stakeholders is a very good idea. I suppose there’s another open letter to David Vosseler in the making, with the question “how does SEASMART continue to do what it does if it becomes a private entity, and how does that open up the trade in PNG to other, less responsible operations?” I chuckle, because I think I’ve already put enough on David’s plate for the month with some special requests..better let the guys @ SEASMART do their jobs and continue to secure this trade for the long term benefit of PNG and the local stakeholders in each costal village!
In closing, it was the people of PNG that truly impacted me in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. I certainly want to visit, to see this program for myself. I hope my path might cross with Simeon, Selma and Philip again, and that perhaps I might see their PNG home from their point of view, that I might have a deeper appreciation and connection. While I may or may not ever travel to PNG, you could say that I’m a bit smitten with it still weeks after the fact. That is only the result of the fine folks of SEASMART and PNG.