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Where Are The Predators of the Gambier Islands?

By Michele Westmorland, Photographer and iLCP Founding Fellow

In Part 1 of this blog I wrote about the need for accurate science and compelling outreach images if we are to move the needle on ocean conservation, but I never wrote about what it takes on the ground to complete such a task. I thought I had a lot of photographic equipment with me when I hopped aboard the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation’s (LOF) M/Y Golden Shadow science vessel, but it paled in comparison to the enormous amount of gear the scientists needed to diagnose the health of a coral reef. Their basic gear included a transect grid, a small camera, sampling bags, waterproof charts, line reels and sometimes even an underwater power drill.  Like reading the rings of a tree, the stories that can be read from a coral core sample are invaluable.  Age, storm or disease impact, coral bleaching and recovery time can all be gleaned from a tiny piece of coral.

Besides testing the coral itself, scientists look at all the other factors surrounding it. Instruments are placed to measure, among other things, temperature and acidification of the nearby waters.  Creatures and plants are collected and identified since they are often important indicators of reef health. Researchers conduct fish counts by laying down transects and recording every fish that swims within a 4 meter area. Since this same methodology is used all over the world, data can be compared from any reef on the planet.

While stable, self-perpetuating underwater communities were found in the Gambier Islands, several worrying trends were observed. The main concern captured not only by researchers but by my camera lens as well, was a significantly low population of fish, especially predators, in many areas.  A place as remote as the Tuamotus and Gambiers should be teeming with an enormous variety of tropical fish.  There should be tuna hunting large schools of baitfish and sharks following right behind.  The reefs are by and large very healthy themselves and could easily support denser fish populations. The lack of these larger species certainly wasn’t due to the local human population.  The islanders here are still few and far between and have sustained the marinelife for generations as a valuable, and often only, food source. It all begs the question of who else is navigating these waters. The idea that commercial boats from other countries are coming in and scooping up as many fish as their nets and tanks can hold is not pleasant. But the demand for seafood and the complete lack of monitoring or policing in the area means the possibility is very real.

These sorts of conclusions are hard to relay to the public through science alone. One scientist who studies one species of fish for years would be lucky to get published in a scientific journal. Few people outside of the same field would ever see their information or be interested in reading a possibly dry scientific account. Publications such as National Geographic were some of the first to recognize the importance of visuals to communicate science and garner the public’s interest. We are now at a place where we need to take it a step further. Photography can be science. It can be art and news and data all in one. There is enormous potential to bring together seemingly disparate disciplines and organizations to work on pressing environmental concerns. Projects such as LOF’s Global Reef Expedition, that are not only multidisciplinary but involve the cooperation of several organizations, are the key to inciting passion and compelling people to protect their surroundings.

The overall picture that emerges from these sorts of collaborations is also much richer and more relatable to a broader audience. Local communities that are shown this complete puzzle would agree. Shortly after my journey to French Polynesia, LOF returned to the community with the data they had accumulated, video, and many of the images I had taken there. The people who came to hear and see what had been discovered had lived next to these reefs their entire lives. Yet many of them had no idea what they even looked like. Being able to help create that sense of awe and pride in this natural resource will be key to helping protect these marine treasures for the future.

To see all of Michele Westmorland’s images from the iLCP/LOF expedition, visit our Gambiers, French Polynesia Image Gallery.