Definitive fish species reference for the Coral Triangle released

Conservation International (CI) has announced the release of a three-volume book set entitled “Reef Fishes of the East Indies.” This definitive work, co- authored by Drs. Mark Erdmann and Gerry Allen, describes and catalogs over 2,500 fish species, including over 25 new ones, that are found in the Coral Triangle (including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands) as well as the South China Sea (including Brunei Darussalam to Vietnam and Singapore), the Andaman Sea (including Thailand, Myanmar, and the Andaman Islands of India) and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean The books are illustrated with over 3,600 photographs.

Wetpixel is fortunate to not only have a set of the books for a review to follow shortly, but also to have tracked down the authors, who have kindly given us an exclusive interview about the books and their research.

Image ©Roger Steene.

Press Release.

Fish to Dive For – A New Publication describes over 2500 Reef Fishes, including 25 species new to science.

This three-volume book set serves as the most comprehensive guide to reef fishes in the Coral Triangle ever produced, a region known as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity.

Jakarta, Indonesia, (Monday, 25 June 2012) - Today Conservation International (CI) announced the release of the “Reef Fishes of the East Indies” book set by CI scientists Dr. Gerald Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann, representing the culmination of a combined 60 years’ of effort to document the biodiversity of the mega-diverse coastal waters of the East Indies.

An essential reference for biologists, naturalists and divers that frequent the region, the “Reef Fishes of the East Indies” is the most up to date guide offering comprehensive information on every known reef fish species from a region known as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. The book set contains concise descriptions of each of the 2,631 currently known reef fish species from the region, and features over 3,600 color photographs – of which approximately 40% have never before been seen in print. Careful attention to detail has been paid to illustrate the morphological variances between species and within species to differentiate between the sexes, life stages, as well as those species that have multiple regionally specific color patterns.

The need for an up-to-date reference to the reef fishes of this region has been obvious for decades, as scientists have traditionally relied on outdated monumental works such as M. Weber & L.F. de Beaufort’s ‘Fishes of the Indo-Australian Archipelago’, published as 11 volumes between 1911 and 1962. Publishing this book has been a dream I’ve nurtured since I was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii in the 1960’s,” said Dr. Gerald Allen, “and I’m proud to note that we’ve nearly doubled the number of reef fishes previously reported from the region.” Allen is an acclaimed author of 35 other guides, but “Reef Fishes of the East Indies” represents his greatest achievement yet, capping a long and illustrious career in ichthyology.

Image ©Jones/Shimlock. Secret Sea Visions.

The coverage area of the book includes the Coral Triangle (including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands) as well as the South China Sea (including Brunei Darussalam to Vietnam and Singapore), the Andaman Sea (including Thailand, Myanmar, and the Andaman Islands of India) and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. It covers all shallow-water (0-75m) reef-associated fish species known from the region, including both obligate reef dwellers and those that are commonly observed passing through reef areas or in the soft bottom areas just adjacent to reefs.

It’s been an honor working with Dr. Allen on what can only be described as his magnum opus, capping an illustrious career in biodiversity studies” said Dr. Mark Erdmann. “We’re also delighted to be able to present this reference to governments and universities in the region, who have been invaluable partners in advancing this research. It is our sincere hope that this book will serve as an inspiration for us to appreciate the tremendous marine biodiversity that we are custodians of, and also help to guide governmental efforts to better manage their marine resources for the benefit of their people.”

Wetpixel interview with Drs Mark Erdman and Gerald Allen.

Wetpixel: Just to get the statistics right, this must be one of the largest marine creature identification works? How many species does it describe?

Mark: Indeed, this is the first truly comprehensive guide to the reef fishes of the global epicenter of marine biodiversity, providing detailed text and photographic coverage of ALL of the known 2,631 reef fish species from the East Indies region. If you see a reef fish while diving in this region and can’t find it in this book, it is either a new and undescribed species or it is a range extension of a fish not previously known to exist here.

Wetpixel: What compelled you to tackle such a Herculean task? How long did it take to collect, catalog and compile the images?

Gerry: The need for an up-to-date comprehensive reference has been obvious for decades as scientists have traditionally relied on out-dated monumental works such as Weber & de Beaufort (Fishes of the Indo-Australia Archipleago, 11 volumes published from 1911-1962). It’s an idea that started when I was a graduate student at the U. of Hawaii in the 1960’s and has gathered momentum as I gradually increased my knowledge of the fishes of this region as a result of numerous field trips. The actual production of the book took only the past four years of intensive work (much of it with Mark), but the photos and knowledge that went into the project date back to 1971, when I first set foot (fins) in the region (Papua New Guinea).

Wetpixel; Glancing through the pages, what struck me besides the quantity of images was their quality. What do you look for in a good identification photograph?

Gerry: I strive for a lateral view in most cases, which show the typical color pattern. Of course this approach gets a bit complicated when dealing with species that have more than one pattern, often depending on growth stage, sex, environmental surroundings, and behavioral moods (e.g. courtship and nest guarding). Therefore, it’s often necessary to gather a number of images.

Mark: I do note that we have also used a few “tricks” to capture some of the images in the book. Some reef fishes are extremely cryptic and shy and nearly impossible to photograph; in these cases, as we were striving for comprehensive photographic coverage, we would stun and collect the fish with clove oil and then photograph them in an anesthetized state. Not obviously something I would recommend for the normal underwater photographer, but for these scientific purposes it was deemed necessary for certain species.

Image ©Gerald Allen.

Wetpixel: What equipment do you/have you used to capture the images?

Gerry: Most of the images were taken since 2003, when I started using digital cameras (Nikon D-100 and now D-90 in Nexus housing with single Inon strobe). My specialty is close-ups of small reef fishes and the primary lens used is a Nikon 105 mm Micro Nikkor. I have also drawn on my large collection of 35 mm transparencies, which date back to the late 1960s with considerable activity in the East Indian region beginning in 1971. I’ve always used Nikon cameras and lenses, and over the years have used a variety of housings.

Mark: Though the majority of the images are from Gerry’s Nikon, some of the deep-dwelling or cryptic fishes were photographed by me with a Canon G11 Powershot in an ikelite housing - which I like due to its extremely rugged nature and its ability to handle deep reef diving.

Wetpixel: How comprehensive is the book?

Mark: For the East Indies region covered (bounded by the Philippines in the north, Christmas Island to the south, the Andaman Islands to the west, and the Solomon Islands to the East), the book is exhaustive in its coverage of every known reef fish species from the region. We have moreover strived to picture, when several (often geographically restricted) color forms are known, each of these color forms or morphs. We note that the book is restricted to reef fishes, which we define as those that are either exclusively found on coral reefs or which are frequently seen in association with reefs or in close proximity to them.

Image ©Gerald Allen.

Wetpixel: The publication is divided into three volumes, how did you divide them?

Mark: This is one aspect of the book where we decided to stick to a scientific approach rather than cater specifically to divers. The order of the fish families covered in the book follows the currently accepted phylogenetic (or “evolutionary”) order as currently stated in Nelson’s (2006) Fishes of the World. In other words, it starts with the most primitive reef fishes (the sharks and rays) and moves through all of the other families in evolutionary order towards those more advanced or derived families. While this may take a while for divers to get used to, the book is well-indexed and should not be difficult to navigate.

Wetpixel: How were you able to get such a large inventory of photographs identified? The taxonomic research alone must have been staggering, how did you go about it?

Gerry: This has been my job and hobby now for over 40 years, so I know most species on sight, but the problematical ones (often tiny gobies and their relatives) often require the study of specimens with a microscope and my extensive personal fish library.

Mark: Over the past decade or so of working closely together, Gerry and other specialist colleagues have mentored me on a number of the more cryptic or deep-dwelling fish families, such that when we are surveying together, these are my main focus. This region, especially around West Papua, has proven to be very fertile for new species - twenty-five of which we describe for the first time in this book…

Image ©Gerald Allen.

Wetpixel: Looking through the galleries, I noticed that you have identified all the species in the books. In Appendix 1, you catalog 25 new species; do you think that you will be adding more in the near future?

Mark: We seem to be constantly awash in new species, especially as we survey new areas to which we’ve never been. On a typical 10-14 day survey within the East Indies region, it is common for us to document anywhere from 3-8 new species. If we are fortunate to be diving in areas that have good deep reef habitat easily accessible to our scooters, it is not unusual to discover one or more new species per deep dive. Even in areas where we’ve done thousands of dives like Raja Ampat, we keep turning up new species on a regular basis. We’ve referred to this area as a “species factory” in the past for good reason…

Wetpixel: What was the most enjoyable part of the project?

Mark: For me, two things. Firstly, it was a tremendous honor to work closely with Gerry to help him realize what is in essence his magnum opus, and a project he’d been dreaming about for many years. Without question I learned an enormous amount from working with him on this project. Secondly, we both love exploration and the thrill of discovering new species, and there was certainly plenty of that happening during this project. We were lucky to frequently be doing these surveys with other marine scientists and professional photographers, and it was always very stimulating to hypothesize on WHY we were finding so many new species at a certain site or why normally common species were missing, etc. I also note that it was a real delight to work closely with local scientists and dive operators and resort and liveaboard staff in each of the countries in the East Indies - while there is a delightfully large range of cultures in this region, all of these people are exceedingly warm and friendly and make diving here a delight.

Image ©Jones/Shimlock. Secret Sea Visions.

Wetpixel: Do you have any idea how many dives you have made capturing the images for the book?

Gerry: No idea as I’ve never kept a formal dive log, but probably somewhere between 5,000-10,000 if I count back to the earlier photographs I took that we used in the book.

Mark: Over the past four years of intensive work on the book, I’ve put in nearly 2,000 dives

Wetpixel: What were the most challenging animals to photograph?

Gerry: Definitely various species of male flasher wrasses (genus Paracheilinus) when performing their courtship displays. Digital photography is an absolute blessing for this task, allowing a huge number of shots on a single dive. Of course most are out of focus, but with luck the subject can be captured in mid display with its electric colors.

Image ©Jones/Shimlock. Secret Sea Visions.

Mark: Photographing anesthetized cryptic fishes while decompressing in areas with strong currents and especially swell was a constant challenge. You want to descend down below the depth of the surge or get out of the current in order to have the fish’s fins nicely displayed and the body straight, but because of the decompression schedule you are quite confined to sticking to a 3-5m depth. We spent MANY, MANY hours under those conditions, frequently needing to photograph a single fish 20-30 times to get a decent shot.

Wetpixel: Mark, you are a senior advisor to Conservation International’s Bird’s Head Seascape initiative. How do you view the health of the reefs? Have you noticed any changes over the period of research for the books?

Mark: Indeed, my main focus for the past 10 years has been on leading a major marine conservation initiative in West Papua’s Bird’s Head Seascape (including Raja Amp at, Cendrawasih Bay and Triton Bay). CI and our partners including TNC, WWF-Indonesia and the Papua Sea Turtle Foundation actively chose to engage government and community partners in this region specifically because of the overall good health of the reefs and the generally low human population pressures on the region. We’ve been able to facilitate communities, dive operators and governments there to set up and actively enforce a network of 12 large-scale MPAs and we’ve generally seen the threats of blast and cyanide fishing, shark finning and overfishing decrease dramatically while coral health and fish biomass (and local fisher’s catches!) have actually improved. Sadly, the main threats to the reefs in this spectacularly beautiful region are no longer from fishing, but rather from poorly planned and implemented coastal development - ranging from creating “ring roads” around small sensitive islands with no coastal buffer to nickel strip mining within meters of the shoreline. All of which are now pouring tons of sediment into the water and in some cases starting to smother local reefs. This has unquestionably been the biggest change I’ve seen in the past 5 years in the region, and we are now actively focused on pushing the government to pursue more wise coastal development practices.

Image ©Gerald Allen.

Wetpixel: Similarly, Gerry, in the over 40 years that you have been studying marine animals, what is the biggest change that you have seen?

Gerry: I have fond memories of the good old days, when it was possible to virtually travel anywhere and collect fishes for scientific purposes with a minimum of hassle. Nowadays it’s terribly complex to obtain collecting permits and to get the proper export permits. There are much tighter controls. Despite this drawback I’ve been very lucky as I’m still basically doing the same things that I did 40 years ago - traveling regularly and diving in some wonderful spots. Another change is the increased awareness by the general public and governments of our physical environment and the urgent need to conserve it for future generations.

Image ©Roger Steene.

Wetpixel: What is the greatest threat to coral reefs? The oceans in general?

Mark: That’s always a difficult question to answer, as there are both truly global threats (such as climate change and ocean acidification) as well as many more localized ones (like blast or cyanide fishing or mining run-off or increasingly, seismic surveying for oil and gas). I find that the media often tends to focus on the big global issues like climate change, but in many places (especially the Coral Triangle region), the more urgent and immediate threats are much more localized (e.g., reclamation projects in Manado Bay or illegal fishing in Komodo National Park). Moreover, these localized threats are frequently something that absolutely have local solutions if communities are empowered to care for their own marine resources and governments gain ownership and understanding of the economic and food security importance of protecting reefs and the oceans in general. As such, while we must not forget about the global threats, I think it is much more practical (and productive) to focus on the plethora of local threats that every day citizens can easily help counter.

Image ©Roger Steene.

Wetpixel: What is you next project(s)?

Gerry: There’s no rest for the wicked. I would like to do a comparable book covering tropical Australia. Also there is a new revised edition of Freshwater Fishes of Australia just around the corner. Then a new version of the now out-dated Freshwater Fishes of New Guinea. Then…

Mark: What he’s neglected to mention is that we are actively working to transform the current hard-cover book set into an “e-book” that will likely be produced as an I-pad application within a year or so. We are doing this for two main reasons: firstly, because the size and weight of the book set makes it impractical for individual divers or researchers to carry around in the field with them. But even more importantly, as we’ve seen just in the four years we’ve worked intensively on this book, there is a constant stream of new discoveries (both new species and new range and depth extensions). Having an e-book format means we can update the book on an annual or semi-annual basis relatively easily and with minimal expense - which we are keen to do. I still love the feel of the big books, but the e-book will be an important additional tool…