Editor's note: Mark Erdmann’s stunning video footage of whale sharks recently attracted international media coverage. Today he focuses on another important project: the most in-depth guide ever published on reef fish biodiversity in the Coral Triangle.
After nearly five years of work, I’ve finally ticked off one of the more obscure items on my “bucket list”: publish a book that’s big enough to be used to fend off a charging rhino. My new publication, “Reef Fishes of the East Indies,” is made up of three volumes — 1,292 pages that weigh just over 15 pounds!
More important than its size is what the book includes: the most comprehensive coverage ever published of reef fish biodiversity in the Coral Triangle, a Pacific region which includes the tropical waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. The book succinctly describes 2,631 species, showcased in over 3,600 color photographs. It also includes the descriptions of 25 new species of reef fish from the region — including my personal favorite, the beautiful fairy basslet (Pseudanthias mica) that we’ve named after my daughter Mica (see photo above).
“Reef Fishes of the East Indies” actually represents much more than five years of my time; it is the magnum opus of its senior author — and my good friend — Dr. Gerald Allen. This book has been a dream of Gerry’s since his graduate school days in the 1960s, and it’s been a tremendous honor and learning experience to assist him with this project. As one of the foremost experts on reef fish in the world and the author of 35 other fish books, his enthusiasm is both unstoppable and contagious. At the age of 70, he still regularly puts in 6-8 hours of diving each day on our surveys. In the past 10 years, he’s even managed to convert me from a “crustacean guy” (my Ph.D. work was focused on mantis shrimp) into a “fish guy.”
Now that the book has finally been published, it’s been very satisfying to see the initial positive response from readers. While the publication is definitely intended to be used as a reference work in academia, I have been monitoring two user groups in particular.
The first is the diver community in Southeast Asia. The marine tourism sector has always been a key partner in our conservation work in the Coral Triangle, as properly-controlled marine tourism represents one of the best choices for healthy sustainable economic development in many of the coastal communities where we work. Thanks in part to CI’s marine tourism work, tourist numbers in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago have jumped dramatically — from 300 in 2000 to 6,405 in 2011.
Over the years, we’ve seen the knowledge of many divers in the region increase dramatically. Many of them have become avid underwater naturalists and conservationists, and they actively report rare or unusual species sightings. While there are a number of good fish identification books on the market, in the interest of size, all of them restrict their coverage to the most commonly encountered species. Our new book is designed to rectify this for avid Coral Triangle divers; it includes every single known species reported from the region. Therefore, if a diver spots a fish and can’t find it in our book, it means without question this is either a new species or one that has never been recorded in the region.
So far, the diving community’s response has been very positive, though predictably most divers are keenly awaiting the release of the e-book version so they don’t have to carry 15 pounds of books with them on their dive vacation!
The second reader group of most interest to me is the students, scientists and policymakers of the nations within the Coral Triangle. Within the book, we’ve included an important section analyzing regional patterns of diversity and endemism that should be useful in guiding geographic prioritization of marine conservation initiatives in the region. Moreover, we’ve set aside around 200 copies of the book for free distribution to universities, research institutes, government agencies and NGOs in the region.
As the custodians of the greatest concentration of marine biodiversity on the planet, these are the stakeholders that will determine the fate of their tremendous marine natural resources. And as the environmentalist Baba Dioum famously said in 1968: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”
It is our sincere hope that this new book will both teach and inspire the people of the Coral Triangle to further appreciate their globally outstanding marine biodiversity, while also helping guide governmental efforts to better manage their marine resources for the benefit of their people.
Dr. Mark Erdmann is the senior advisor to CI-Indonesia’s Marine Program. To see more photos, check out this recent Huffington Post article and slideshow.