Benthic harmful algal bloom (HAB) species, such as the causative organism underlying Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP), arguably have the greatest human health and economic impacts of any algal-based poisoning syndromes. CFP stems from the human consumption of fish containing toxins produced by benthic microalgae of the dinoflagellate genera Gambierdiscus and Fukuyoa, which are the initial sources of ciguatoxin. The effect of CFP on the human dimension extends far beyond the proximate health and economic outcome – chronically impacted communities become fearful of local and other fish sources and transition from their traditional ways of life to one where all protein is imported from foreign sources, altering their cultural heritage.
CFP is endemic in many tropical Pacific regions. Although ciguatera and other toxin producing benthic HABs can occur in pristine environments, anthropogenic pressures and climate change are leading to its emergence in new regions, and intensification in others. There is evidence of range extension of these species into the waters of PICES member countries, which is raising significant concerns. The expansion of dead corals and eel-grass habitats that replace healthy coral reefs facilitates intrusion and establishment of exotic populations of toxin-producing benthic algae. Despite the widespread impacts of benthic HABs, the resultant health and socio-economic effects remain poorly understood. This was the motivation for PICES to accept a request from the Japanese government to undertake a 3-year project entitled “Building local warning networks for the detection and human dimension of Ciguatera Fish Poisoning in Indonesian communities” (acronym Ciguatera) and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) of Japan, through the Fisheries Agency of Japan, from the Official Development Assistance Fund.
Indonesia was chosen as a developing Pacific Rim country to implement the project. The country is part of the Coral Triangle, the most biodiverse marine area on Earth, and these extensive reefs are key to maintaining the ecological products that contribute to fisheries in this region. However, presently only about 7% of these coral reefs are in excellent condition, while anthropogenic stressors have left more than 30% in poor condition. Decreasing coral health in Indonesia is a relatively new phenomenon compared to other areas of the world, and the human coastal populations living adjacent to the deteriorating corals are not yet fully aware of the consequences of this change. Communities must understand the risks of exposure to keep the impact of benthic HABs to a minimum. The highest risk is when the reefs, which communities depend on for fish, have large patches of dead coral or large seagrass mats, as these surfaces are ideal for the growth of benthic algal cells. Current reports of benthic HAB occurrences such as CFP are low in Indonesia, almost certainly because diagnosis is difficult without proper training and experience.
The importance of having more effective fisheries management practices is widely recognized in Indonesia, and this has led to support by the government and the willingness of stakeholders to consider new approaches such as development and implementation of a citizen/fisher-based observation system linked with fisheries scientists and managers. The Ciguatera project was the fourth PICES project in Indonesia funded by MAFF, with its foundation being the strong collaborations developed with the Indonesian government agencies and research institutions during PICES-MAFF projects conducted in the period from 2007 to 2020. The Indonesian Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) have been PICES’ major partners for the previous three PICES-MAFF projects (for more than a decade!) – “Development of the prevention systems for harmful organisms’ expansion in the Pacific Rim” (2007–2012), “Marine ecosystem health and human well-being” (2012–2017; MarWeb), and “Building capacity for coastal monitoring by local small-scale fishers” (2017–2020; FishGIS). Recently, BPTT and LIPI have been incorporated into the National Research and Innovation Agency of Indonesia (BRIN), which better enabled the collective collaboration in the Ciguatera project.
The request to undertake the Ciguatera project was approved by PICES Governing Council in February 2020. The project principles agreed to by MAFF/JFA and PICES can be found here.
The objective of the project was to build the capacity of local small-scale fishers and community members to monitor their coastal ecosystems and coastal fisheries to benefit human health in Pacific Rim developing countries. The project’s focus was to detect and monitor benthic harmful algal bloom (HAB) species in tropical reef fisheries to ensure seafood safety.
The 2017–2020 FishGIS project led to the development and implementation of smartphone-based tools for fisheries and environmental observations, such as water quality, phytoplankton, fish catch, floating garbage (plastics) and Illegal Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, by local small-scale fishers and community members in Indonesia. The Ciguatera project aimed to adapt and further refine these smartphone-based capabilities for measurement and automated reporting, with the addition of benthic toxic algae measurements, to empower Indonesian coastal communities to minimize their CFP exposure in community-scale fisheries.
Consistent with the directives of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (UNDOS), the project included three major initiatives:
The project had strong connections and interactions with the PICES Scientific Committees on Human Dimensions (HD), Fishery Science (FIS), and Marine Environmental Quality (MEQ) (through the Section on Ecology of Harmful Algal Blooms in the North Pacific – S-HAB), PICES Technical Committees on Data Exchange (TCODE) and on Monitoring (MONITOR),
and the PICES FUTURE (Forecasting and Understanding Trends, Uncertainty and Responses of North Pacific Marine Ecosystems) science program (specifically, Research Theme 3 on “How do human activities affect coastal ecosystems and how are societies affected by changes in these ecosystems?”). HD was the parent committee for the project.
To direct the project, a Project Science Team (PST) was established by PICES Science Board based on principles and procedures detailed in the PICES Policy for approval and management of special projects (Decision 2017/A/7). All PICES member countries and relevant Scientific and Technical Committees were represented on the PST led by Dr. Mitsutaku Makino (HD Committee Chair; Japan) and Dr. Mark Wells (S-HAB Co-Chair; USA). The PST Co-Chairs were responsible for the detailed planning and execution of the project and annual reporting to MAFF/JFA and to Science Board through the HD Committee. In PICES, Science Board took on the task for reporting to Governing Council on the progress and achievements of the project.
A total MAFF contribution for the project was $292,653 CAD: $99,861 in Year 1, $99,875 in Year 2 and $92,917 in Year 3. Dr. Alexander Bychkov was appointed by the PICES Executive Secretary to serve as the Project Coordinator and was responsible for the management of the fund and annual reporting on its disposition to MAFF/JFA and to PICES Finance and Administration Committee. In PICES, the Finance and Administration Committee took on the task of reporting to Governing Council on the financial and management aspects of the project.