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October 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 38, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Reef Fish of the East Indies

and the recent controversy caused by a photo of the authors

from the October, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

With a list price of $250 and a weight of 14 pounds, this will probably be the most expensive piece of literature you've ever bought - but the price and the poundage is worth it to add Reef Fish of the East Indies, a three-volume set, to your library (it's available for sale at the "Books" tab of ).

Renowned marine biologists Gerald R. Allen and Mark V. Erdman have combined 60 years of surveys, fieldwork and research to create the most definitive guide of the Coral Triangle to date, perhaps forever. The 1,292 pages of text and 3,600 photographs (40 percent of which are of fish not seen before in print) gives comprehensive information on every known reef fish species from a region known as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity.

Volume 1 includes descriptions of the regions that make up the East Indies, along with a discussion of the geographic distribution of area's species. The other two volumes are devoted to the 120 fish families, with up-to-date classification, habitat, and distributional range of each relative. You'll get a concise description of each of the 2,631 currently known reef species from the region (25 of which are new ones recently discovered by Allen and Erdman), which are then broken down into variances between and within species to differentiate between sexes, life stages and regional-specific color patterns. You want details; you got 'em. All three hardbound volumes come packed together in a slipcase.

This is an essential reference for any scuba diver. Whether you're headed for an Indonesian dive trip or not, you'll drool over many of the amazing species and photographs in these books. Allen and Erdmann say they wrote the book to engender an appreciation of the region's amazing biodiversity, and highlight the urgent need to conserve it for the benefit of future generations.

The Guardian in Great Britain recently ran an article about the books, illustrating it with a photo of Allen and Erdman, taken by frequent Undercurrent contributors Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, photographing a new species in Cenderawasih Bay. The photo showed some of their photography and research gear resting on the reef. Because the photo had Jones and Shimlock's byline on it, that couple got a deluge of negative, accusatory emails, such as "Congratulations for destroying the reef," and "You are two-faced and liars." You can read Jones and Shimlock's reply in one of their recent Undercurrent blog posts at

In response to the angry comments, Erdman wrote this reply, which we think well describes well the responsibility of scientific research to coral reefs. "I very much respect your concern, and I have no desire to create a polemic, but I do feel it may be of use for me to quickly clarify this photograph . . . As for the scientific equipment that is seen laying on the substrate in the photograph, this is indeed a real-life situation, as I had just collected a new species of cryptic dottyback fish from 230 feet depth and we were taking specimen shots to document the live coloration of the fish for the purposes of the scientific description of the new species. I can imagine that this photograph may look as if there was significant coral crushing going on, but I can only assure you that:

A) the scientific equipment was carefully placed on the reef in a manner so as to not break any coral;

B) though Dr. Allen and I are indeed very close to the substrate to get the shot required for the description of the fish, both of us have well over 10,000 dives under our respective belts, and most definitely are not "laying on the coral" and crushing it.

C) though the process of collecting and documenting new species may seem objectionable to some (and I certainly respect that opinion), it is in fact a "necessary evil" if new species are to be described and our global biodiversity heritage cataloged properly. I note that our efforts to describe patterns of biodiversity across the East Indies -- and especially to highlight areas like Cendrawasih Bay that have high numbers of endemic species found nowhere else in the world -- have helped governments in the region to prioritize where they invest conservation dollars, and has led to the placement of millions of hectares in new marine parks, including the 1.5 million hectare park that now protects the marine biodiversity of Cendrawasih Bay.

The Shimlock/Jones Photo that Caused a Fuss Online"Finally, as I think is made clear above, there was no attempt to "alter the habitat to get the shot." I had brought up a cryptic new species from 230-foot depths that would be impossible to photograph in situ, due to its behavior of living deep within the reef interstices, and we were simply photographing the anaesthetized animal to document its living coloration for the purposes of the new species description.

"Again, I have no desire to quarrel, and I very much respect your concern for diver/photographer behavior on reefs. I only note that the activity documented in this image is an important part of the scientific process that documents new species and directs governmental attention for conservation efforts, and I can assure you that we actively strive to minimize any damage to the reefs from our surveys. Thank you for your concern on behalf of the world's reefs -- I can only affirm that we also share this concern."

Kudos to Erdman and Allen for their decades of efforts, and to the help of the dozens of individuals, companies and nonprofits that funded their work and helped to get their book published.

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