The Philippines PIRE project: Centennial Genetic and Species Transformations in the Epicenter of Marine Biodiversity is a collaborative project involving marine biologists from Silliman University in the Philippines and the U.S. institutions Old Dominion University, Arizona State University, Rutgers University, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The goal of this project is to investigate changes in evolution, connectivity, and community composition of at least 20 species of marine fishes in the Philippines that have taken place over the past century of substantial human impacts using advanced genomic analyses.
Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts
Between 1907 and 1909, the USS Albatross expedition to the Philippines resulted in one of the greatest marine natural history collections in history, including over 91,000 specimens of fishes. Preservation of these specimens in ethanol permits the use of advanced genomic methods to investigate the demographic history and genetic structure and relationships of these fishes. Contemporary samples have been collected predominantly from local fish markets, however collaborations with local fisherman have also occurred. Comparisons between the Albatross specimens and fish specimens collected recently from the same areas will enable us to evaluate changes over time in order to identify species that may be more susceptible than others to genetic diversity loss, and to determine whether overfishing and habitat loss have reduced gene flow between marine populations.
One of the objectives of the PIRE program is to create and promote opportunities for students and early career scientists to participate in immersive international research experiences. During our summer field season, we bring one undergraduate from each participating US institution to participate in a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in order to promote learning, provide them with tools to excel in STEM fields and to encourage international partnerships. We also organize and host a yearly Bioinformatics Workshop at Silliman University in Negros Oriental to foster furthered understanding and long term international collaboration in the field of molecular ecology.
Funding, Permits, and Certifications
The proposal: The first step was creating the grant proposal and informing NSF that we would require permits, with collaborators in both countries agreeing that this was a permittable project and that repositories would be available for the specimens. Members of Siliman University, BFAR (The Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources), and the Smithsonian Institution Division of Fishes had roles in this. This provided a basis for applying for further permits.
Governmental Permits in the Republic of the Philippines: The second step was obtaining general permits from governmental agencies in the Philippines. The Gratuitous Permit (GP) is from the federal government of Republic of the Philippines. This was a long process that involved Dr. Kent Carpenter (ODU), Dr. Alcala (SU), the Old Dominion University Research Foundation (ODURF) and the Department of Agriculture at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR). This process requires legal review from attorneys in both nations. The process was started when Kent filled out an application at DA-BFAR. He gave a list of all localities and candidate species. All US signers had to sign the document before a “Red Ribbon” certified notary public recognized and authorized by the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines. The last signer was the RP Secretary of Agriculture, fully authorizing the GP. Because the Philippines has a decentralized government, doing collections ourselves means that we have to obtain Prior Informed Consent Certificates (PICs) from individual municipalities. To obtain these, our Project Manager in the Philippines made appointments with officials, he traveled to specific localities, and gave Mayors and councilmen a brief that outlined the project and listed our specific goals for that location.
Transport permits: The third step is to coordinate with local BFAR officials when transporting specimens. Officials prepare a Local Transport Permit (LTP) authorizing us to move the specimens from one city to another. This process is easy. Prior to departing the field site we go to a local BFAR office and detail the specimens we collected with market receipts and verbally. Officials complete the form, which is just a short hand written ticket, and we pay the 10 to 30 PHP fee. This covers all travel the specimens might have to do.
Import/Export permits: The fourth and final step is importing specimens to the US and exporting them from the Philippines. These steps happen together. First our Project Manager in the Philippines will contact local BFAR officials in Dumaguete to apply for an Export Commodity Clearance (ECC). He then provides a copy of the GP, a printed list of specimens for export, a copy of the LTP and a copy of the market receipts to BFAR and fees which are around 50 PHP. At the same time our Project Manager in the US will submit an import declaration to US Fish and wildlife form 3-177 electronically via the eDecs system. He lists the genus and species of every specimen for our convenience of tracking. Once the approved ECC returns, our Project Manager in the Philippines provides the manager in the US with electronic copies of all the paperwork he submitted and received for this step. This paperwork is then all uploaded to the eDecs website. At the airport, for the flight departing Manila, airline personnel review the paperwork and scan it in to their manifest. On arrival in the US, customs personnel review the paperwork and approve the declaration. It takes a while to see the update happen, changing the status of the eDec from “pending” to “approved.”