|Matsumoto Castle, Japan. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse|
Over the past year-and-a-half I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up and thought, “how the hell did I get here?” Not just geographically, but intellectually, too.
In November 2012, entirely for fun, I started a volunteer research project with a biologist at the University of Calgary who I had met during my undergrad. In that project I took thousands of photos of bumblebee wings, then digitized and analyzed them. I was investigating how bumblebee morphology (the shape and form of their bodies) affected the characteristics of their wings, and the work couldn’t have been more terrestrial.
Only a few months later, in February 2013, I caught a flight from Calgary to Tokyo, Japan. It was the first time I'd ever left North America. I was moving to a country that I knew nothing about, where I knew nobody, and where I knew absolutely none of the very unique local language. I spent the next 20 months teaching English and immersing myself in Japanese culture.
|Fecal coliform colonies. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse|
Now I’m now living in Vancouver and a graduate student with Project Seahorse, an organization whose work couldn't be any farther, in a physical sense, from the stuff I've been doing. Instead of looking at blown-up pictures of bumblebee wings on a computer screen, I will be diving to investigate the trophic behavior of seahorses. If variety is the spice of life, someone must have hit me in the face with a rack of it.
Some would argue that because my research background has been largely microscopic and land-based, I’m not suited to do research on marine fishes. Before bumblebees I studied mountain pine beetles, where I showed that the amount of monoterpenes (a vaporous chemical) a pine tree releases affects the ability of the females beetles to lay eggs. And before that I worked in Alberta rivers, and revealed how solar radiation is a more important killer of fecal (poop) coliform than water pH. But I would argue it is the breadth of my research base and my recent personal past that will allow me to conduct successful research.
|Mountain pine beetle egg galleries. The beetles are an invasive species. Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse|
Conservation is a tricky corner of science, where you need to employ a wide range of skills and learn many of those you don’t. It is an intricate mixture of ecology and social sciences, with a dash of physical sciences such as chemistry that is churned by economics. If you look at it from only an ecological perspective, you will completely miss the human-related reasons for why some communities are forced to exploit a resource.
But if you look too closely at the human side of things, you may miss the potential biological reasons for declining species populations such as trophic cascades or invasive species (such as mountain pine beetles). If that isn’t difficult enough, every day the impacts of climate change on conservation are becoming more and more prominent. Conservationists are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, adaptive and creative problem-solvers.
It could therefore be a positive that I’ve needed to figure out how to build a water-bath that keeps poop bacteria at a constant temperature. Who knows, maybe during my thesis I’ll need to be able to build a cage for seahorses that regulates the size of the zooplankton (a tiny organism seahorses feed on) that is allowed to enter. Or maybe my painful 36 consecutive hours of peeling pine tree logs to find pine beetles I had implanted a week before will allow me to more effectively conduct early-morning fisher interviews, all-day visual census dives and late-night data entry for weeks on end. It is also possible that my year and half of learning how to communicate effectively in a broken foreign language will give me a leg up when conducting field work in another new country.
Although the last two years have been a trip for all of my senses, and although I find myself face-to-face with a brand new challenge, it is the diversity of my research and recent life experiences that I will look upon to complete my Master’s degree. Whether it be on fish or insects, in forests or oceans, one’s ability to do good science is dependent on problem-solving and resourcefulness. This especially so in conservation, when all elements of the human and natural environment may be at play.
So when, inevitably, the day comes that I need to overcome some strange, unforeseen issue in the waters of a faraway land… you can bet I’ll be thinking about either beetles or poo.
Congratulations to Els Van Den Borre, Roberto Strafella, and Salvador J.R. Lao, this year's grand prize winner and two finalists for Guylian's Seahorses of the World Photo Competition! Here are their photos, re-posted for your viewing pleasure alongside images from the award ceremony at the Nelos Underwater Video and Photography Festival in Ghent, Belgium on Nov. 29, 2014. Thanks again to all who participated!
|Els Van Den Borre's grand prize-winning photo of a Denise's pygmy seahorse (H. denise). Bali, Indonesia.|
|Finalist Roberto Strafella's photo of a long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Taranto, Italy.|
|Finalist Salvador J.R. Lao's thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Anilao Batangas, Philippines.|
|Grand prize winner Els Van Den Borre (center) with Nelos organizer Ivo Madder (left), Guylian's Mieke Callebaut (right), and Project Seahorse's Dr. Lucy Woodall (far right).|
|Dr. Lucy Woodall gives a talk about iSeahorse, our pioneering citizen science tool for seahorse research and conservation.|
And here's the fifth and final batch of Guylian Seahorses of the World semi-finalists. Check back soon for the finalists and grand prize winner!
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Dahab, Egypt. Erik Geerts/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Dahab, Egypt. Luc Rooman/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Tiger tail seahorse (H. comes). Moalboal, Philippines. Jef Driesen/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Bargibant's pygmy seahorse (H. bargibanti). Dumagette, Philippines. Rudi Rombouts/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
Here's the fourth batch of Guylian Seahorses of the World semi-finalists:
|Bargibant's pygmy seahorse (H. bargibanti). Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Rudi Rombouts/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus). Taranto, Italy. Roberto Strafella/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Taranto, Italy. Roberto Strafella/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Tossa de Mare, Girona, Spain. Rafael Cosme Daza/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Lanveoc, Brittany, France. John de Jong/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
Here's the third batch of Guylian Seahorses of the World semi-finalists:
|Satomi's pygmy seahorse (H. satomiae). Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Massimo Giorgetta/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Anilao Batangas, Philippines. Salvador JR Lao/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Bargibant's pygmy seahorse (H. bargibanti). Lembeh Strait, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Dirk Crutelle/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Negros, Philippines. Koen Willemse/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Pantai Nama Slope, Indonesia. Harvey Buyst/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus). Oosterschelde, Netherlands. Rinie Luykx/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Denise's pygmy seahorse (H. denise). Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Bettina Balnis/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorses (H. histrix). Tulanben, Bali, Indonesia. Bettina Balnis/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Bargibant's pygmy seahorse (H. bargibanti). Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. Goos Van der Heide/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Denise's pygmy seahorse (H. denise). Bali, Indonesia. Els Van Den Borre/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
One of the fun things we get to do here at Project Seahorse is take part in Guylian's Seahorses of the World Photo Competition. This biennial competition brings together some of the best underwater photographers from around the world. As members of the prize jury Project Seahorse helps to choose the finalists from incredible seahorse photographs from all over the globe — everywhere from the Middle East to the Pacific to Asia and Europe.
It's never an easy job, but it's always fun. And it's for a great cause!
Thanks to the generosity of Guylian Belgian Chocolate, co-sponsor NELOS-Festival, and the amazing photographers who participate, we receive these stunning new images as donations to our ever-growing database. We use the images for our scientific work and to promote seahorse conservation. The winners of the Seahorses of the World Competition will be announced at the NELOS Underwater Photo and Film Festival in Ghent, Belgium on November 29, 2014.
Today, we're pleased to show you five of the grand prize nominees. And stay tuned, because we'll be posting more of the nominees every day this week.
|Short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus). Oosterschelde, Netherlands. Gino Symus/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Thorny seahorse (H. histrix). Ambon, Indonesia. Terry Steeley/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Yellow seahorse (H. kuda). Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. Bruno Van Saen/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus). Tamariu, Costa Brava, Spain. Gino Meskens/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
|Long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus). Tamariu, Costa Brava, Spain. Gino Meskens/Guylian Seahorses of the World|
“First you grind the specimen into powder, then you boil it with herbs,” the trader told me. He showed me a box with about 50 dried seahorses in it and explained that, prepared in the right way, the animals act as a tonic to improve kidney and lung function as well as improve men’s virility and cure back pain.
I was at a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Yawarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, investigating the seahorse trade in Thailand. There were more than 10 traditional Chinese medicine shops on this street, and I found seahorses in almost every of them. Used in medicines, for aquarium display, and as curios, 15-20 million seahorses are traded internationally every year.
Thailand is the biggest seahorse exporting country in the world. Seahorses are controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that countries that have signed on to this international agreement must ensure their exports are not detrimental to wild seahorse populations. To move the Thai seahorse trade toward sustainability, Project Seahorse and the Thai Department of Fisheries agreed to investigate the situation in Thailand together. It is the first such investigation in Thailand since CITES controls on seahorses came into effect in 2004.
To really grasp the scope of the trade and the impact of these protections, we need to study the route, quantity, price, and species/size composition of Thailand’s dried and live seahorse trade, comparing this new data to the data gathered before the CITES regulations were implemented.
Starting in Bangkok, my Thai colleague, Jaeb, and I interviewed traditional Chinese medicine traders and aquarium dealers We then spent a month traveling along the coastline of Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, talking to fishers and local traders. In Thailand, most of the seahorses involved in trade are caught unintentionally in fisheries that are targeting other species. Fishers collect the seahorses in their catch, dry them, then sell the specimens to local buyers at port. The sales provide important extra income. Local buyers then sell the seahorses to higher-level traders, who then sell to wholesalers, who finally distribute the seahorses to retailers and exporters. Sound complicated? This diagram might help:
|Figure 1. Dried seahorse trade structure in Thailand. Arrows indicate the direction seahorses were sold.|
The work in Thailand has had its challenges. Although the seahorse trade is legal in Thailand, traders – especially in traditional Chinese medicine retailers – were reluctant to talk about how they sourced their seahorses or about the volume of their trade. Such questions were very sensitive in a business context. Therefore, we had to cross-validate the information we got from people at different trade levels to gain a more complete picture of overall Thai seahorse trade.
Seahorse buyers in fishing villages were easier to approach. Almost every day, they come to the ports to purchase seahorses from the trawler crews, and then keep them until the higher-level traders comes to buy their catch. The first local buyer I met was a man opening a classic old style karaoke bar in a fishing village in Phuket. He was very frank about the trading he does, and even asked us whether we want to go to collect seahorses together. He spends most afternoons and evenings, from about 3 p.m. to midnight, at the port, waiting for trawler boats to come in and making sure he’s one of the first to buy their seahorse catches.
We went with him to the port near his home, which was used primarily for landing the massive bycatch from trawlers, for eventual reduction to fishmeal or fish sauce. Usefully, the buyer soon found a trawler with eight dried seahorses. He bought the seahorses from the crew, as well as many other bycaught animals, such as sea cucumbers, shells, and lobsters. He also arranged for us to interview the trawler captain, who provided us with good information.
The higher-lever traders were more difficult to find, because they usually lived in bigger cities and only occasionally visited the ports where seahorses are landed. Still, we managed to interview a few of them. They told us that they usually sent their seahorses to wholesalers in Bangkok for export, and some of the seahorses were re-distributed to TCM stores in other parts of Thailand.
As our research continued up the trade ladder, a picture began to emerge of the complexities of the seahorse trade and how urgently the Thai government needs to enforce fisheries regulations to ensure sustainability. Stay tuned for the next update!