On Conservation
The Project Seahorse Blog

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On Conservation is a regularly updated mix of field notes, expert commentary, and miscellanea about marine conservation by the Project Seahorse team. 

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Posted by Xiong Zhang
30 Jun 2015

This is the third in a series of blogs about fisheries and conservation in China. Read part one and part two

A fisher counts his seahorses at Qinlan Fishing Port, Wenchang, Hainan Province. Photo: Xiong Zhang/Project Seahorse

In a recent post, I wrote about how fishers have much to contribute to the science, conservation, and management of fish populations. As a young marine biologist I’m keen to learn from anyone and everyone, including these often-overlooked ‘experts,’ so beginning this April I’ve been interviewing fishers across China about seahorses. The goal of my research (funded by Disney) is to establish a baseline knowledge of the country’s seahorse populations.

After nearly three months and hundreds of interviews, I’m even more convinced of the importance of fishers’ knowledge.

At first I was afraid that they would not bother to talk with a stranger from a world far away from their own. But when I started to chat with some locals the first day at a fishing port in Linshui County, Hainan Province, I was surprised at how open and welcoming some of them were.

Generally, I interviewed two types of fishers. The first is commercial, and the other small-scale. Commercial fishers are those working on large fishing vessels (~ 15 to 50 m by length) who go fishing far away from the port. They are usually hired by a wealthy businessman who owns the vessel and has direct ties to the seafood business. The crews of five to 10 people consist of captain, a chief engineer, and a few fishers on deck. It is the fishers who operate the nets and collect and sort the catch. Commonly used gear that catch seahorses are shrimp trawls and drift gillnets.

These workers, with a monthly salary of US $700 to $1200, catch seahorses as bycatch (i.e. the seahorses are caught incidentally as part of a targeted catch of species such as shrimp or crab), collect them from the nets, and sell them to local traders for extra income back at the port. Sometimes the ship captains are part of this “seahorse bonus” scheme, especially when the seahorses are abundant and the fishers directly target them in specific waters, such as Zhoushan Fishing Ground (close to the estuary of the Yangtze). The fishers know where and when to catch the seahorses, but they have little ability to discriminate between species — to be honest, this is not easy even for an expert. Unlike us scientists, who name seahorses with Latin words, the fishers give seahorse species common names based on their size or the color. Not necessarily the best way to differentiate species. Their knowledge usually ends there, though some fishers have been able to provide me with a rough map of seahorse population distributions.

The second type, small-scale fishers, are those who own a small fishing boat, usually a wooden vessel no longer than 10 m, and only fish in coastal waters close to their fishing port or village. There are usually two or three fishers – often from the same family – working on each boat, with a total annual income of between US $10,000 to $20,000. They catch seahorses with many different types of gear. The most frequently used are shrimp traps, shellfish trawls, crab traps, and drift gill nets. Although they catch many fewer seahorses than their commercial counterparts, they tend to know a lot about seahorse behavior and ecology.

The author (left) with a fisher. Photo courtesy Xiong Zhang/Project Seahorse

Here are a few of their insights: that some seahorse species hide in the rocky seafloor, between the gaps between shellfishes (e.g. mussels), and in empty shells; that other seahorses prefer to live on muddy seafloor with seagrass or macroaglae in estuaries; that they sometimes drift to shore with their holdfasts (e.g. seagrass) in summer, while the autumn tides drive them to deep water; that wild seahorses can make a “goo-goo” sound, which I’d only ever heard about from some aquaculture literature.

A few fishers I met even tried to culture seahorses because their children love them, and from their experiments learned how seahorses swim and how they give birth. One fisherman in Shandong Province claimed that he cultured what was probably a Japanese seahorse (H. mohneikei) in a small plastic bottle for more than one month in spring without feeding but only changing water every three days. (More likely the seahorse was feeding on zooplankton already in the bottle, but an interesting anecdote nonetheless!)

My interviews with Chinese fishers are not yet finished, but I’m already confident that their knowledge will inform the science, conservation, and management of seahorses in China.

Xiong Zhang is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. Follow him on Twitter @Harry0130.

Posted by Dr. Lucy Woodall
17 Jun 2015

“Surely that can’t be natural.”

Those were the words that went through my head when I first saw the strange blue, red, and bright green fibres under my microscope. Recently returned from a scientific expedition on the R.S.S. James Cook, I was back in London, studying deep sea mud collected from the South West Indian Ocean (SWIO). The purpose of the two-month expedition was to assess the biodiversity of seamounts (undersea mountains), and my role was to investigate the diversity of nematode worms that live in the sediment on their slopes.

Instead of microscopic worms, though, I was looking at microplastics, tiny synthetic fibres or particles. When plastic bottles and other garbage are dumped in the ocean, they eventually break down and microplastics are what you get. Studies have shown that these tiny pollutants can have negative physical and chemical impacts on a range of organisms and ecosystems. Already full of chemical additives from the initial manufacturing process, they absorb further organic chemicals and heavy metals once they are in the ocean, thanks to their large surface-area to volume ratio. When microplastics are ingested or otherwise absorbed, these chemicals can and often do accumulate in the tissues of all kinds of animals, causing untold harm as they’re passed along the food web.

First documented in the early 2000s by Prof. Richard Thompson of University of Plymouth (Thompson et. al., 2004), microplastics have been found in many different environments across the globe, from mangroves to Arctic ice. However, one area they had not been documented was in the deep sea, so I set up a collaboration with Prof. Thompson and a number of other researchers to obtain sediment and screen for microplastics from deep-sea locations across the globe.

We recently published our findings in the first-ever report on microplastics in the deep sea (Woodall et. al., 2014). We showed that they are so abundant, the bottom of the ocean could be considered a sink for this pollutant. More research is needed to understand the true impact of microplastics on the environment, but something we can say right now is that these pollutants are so small and the oceans so vast that clean-up is never going to be an option. The first, and best, step is to prevent litter from getting into our oceans in the first place.

I continue to study the impact of microplastics on the deep sea environment at the Natural History Museum in London, while also documenting patterns of litter found on the seabed, and developing methods for working with microplastics.

Photo (top): Microplastic fibres seen under a microscope. Lucy Woodall/Natural History Museum.
Photo (bottom): The R.S.S. James Cook. P. Boersch-Supan/Natural History Museum

Dr. Lucy Woodall is a research associate with Project Seahorse and a scientific associate at the Natural History Museum, London. Follow her on Twitter @water_nomad.

Posted by Ally Stocks
26 May 2015
Young conservationists gathered at the Cambridge Student Conference. Photo courtesy Allison Stocks/Project Seahorse

As a child, I was raised to cherish nature. I grew my own vegetables and rode my bike to school. I think I was eight years old when I realized I wanted to save the planet. I was furious whenever I saw someone litter, going so far as to throw rocks at people dumping their garbage on the street. (Luckily my aim was — and still is — terrible. I never hit anyone). As I grew older, my love for the earth translated into a passion for biology, geography and environmental science. I’ve travelled across the world to learn about how humans interact with the planet — what we rely on to survive and what our impact is as a result.

But the truth is, saving the world often feels like an impossible challenge. As a conservation biologist, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the bad news — the species extinctions, the destructive resource extraction, the exploding human populations, and wave after wave of urban development at the expense of nature.

That’s why, recently, I was thrilled and a little overwhelmed to be surrounded by scores of other, likeminded young scientists who want to devote their lives to improving how we do research, developing sustainable livelihood programs, and ultimately saving threatened species from extinction. I was participating in the 16th Student Conference on Conservation Science, held in Cambridge, England. A hundred and twenty young scientists from 60 countries were in attendance, along with four plenary speakers and plenty of professors and professionals. The conference lasted three days, each of which was jam-packed with student talks, poster sessions, workshops, and plenary talks. The topics ranged from conserving big cats, to regulating trade, to asking sensitive cross-cultural questions, to understanding the interaction between policy and human well-being in a conservation management framework.

I really enjoyed learning about species I’d never even heard of, like the guiña, a small cat in Chile, and the saiga, a critically endangered antelope in Mongolia. I was fascinated by methods commonly used in terrestrial conservation, like camera traps. Who knew it could be as easy as placing a bunch of cameras on trees to figure out community composition?

I was lucky enough to give a talk, and I enjoyed the chance to shift the terrestrial-heavy focus to marine systems for a little while. I focused on the livelihoods of fishers on Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam, many of whom rely on seahorses as a source of income. The island is a unique area where many different gear types catch seahorses, and some boats even target seahorses specifically. At least 150,000 seahorses are caught and landed off the island each year — a large portion of the overall catch in Vietnam. From a conservation perspective, ensuring the survival of seahorses becomes much more complicated when people fish for them directly.

It was inspiring to have so many people come up to me afterwards to chat about my research, wanting to know more and offering their insights to the complex task of managing seahorse fisheries in data-deficient situations. I was offered advice about community engagement, with examples from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. I was also able to draw from terrestrial methods, like land stewardship, to help brainstorm ways to make Vietnam’s seahorse fisheries more sustainable. I quickly became friends with students from Italy, England, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, the USA, and India. Hearing their stories and relating to them on so many levels was a powerful experience.

As young conservationists, our generation is more interconnected than any before it. The possibilities for collaboration are dizzying, and with new technologies making it easier than ever to study wildlife and monitor threats, it’s impossible not to feel optimistic about the future. I left Cambridge convinced that we are going to change conservation and improve the world we live in.

I look forward to making the eight-year-old version of me proud.

Posted by Tanvi Vaidyanathan
11 May 2015

As a young marine scientist who grew up in southern India, I have long been captivated by the Gulf of Mannar, and I am hardly the only person. With its iconic seahorses, charismatic sea cows and thousands of other marine species, the area is known for its incredible biodiversity. Located between the southeastern tip of India and the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, it is home to mangrove and sea grass habitats- ideal feeding and breeding grounds for many species.

Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mannar is also known for its longstanding problems with overfishing and destructive fishing practices. Since the introduction of trawling in the 1960s, the area has come under incredible pressure from commercial fisheries and small scale fishers alike. The widespread use of push-trawls (‘thallu madi’) — adopted by artisanal fishers keen to keep up with the commercial fisheries — has been particularly disastrous. A modified gill-net that targets shrimp, the thallu madi also catch juvenile fishes, cephalopods and other animals. This gear is often operated over shallow sea grass habitats, bringing up a fair number of syngnathids (seahorses and pipefishes) as bycatch.

Over the past few decades, a number of conservation measures have been introduced in the Gulf of Mannar, including a “Marine National Park” designation by the Indian government in 1986, a UNESCO biosphere park designation in 1989 and a ban on seahorse fishing in 2001. But, it is not clear if they have made a difference.

Take seahorses as an example. In the five years leading up the fishing ban, exports were estimated to be around 3.6 tons per year. In 2001-02, the year following the ban and when the next estimates were carried out, exports actually increased to somewhere between 4.35-9.75 tons, potentially due to growing demands for seahorses from other Asian countries. In the nearly 15 years since then, the enforcement has been spotty at best. Illegal trade happens to be a major issue, though the true extent of it is not known. What we do know is that the region is home to around 150,000 people, over 70% who still depend on fishing for their survival. Over 1200 mechanized and 1100 non-mechanized fishing vessels enter the Gulf of Mannar on a regular basis.

Fishing boats on the Gulf of Mannar. Photo via Marcus334/Wikimedia Commons 

We also know that demand for seahorses still exists. In India, the trade feeds the global traditional Chinese medicine industry. Seahorses have also emerged as an alternative to the declining sea cucumber trade, the majority of Indian seahorses exported to other countries are sourced from the southeastern coast, mostly from the Gulf of Mannar and the nearby palk bay. While a small portion of the seahorses come from a targeted fishery, most were landed as incidental catch (bycatch) from trawls operating in the gulf. Prior to the ban, seahorses were thought to represent 60 to 70 percent of the fisher’s income in some areas.

What impact have the Indian government’s conservation measures had on seahorses and other marine fishes? Likewise on the livelihoods of fishers and fishing communities in the Gulf of Mannar? In this context, how does one balance the need for conservation with the need for food security?

These are some of the questions I intend to answer as part of my PhD work with Project Seahorse. As I embark on eight months of intensive field research in the Gulf of Mannar and beyond, I will be posting my findings in this space. Stay tuned!

Tanvi Vaidyanathan is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. Follow her on Twitter @TanviVaidyanath.

Posted by Ting-Chun Kuo
28 Apr 2015

Success in conservation requires people from different backgrounds to work together. Seahorse conservation is a case in point, where biologists, fisheries scientists, policy makers, businessmen, social workers, the media, and many others need to work together to achieve the goal of protecting these iconic animals from overfishing and other human pressures. Biologists study the size, health, and survival of seahorse populations. Fisheries scientists study how people use seahorses and assess the sustainability of their use. Ideally, policymakers then incorporate information from these biologists, fisheries scientists, and other stakeholders such as local communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to design population management tools. Media and advocacy groups meanwhile play an important role raising public awareness around the need for these and other protections.

The process can be slow and frustrating, of course — people are used to viewing a given issue through their particular lens, which can cause them to overlook other important perspectives. But from my own recent experiences, I’m convinced that an interdisciplinary approach to conservation is the only way forward. Since I started working in conservation, I’ve made a point of learning skills from multiple disciplines and making an effort to work with people with different backgrounds. Which is why I was so excited when I learned about the Duck Family Graduate Workshop at the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics. It was an excellent opportunity for people working on different environmental issues from different perspectives to interact with each other. The workshop happened over two days in March in Seattle. Every participant submitted a paper about their work for broad-based, intersciplinary discussion at the workshop.

The workshop included faculty and students from disciplines ranging from political science to economics to law. Lindsay Aylesworth, another PhD student from Project Seahorse, and I were the only natural scientists on hand. I presented my work, which analyzes how an international agreement (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES) affects the trade and conservation of seahorses, while Lindsay shared her experience of using local people’s knowledge to understand the distribution of seahorse populations. During the workshop, we had a great time stepping back from the work we have been immersed and absorbing other people's perspectives on it. We were also exposed to a wide range of interesting research on other issues as water usage, green buildings, air pollution, and climate change.

Although we went in mentally prepared, both Lindsay and I were still surprised by how much of an obstacle language can be to communication. Every discipline uses a different dictionary, or lexicon, of technical words. One example was when Lindsay asked a politics student how she ‘validated’ her model after collecting the first round of data. After a couple of minutes of slightly confused discussion, the student suddenly realized that Lindsay was talking about what her discipline calls “falsification.” Equally, the same word can have different meanings in different disciplines. For example, in natural science, “diffusion” means how ions or molecules move from higher concentration to lower concentration. However, when, in political science, people say “policy diffusion”  they mean how the policies of one country influences those of others.

During the workshop I often thought of my PhD supervisor, Dr. Amanda Vincent, and her constant refrain that we must always be on guard against jargon. Wherever possible, in public and multidisciplinary forums, we need to use language that even an eight-year-old child can understand. It was at the Duck Family workshop that I realized how true this maxim really is.

Once we established common linguistic ground, the workshop group had many enlightening discussions. Their different perspectives shook me out of my usual thinking — which is to focus on whether there is a universal principle to explain the patterns in my data — and spurred me to think about the “context” of my case studies as well. My research requires quantitative analysis on economic data, as well as qualitative interviews to understand why people make the economic decisions they do when it comes to trading seahorses.

When I am in the field later this year, I will make a point not just of validating ‘hard’ economic data; I will also investigate the perspectives of traders to better understand how their thinking and behaviour might affect these larger trends in the trade. By incorporating many different research methods, I will look into the questions from many different angles, and hopefully the information from multiple sources will help us have a more complete, thorough understanding of the global dried seahorse trade.

Ting-Chun Kuo (@TingChunKuo) is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Posted by Ally Stocks
20 Apr 2015

When I travelled to South Africa’s Western Cape province to look for the Knysna seahorse — the world’s most endangered seahorse species* — I thought I would be tromping through mucky, shallow water in waders for hours to find one or two animals. I didn’t expect that within two minutes of meeting Louw Classens, a PhD student and expert on the species, we would find four seahorses in a ten-metre stretch of dock, without even getting in the water!

My trip to South Africa was part holiday, part seahorse detective mission, and Louw was at the top of my list of people to see. We met on Thesens Island, located in the middle of the Knysna estuary. In the bright South African sunshine, she led me down to a small marina where a few boats were docked. Louw is energetic and friendly, and we got along right away. Pointing to mesh netting a few centimetres below the water’s surface, she said, “There’s a juvenile male.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. This seemed too easy. During my own field work in Vietnam last year, I’d spent hours diving to find other, more common species such as the hedgehog and common seahorse (Hippocampus spinossisimus and H. kuda). The Knysna seahorse is mottled black-and-brown, lacks a coronet, and is around 10cm in height. Louw and I chatted away about seahorse conservation while she pointed out a few other individuals – we watched them swim around, foraging for food in the mostly man-made habitat of the marina.

The Knysna seahorse (H. capensis) is South Africa’s most famous seahorse. It’s thought to be restricted to three estuaries – the Knysna, Swartvlei and Keurboom, all found in the Western Cape Province — and its tiny geographical range makes it extremely vulnerable to human pressures such as habitat destruction. Hence its ‘Engandered’ status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Though it’s the most-studied seahorse in South Africa, there is still a lot to learn about it. Louw is the lead biologist on the Knysna Seahorse Status Project (KySS) , which is part of the larger Knysna Basin Project. The KySS aims to understand and protect the Knysna seahorse population, and is currently surveying various habitat types to understand the seahorses’ behaviour in different areas of the estuary. They hope to expand their studies to the nearby Swartveli and Keurboom estuaries. A University of Johannesburg study is also underway to determine whether genetically distinct populations exist in the three estuaries.

The local community is very supportive of the KySS, and a few locals have been stewards of the seahorse population for decades. Peet Joubert, a former manager of SANParks, has watched the Knysna seahorse population fluctuate due to freshwater floods, local development, and changes in sewage treatment.

“We do our best to protect the seahorses, but the variation in population size seems to be immense,” Peet told me, recalling times he’d spent diving in the estuary. “After the floods, seahorses were much harder to spot, but as populations are able to recover, their numbers bounce back.”

The KySS is hoping to better understand the nature of the Knysna seahorse’s reliance on its local habitat, and its ability to withstand external pressures. That way, conservation and management can be better informed for the protection of endangered species.

So what about South Africa’s other seahorse species? In addition to H. capensis, the thorny seahorse (H. histrix) is also found here. I traveled up the eastern coast of South Africa with Thembisa Jordaan from Kwazulu-Natal Wildlife to visit one of iSeahorse’s newest trends monitors. Thembisa and I sweated for hours in a car without air conditioning until we arrived in Sodwana, part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Reserve and one of South Africa’ top diving destinations. There we met up with Triton Divers, a local dive group doing excellent underwater research, particularly on H. histrix.

Unlike the Knysna seahorse, H. histrix can be found throughout east African waters and as far abroad as Southeast Asia. It’s not limited geographically, but like many other seahorse species, it is threatened by overfishing. Eve Perrins, the director of Triton, took us on a couple of fantastic dives around Sodwana. Although we didn’t spot any seahorses, her enthusiasm was undimmed. The local population appears to be in good shape: Her dive group regularly spots thorny seahorses at a deep nearby reef.

As for the other South African species, I travelled to aquariums, research libraries, and even a botanical garden on the western coast to find everything I could about them. Like most quests for seahorse information, the answers remain as elusive as the sneaky little creatures themselves. Keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming article that I’m working on with Louw for the full story on South Africa’s seahorses!

*Of the 48 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 26 are currently listed as ‘Data Deficient,’ meaning that we don’t yet know enough about them to determine their conservation status.

Ally Stocks (@ally_stocks) is an MSc student with Project Seahorse.

Photo captions: Knysna seahorses (top). Eve Perrins, the author, and Thembisa Jordaan (bottom). Credit: Ally Stocks/Project Seahorse

Posted by Xiong Zhang
24 Mar 2015

This is the second in a series of blogs about fisheries and conservation in China. Read part one here.

Open an atlas and you can easily recognize Mainland China by its rooster-like shape: tail pointing to Middle East, head towards to Russia and Korea, back carrying Mongolia, and chest facing the Pacific.

As a child growing up in China, I was taught in my middle-school geography class that our marine territory consists of four seas (from north to south, 41° - 6° N): the Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. These waters amount to about 3 million sq. km. So when I look at China on an atlas, I see something a little different: I see a torch rather than a bird, with the land mass as the flame, and the marine territory as the handle of the torch.

Given the nation’s vast marine territory, China has a long history of navigation, trade, and fisheries. (As well as territorial disputes with neighbouring states such as Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines). Chinese long-distance navigation dates back to the Song Dynasty (11th century C.E.), when the magnetic compass, one of the nation’s greatest inventions, was adapted for use in navigation and maritime trade — a full two centuries earlier than in Europe.

China’s marine fisheries, however, are a relatively a modern development. Very little is known or documented about them before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The history of Chinese fisheries since then is usually divided into three stages.

The first stage (1949-1979) was a period of steady but slow growth, Major target fish during this period were hairtail, small yellow croaker, big yellow croaker, and some smaller and younger fishes (e.g. anchovy) started to appear later. Over thirty years the total annual marine catch increased threefold, from about one to four megatonnes (Mt).

The second stage (1980-1999) was a period of rapid growth with the total marine catch tripling again in just two decades, thanks to new policies encouraged the development of fishery-related industries and technologies. In 1985, the Chinese government enacted a management policy that stimulated the development of aquaculture, fishing and processing, and distant-water fishing. It was during this era that overfishing emerged as a problem, with the total catch peaking at 13 Mt in 1999.

The third stage (2000-present) is marked as an “annealing” period, with a leveling-off of marine fisheries production. Annual catches have fluctuated between 12 and 14 Mt, the result of a nationwide total-catch-control policy enacted to reign in unsustainable growth. Nowadays China’s catch, about 20% of the total global fisheries production, is proportional to the amount of people it’s meant to feed (20% of the global population).

Nevertheless, China’s marine fisheries have reached a tipping point, with overfishing and habitat destruction becoming urgent problems. Historically, the fisheries targeted about 150 fish species. Only eight of them remain commercially viable. High demand for seafood, coupled with low productivity from domestic fisheries, have triggered the rise of China’s marine aquaculture and distant-water (i.e. foreign) fishing industries. China now has the world’s largest marine aquaculture industry, and its distant-water fishing fleet is also one of the world’s largest (read more in Fish and Fisheries, Pauly et al. 2014).

One of the problems is that many Chinese commercial vessels use destructive fishing gears such as bottom-trawl nets. Bottom trawling, where a weighted net is dragged along the seabed collecting nearly everything in its path, is one of the least-selective and most-destructive fishing methods. Large amounts of non-target fish such as seahorses are collected as incidental catch (bycatch), with fatal results for the animals in most cases. Large areas of important marine habitats (e.g. coral reefs) are also damaged or destroyed in the process.

Given this, China has regulated bottom trawling in their own coastal waters. Unfortunately, the regulations come in the form of a seasonal summer moratorium (established in 1995) that has not proven to be effective. This is due to the surge of fishing activity after the summer season, when fishers return, furiously, to unregulated activity. In just a few months, any recovery made during the yearly moratorium is typically lost.

These issues are the inspiration behind my research with Project Seahorse. Over the next few years I will investigate the impact of Chinese fishing activities on seahorses and marine species and habitats more generally. My hope is that this research will generate useful conservation policies to protect not just China’s seahorses, but many other fish species threatened by bottom trawling.

Xiong Zhang is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. Follow him on Twitter @Harry01301.

Posted by Ally Stocks
24 Feb 2015

This is the second instalment of Project Seahorse graduate student Ally Stocks's three-part field notes from Vietnam. You can read the first instalment here.

On the central-eastern coast of Phu Quoc Island is the village of Ham Ninh, where I often slept at the home of a local family. They were happy to host my research assistant, Thanh, and me, giving us a roof over our heads and feeding us plenty of fresh seafood. In return, we’d bring them fruit and I’d help their daughters practice their English.

One beautiful calm evening, I walked to the end of the wooden dock by our house to gaze up at the stars. It was a serene moment — something I didn’t experience often during the hectic months of my field season. I could hear my host family chatting away happily, lying in hammocks or sitting on blue plastic stools. Thanh came over and told me they were preparing for a feast tomorrow. He spoke vaguely about something illegal, but I didn’t understand what he meant, so I brushed it off and lay down in a hammock to start reading.

A little while later, men drove up to the dock in a small boat. I didn’t pay much attention. I was engrossed in my book.

Thanh tapped my shoulder, “Look,” he said.

Dumped on the dock on its back, tied up in thick blue ropes, was a sea turtle. Its flippers turned in slow, desperate circles. 

It was — to the best of my knowledge — a green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas. Green sea turtles can be found across the globe in subtropical and tropical oceans. They are listed as endangered by the IUCN and in Appendix I of CITES, meaning they are protected from exploitation in most countries, including here in Vietnam. It is illegal to collect, harm, or kill them, yet they are still caught for food in many countries.

According to local fishers, sea turtles used to be found much more commonly in the seagrass beds surrounding Phu Quoc Island. Other rare species, like the dugong, also used to frequent the area. However, due to habitat loss and the expansion of local fisheries, these species have become increasingly rare. 

Though the sea turtle trade is banned, when trawl boats catch the turtles they fishers sell them rather than return them to the sea. Seeing the massive animal — it must have been 70 kilograms — flailing upside-down on the dock, I was shocked and couldn’t control the tears that started to roll down my cheeks. My host auntie grabbed my arms and shook me, concerned, while the boys laughed at me.

“Thanh,” I said. “Please tell them I will do anything if they will put the sea turtle back in the water. Anything.”

But there wasn’t anything I could do — by the morning, the sea turtle had been chopped up for soup and other delicacies. I politely declined our invitation to the feast, and we continued on to the next fishing village to continue conducting seahorse research. 

Riding along on my motorbike, I passed a giant billboard made by Wildlife at Risk, an NGO that is dedicated to the long-term conservation of Vietnam’s threatened biodiversity. Wildlife at Risk aims to combat the illegal wildlife trade and promote the conservation of endangered species and their habitats. Despite their best efforts, Wildlife at Risk has a tough job — ending illegal wildlife trade is an immensely difficult task. Nevertheless, I got in touch with them and gave them every detail I could about the green turtle that had been caught. 

During the four months I spent on Phu Quoc Island, that was the only sea turtle I saw bought and consumed by  ocals. But I heard stories about other turtles being poached, and I struggled to understand how people could ignore the fact that these animals are endangered. 

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Thanh explained to me me that as species become increasingly rare, they become more valuable and a greater statement of wealth. So my host family purchased the green turtle as a symbol of their prosperity, and shared it with many people in their community. Attitudes toward conservation vary hugely from place to place, and convincing people that protecting threatened species is better than poaching them isn’t always an easy task. As conservationists, we have our work cut out for us. 

Follow Ally Stocks on Twitter @Ally_Stocks