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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Christina has a  MSc from the University of Melbourne in which she investigated the restoration and management of a degraded forest ecosystem. She has experience working as a research assistant...

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The principles of sustainable management of marine capture fisheries and the protection of biodiversity are established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its...

Posted by Jennifer Selgrath
29 Aug 2014

If you want to save money, you can invest in a blue-chip stock and it might grow. But a financial advisor would suggest that you improve your returns by diversifying your portfolio. We might take a similar, diversified approach to managing fisheries so that they are sustainable.

Just like your savings, the marine ecosystems that fisheries depend on need to be managed in order to ensure a healthy, productive future. But researchers working on small-scale fisheries have most often recommended one tool: marine protected areas, or MPAs. So at IMCC3 in Glasgow this August, my colleague Kyle Gillespie and I organized a symposium to broaden our view of the diverse tools and approaches which can support sustainable small-scale fisheries.

Small-scale fisheries employ about half of the world’s fishers and are critically important for food security. But many are in trouble due to overfishing and ecosystem degradation. MPAs, or no-fishing zones, are the management option that is most frequently recommended for these fisheries. MPAs are an important part of the marine conservation toolbox. Project Seahorse has helped fishing communities establish many MPAs over the years. We also, however, want to make sure that we are making fishing sustainable in the 99% of the ocean that remains “unprotected.”

Our IMCC symposium — Complementing MPAs in the Management of Small Scale Fisheries: Other Tools and Approaches — opened with talks by me, Dr. Marcia Moreno-Baez from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and Dr. Gabby Ahmadia from WWF. We spoke about our experiences with small-scale fisheries in the Philippines, Mexico, and Indonesia, respectively. The small-scale fisheries in these three countries are quite diverse. For example fishers in Mexico use modern boats that allow them to travel far offshore while the fisheries in the Philippines use boats that are similar to outrigger canoes, keeping them closer to their coastal villages. Our talks included discussions about management tools ranging from modifying fishing nets to increasing membership in sustainably-minded fishers organizations.

After the talks, we held a discussion about successful – and unsuccessful, but interesting – tools and approaches for managing small-scale fisheries. For the discussion, we were joined by researchers who work in many other parts of the world, but who are addressing surprisingly similar challenges. Through our discussion it became clear that there was no tool could act as a magic bullet to make small-scale fisheries sustainable.

But, importantly, our discussions led us to see that there were commonalities in the approaches that worked for many participants. For example, we agreed that it was important to start any conservation program with clearly articulated goals that are integrated with local and scientific knowledge and values. When researchers or resource managers are developing conservation programs to meet these goals, it’s also important to consider the local culture’s relationship to their fishing practices. Communities’ relationships with fisheries include both social and financial arrangements. For example, fishers may prefer fishing with specific gears and such preferences are important to understand.

On a pragmatic note, many researchers found that it was helpful to start with small conservation projects that have a good chance of success. When this happens, fishing communities can see the relationship between the changes that they make to their fisheries and the improvements in biodiversity and/or catches. This helped the communities to trust larger-scale, longer-term management measures whose impact isn’t as immediately obvious. Another bit of advice was that it is important to have regular feedback between research and fishers. This feedback is important, even before we have perfect knowledge. Overall it was a lively discussion that gave all of us a broader understanding of approaches that have a chance of success in making these diverse fisheries sustainable.

Posted by Kyle Gillespie
26 Aug 2014

I hadn't planned on being there. In fact, I felt quite uncomfortable as the glare of the stage lights shone down upon me and a deep queasiness set in. This was not the type of scientific presentation I had grown accustomed to. No fancy figures, tables, or PowerPoint slides. No scientific jargon or mention of statistical models. Just words. A story describing a day in the field and the creatures I study. I was way out of the comfort zone in which I have lived for the past several years. There was no two ways about it — standing on that stage in front of the many expectant faces, I was nervous. 

Five days earlier I'd arrived ahead of the Third International Marine Conservation Congress for a scientific storytelling workshop. I was feeling rather smug. For every university science student, the elements of a science story are drilled in early and often: introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion. I was very familiar with the IMRDC (Introduction, Methodology, Results, Discussion, Conclusion) model. I knew my way around a science story. Things fell apart quickly for me on that first day of the workshop. It soon became clear that this system that we as scientists hold sacred will not be the tool that engages the decision makers and the general public. Don't get me wrong, IMRDC is an exceedingly important tool for communicating with fellow scientists, but it alone will not save the world.

Scientists need to be better storytellers. As marine conservation biologists we're in a privileged position: we have interesting stories about exciting marine locations or about the species we study. But we tend to go about explaining them in the most boring way possible: salinity this or turbidity that — hardly things that a policy maker or lay person wants to hear about. Heck, hardly things I want to hear about! Storytelling paints scenes in the mind and creates a connection between the listener and the cast of characters. Engaging the senses, having a story arc and creating a sense of empathy will help engage people in marine issues that are so often beneath the waves, out of sight and out of mind.

Back on the IMCC stage, I took a deep breath and began to speak. Using words and phrases I would never dream of using in a scientific paper I began to weave a story. The trepidation that I had been feeling quickly melted away as I saw people's faces light up on ways that even my most well thought out scientific figures never could. I was sold. Expect more stories from this guy. To be continued...

Kyle Gillespie is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Posted by Julia Lawson
20 Aug 2014
Dr. Amanda Vincent at IMCC. Photo: D. Curnick

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) is the biggest global event of its kind, an opportunity to engage with some of the brightest minds in marine science and hear some of the big, inspirational ideas in conservation today. As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I was excited to attend this year’s event.

To kick off the conference, our own Dr. Amanda Vincent delivered a plenary talk that got the conference delegates buzzing. The thrust of her talk, which will be familiar to Project Seahorse supporters, is that we need to get on with marine conservation even if the science isn’t perfect (while collecting more information as needed). Ocean ecosystems are declining at such a rapid rate that research must always be geared toward action. “Do not end your [conference] talks with ‘we need more research,’” she implored the audience. “Instead, tell me what you’re going to do.”    

Many were inspired by Amanda’s fiery call to action. A number of delegates told me during the conference that they’d begun to rethink the future of their own work, changing the final message in their talks from “we need to gather more data” to “let’s get a move on with what we have.” During Rebecca Weeks and Bob Pressey’s connectivity and marine conservation planning symposium, on the last day of IMCC, several marine ecologists closed their talks by mentioning what they termed “the Amanda Vincent approach” – getting a move on with what data they had in hand. 

As you might expect, approval was not universal.  Some marine conservationists in the audience feared that moving on limited data might create more problems rather than solutions. One person commented that “the ‘just get going approach’ is why we have thousands of poorly designed, ineffective and unenforced marine protected areas.”

Hearing Amanda - and seeing the generally excited response to her talk - made me reflect on what I’ve learned during my time with Project Seahorse. I began my Master’s degree firmly believing that the role of a scientist was to conduct objective research and disseminate that research to decision-makers. I believed at the time that we must avoid activism at all costs as it compromises our scientific integrity. However, during my time with Project Seahorse my views shifted. While I still believe strongly in scientifically grounded advice, I awakened to the reality that everyone has core beliefs on the topic they study, even seemingly objective scientists. The best thing we can do is to be honest about those beliefs — with ourselves and our target audiences — when we share our work.

In the words of Amanda: “you are either an activist or an in-activist.”

Julia Lawson is a graduate student with Project Seahorse.

Posted by Xiong Zhang
25 Jul 2014

Before my recent trip home to China, I discovered a folk tale that explains why seahorses are used as a traditional medicine. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a fisher living on the coast of South China Sea. While fishing one day he saw a shiny body drifting away in the deep sea. He rowed his boat to the body and discovered that it was a mermaid who was badly injured. The fisher rescued the dying mermaid and cured her with some herbal medicines. In order to thank the fisher, the mermaid gave him a shiny pearl and told him that whenever he needed her help he could throw that pearl into the water with a message, and she would come to help him. 

A Kellogg’s seahorse (H. kelloggi), taken in Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, June 2, 2014. Xiong Zhang/Project Seahorse

A few years passed. The fisher got married and his wife became pregnant. He was very happy. However, during childbirth his wife had a very difficult labor, and the fisher was afraid she might not survive. In that moment he recalled the mermaid and her promise. He rushed to the sea and sent the message with the pearl. Then the mermaid appeared with a magical medicine — a finger-length fish that has a horse-like head, a weird pouch, and a curved tail. The fisher brought the “medicine” home to his wife and she ate it. Soon after, she delivered a healthy boy.

The fisher visited the mermaid again to thank her. He persuaded her to drive these magical fishes into the shallow seas where they could be easily captured by fishers to help more women during childbirth. Since then, this magical fish — the seahorse — has lived in China’s shallow waters to ensure the safety of pregnant women and their babies.

I was surprised and amazed by this story, which I’d never heard before, even though I grew up in China and, as a PhD student with Project Seahorse, am now studying seahorses and their distribution patterns, their habitats, and their reaction to human pressures. The reality is that most Chinese people don’t know this story, either. They only know that dried seahorses are used as traditional treatments for infertility and obstructed childbirth (dystocia), and have been used this way for a very long time.

On my visit to Shanghai in June, I was struck by how little most people know about seahorses. At Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, one of the biggest aquariums in China, I spoke to some of the visitors at the seahorse display. I asked them what they knew about these charismatic animals and the threats to their conservation. Most people gave me a polite smile but they weren’t at all interested in learning more about seahorses.

I must admit that I felt a little frustrated by this at first. As a young scientist, I want my research to be more than just research. I want to inspire people to learn more about seahorses and rethink about what we should and can do for the sustainability of seahorse exploitation in China and all over the world. 

But visiting Dr. Qiang Lin, a colleague in the Laboratory of Marine Bio-resource Sustainable Utilization, South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, has doubled my resolve. He is the leader of the only seahorse research team in China, conducting studies on seahorses in various fields including behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation biology. He explained to me that the domestic production of cultured seahorses is around five million animals per year, while his preliminary research suggests the annual illegal domestic catch of wild seahorses could be as high as 12 to 15 million. 

Xiong Zhang (middle left) and Dr Qiang Lin (middle right) and other two researchers in his team, taken after Xiong’s presentation in Lin’s office, June 18, 2014. 

Under increasing pressure from overexploitation, seahorses are becoming very rare in many of China’s coastal waters. Based one of his early studies, the domestic demand for dried seahorses is about 600 tonnes per year, but only about 5% of the volume can be satisfied by China’s own seahorse populations. To meet this demand, China has become the largest importer on seahorse trade, importing dried seahorses from all over the world. Vietnam and the Philippines are among those major countries who export seahorses to China. Along with development of tonic and medicine industries and the increasing demand, the prices of seahorse products are rocketing. Dried seahorses can be sold at a price of $2,500 per kg in Hong Kong, for example.

Facing this pressing issue, Dr. Qiang Lin and his team have conducted impressive studies on seahorse conservation and sustainable use in China. They have completed the whole genome sequencing of seahorses, and are currently exploring the genetic diversity and evolution of wild seahorses in order to build a strong foundation for seahorse conservation in China. They are also conducting seahorse aquaculture and creating new breeding stocks as an indirect way to relieve the pressure on wild populations from overfishing. 

They have also completed a decade-long survey (2004–14) on wild seahorse populations in China’s seas – Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East Sea and South China Sea. This is extremely important work that will influence my own research. We have agreed to cooperate on seahorse conservation in the future in order to uncover more about the “reality” of wild seahorses in China. I believe this cooperation will be rewarding and hope that it will be the start of a larger movement to raise awareness about seahorses and marine conservation in China.

Xiong Zhang is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse. You can follow him on Twitter @Harry01301

Posted by Dr. Sarah Foster
2 Jul 2014

Note: This post marks the last of our reports from the 2014 CITES annual technical gathering in Veracruz, Mexico. To read more, visit the "Commentary" section of this blog.

Every now and then you have an experience that really gets you thinking. Participating in my first UN meeting has certainly done that for me. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) has an annual technical gathering to sort out challenges in regulating annual exports of species for conservation.  Seahorses pose plenty of such challenges with a huge global trade of tens of millions of animals — and declining populations. We need to make CITES an effective tool for their conservation, to complement everything else we are doing.

Amanda Vincent and Sarah Foster at AC 27

Amanda Vincent (left) and Sarah Foster (right) at the 27th CITES Animals Committee Meeting in Veracruz, Mexico.

After long days at this meeting I retain lots of hope that CITES can make a difference. But I’m struck by two reality checks that are tempering my idealism. That’s inevitable, perhaps, given how much I expected from just this one tool, but it’s still sad.

My first reality check is that CITES seems to address symptoms more than causes for many species declines, including seahorses.  The principle of CITES seems simple enough – Parties should not export more seahorses than wild populations can bear. So we just need to figure out how many we can take out of the water, and keep trade levels there. Except it is not that easy.  CITES is only about international trade and not really about actual exploitation.  The hope for most species is that limits on exports will create limits on how many are taken from the wild.  The problem is that most seahorses are caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries.  So caps on export levels will not, by themselves, reduce catch rates. We can make this point at the CITES meeting but – in a CITES context - we cannot tell Parties how they should go about managing their fisheries, including the destructive and non-selective trawling that is the root cause of the problem.  So we are often skirting around the real issues, removed from the heart of the matter.  We need to find innovative and yet politically acceptable ways to bridge this gap and help CITES move seahorse trade toward sustainability.

My second reality check is that we cannot tell Parties what to do. No way, no how. But they want our advice. And we know quite a bit about what needs to be done! CITES is working to support Thailand in moving its seahorse exports towards sustainability.  This is pretty tricky because most are caught in trawls (see above) and seahorses are just not priority species in Thailand. More problematic still, fixing this will need CITES to try some new approaches, beyond the usual recipes. Amanda and I were delighted to be asked to draft new recommendations for Thailand.  After two years of assisting its Department of Fisheries, we have learned a lot about what needs to be done.  So I found it really very frustrating that our gentle attempts at innovation were set aside in favour of formulaic phrases. We had an amazing chance to give Parties guidance for eventual success but instead we had to beat around the bush, respecting the politics of the CITES process.

I recognize that my gripes are probably realities of an international UN convention.  Still, it all has me thinking that such protocols are really hampering support for thousands of species that would beg for help if they could.  How can we best make progress in this context - carefully, indirectly, vaguely and without telling anyone what to do?  And do seahorses have time to wait for us to work this out?

Posted by Dr. Amanda Vincent
17 Jun 2014

IUCN logoIt is truly wondrous that the world has managed to create a global action group for conservation, one that includes 1200 governments and non-governmental organizations. I am so involved in this club, called the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) that I seldom step back and really look at it. But I was recently reminded not to take it for granted. It does amazing work, particularly by co-ordinating thousands of volunteer experts in animal and plant conservation into a strong force for nature

The IUCN team of volunteer experts is much in evidence at CITES meetings on regulating exports of endangered species (see my blog on May 2nd). The meetings are packed full of countries and public interest/advocacy groups. They tackle a huge array of very complex issues that need masses of information about lots of species involved. There is a lot of knowledge in the hall. But a great deal of the information and influence in these meetings comes from behind the IUCN name plate, where staff and volunteer experts work together to get it right for wildlife.


I love being part of the IUCN group. At my most recent CITES meeting, IUCN was able to cover the most critical agenda issues in wildlife trade thanks to help from volunteer experts on big catscrocodilesprimatessnakessharkstortoises and freshwater turtles — and seahorses. At such gatherings, IUCN provides factual input without pushing any particular agenda. Because of this, we are commonly asked for advice, invited to offer our views, and always respected for our expertise.

Contributing through the IUCN is rewarding, even if things don’t always work out quite as hoped. As IUCN is so trusted, we are often able to influence what countries decide at CITES without ever insisting on our opinion. The corollary, though, is that sometimes we just have to bottle our annoyance and live with a country’s surprising behavior and/or CITES’ quirky decisions. I certainly had to cope with that mixture of good and frustrating at the last meeting. But I’m so glad at least to have a decent chance to change things through IUCN.

Posted by Dr. Sarah Foster
6 Jun 2014

Project Seahorse researcher Sarah Foster says most of the shrimp we eat are unsustainably harvested. For every kilogram of tropical shrimp caught through trawling the bottom of the ocean, 10 kilograms of other marine life is killed. To protect ocean health, Foster argues that we have to be smart about the shrimp we eat.

Shrimp Bycatch


How does shrimp harvesting impact our oceans?

Each year around World Oceans Day my family and friends ask what they can do to make a difference to the health of our oceans. My answer: don’t eat shrimp or prawns–unless you know they have been sustainably sourced. Most aren’t.

Where do most of our shrimp come from?

Almost all shrimp you buy or get served come from tropical trawl fisheries. This fishing technique “clear cuts” the ocean floor, catching shrimp and everything else in its path. An average of 10 kilos of other marine life is captured and killed for every kilo of tropical shrimp landed. Some of this “other catch” or “bycatch” is kept and sold, but most is turned into fishmeal or fish oil for fertilizer and aquaculture practices. Many of these species could be sources of food for humans but reducing them to plant or animal feed redirects key protein sources away from the people who need it.

The total area of seabed trawled each year is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clear cut. We criticize clear cutting forests so why don’t we fuss about clear cutting the ocean floor?

Is farmed shrimp a sustainable alternative?

Most shrimp farming is as bad, if not worse, as bottom trawling. Shrimp ponds have destroyed thousands of kilometres of coastal habitats around the world, particularly mangroves, which serve as nurseries to many marine species and help buffer coastal communities from powerful storms. Shrimp farming also pollutes adjacent waters with chemicals and waste, and the salt from the ponds can turn productive land into a desert.

How can we end ocean clear cutting?

Something has to make trawlers change their practice. By buying and eating sustainably sourced shrimp you can help provide the incentive. Shrimp trawlers around the world now carry Turtle Excluder Devices because the U.S. won’t import their shrimp if they don’t, although implementation remains a huge challenge.

Let’s give fisheries an incentive to protect the rest of the bycatch species. Be smart about the shrimp you eat. Thankfully in Canada this is easier than in many places. Most of Canada’s shrimp fisheries are considered to be ecologically sustainable with minimal bycatch. Canada is home to one of the most sustainable prawn fisheries in the world – the B.C. spot prawn fishery. This fishery uses traps that do not result in as much bycatch or habitat damage. We also have programs like Oceans Wise that tell you if the shrimp you want to buy for the barbecue or order in a restaurant won’t harm the oceans they come from.

Yes, you will pay more for the shrimp you eat but the oceans will pay less for your choices. Your gain is that you will be able to appreciate and eat other marine life for much longer.

Posted by Kyle Gillespie
14 May 2014

When the sun goes down in the Central Philippines the reefs come alive as crabs, snails, cuttlefish and other creature emerge from hiding. Meet the marine creatures that crowd the reefs at night and the fishers who collect them.
(All photographs by Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse)

The village of Bilang-bilangan West is several miles off the west coast of Bohol. Fishing is a major source of food and income. Several of these boats will set out for the reefs as the sun goes down as creatures like crabs and squid emerge.

A fishing boat is readied for a night of fishing. Lanterns help the fisher see down onto the reef and also attract curious marine life to the boat. Note that this is not the type of lantern fishing that is used for seahorses – this boat is much bigger and the lanterns more impressive.

KMG Phils

The sun sets over Jandayan Island as fishers prepare to dive the reefs to collect crabs, and other marine species. Invertebrates, which mostly emerge at night, provide about third of the protein in local diets.

KMG Phils

Fishers near Matabao, Bohol, ready their nets for an evening of fishing.

KMG Phils

As the reefs darken, an aeolid nudibranch emerges from the coral to hunt.

KMG Phils

Scavengers, like the spotted porcelain crab also appear and search for morsels of food.

KMG Phils

The squat shrimp, another scavenger, may be small but it certainly adds a splash of colour to the reef.

KMG Phils

Hand-made crab traps dry in the sun on Batasan Island, Bohol. Crab fishing has become a major source of protein and income on Danajon Bank in the Central Philippines.

KMG Phils

Once snails and crabs are caught, meat is removed and prepared for meals. Here, marine snails are removed from their shells. Batasan Island, Bohol.

KMG Phils

A flamboyant cuttlefish is one of the more curious (and colourful) creatures on the reef. This one watched from a distance for several minutes before coming to investigate. Apparently, we did not appear to be a threat.

KMG Phils

Many species depend heavily on a specific type of habitat on which to live. This type of coral shrimp hides in crevasses during the day and spends its nights in amongst soft corals.

KMG Phils

The white spotted hermit crab cannot make its own shell and must find a new one every time it out grows its home. The reef is a competitive real estate market, with crabs often battling for a new shelter.

KMG Phils

Sea cucumbers are laid in the sun to dry on Batasan Island, Bohol. These creatures have become a popular item in the fish and medicine markets of Hong Kong. Sea cucumbers now sell for up to 25 times the price of lobsters in China.

KMG Phils

Nudibranchs, like this chromodoris, use bright colour patterns to warn potential predators that they are poisonous or distasteful. Chromodorids feed on sponges.

KMG Phils

The sapsucking slug gets its name from its ability to suck the juices out from algae. Some species can even integrate the chloroplasts from the algae into their own tissues become “solar-powered sea slugs”.