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 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

Posted by Xiong Zhang
27 Jan 2015

We have a lot to learn from fishers.

There is a tendency in marine science and conservation — particularly in China, where I work, but in many countries — to overlook the wisdom and experience of these people who actually spend the most time on the water, working with fish. Instead we must look to the “experts,” the biologists and ecologists. Or so the thinking goes.

As a fish “expert” myself (I’m a doctoral student with Project Seahorse), the more I research I do, the more I realize how little I know about fish compared to the local fishers I’ve worked with. During my graduate study in China (2010-2013, before joining P.S.), I spent four months per year doing fisheries surveys in the Upper Yangtze River. Tens of thousands of fishers live on this highly productive river. During that period, I visited them at local fishing ports every morning and surveyed their overnight catches. Most of the fishers were in their 40s to 60s, and have fished for more than two decades. I was always surprised by the fact that they could name the species of every fish they caught without a second glance. They knew when and where the different fish species reproduce, what habitats they prefers, and if and when they migrate — the kind of things we scientists spend our professional lives trying to understand!

Unfortunately, I soon realized that fishers’ knowledge is totally ignored in many places. Of course there are notable exceptions to this, with journals like Marine Policy and some researchers publishing pioneering work on how to incorporate local knowledge into scientific studies; but in China, for example, scientists tend to dismiss these methods as non-scientific, and rarely tap into fishers’ knowledge as a result. I’m puzzled about why this is. 

For my doctoral work on the conservation of Chinese seahorses, I still insist on learning from local fishers. As I learned during a recent research trip, they are an incredible resource when it comes to finding seahorses, since many have spent decades fishing and “studying” these rare creatures. They can tell which habitats seahorses use by checking substrate scraps trapped in the net. I’m very grateful for their generosity and do my best to draw on their knowledge in a scientific way. 

If only more government and policymakers would take fishers seriously. More than one colleague has told me that although Western governments in theory allow fishers to participate in policymaking, few actually pay attention to what fishers say. In China fishers have even less input. And as a result, they ignore the policies that do get created, leaving many laws just words on paper. 

As I continue my work, I’m increasingly convinced that fisheries governance will never be effective without fishers’ participation, marine conservation cannot be advanced without fishers' support.

Xiong Zhang is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Posted by Danika Kleiber
20 Jan 2015

Dr. Danika Kleiber recently completed a PhD on gender and fisheries with Project Seahorse. Over the next little while she’ll be documenting her post-doctoral life here on the blog. 

I submitted the final version of my PhD thesis from a coffee shop in Missoula, Montana. I’d promised my partner that we would spend the autumn in his hometown as we figured out where life would take us next, and Missoula was a scenic stop on our way to Corner Brook, Newfoundland. I was done my doctorate and now  I was moving into my in-laws’ basement in a remote part of Canada.  Yikes. (Important note: my in-laws are wonderful and generous people and I am very grateful for their willingness to put us up/put up with us. Hi, guys!)

The good news is that a basement can be a great place to figure out your next move. In November, out of the blue, WorldFish, an international research agency, asked me if I could do a short contract for them. They had received my CV from my colleague Dr. Yoshitaka Oda, who had asked for it in passing as I packed up my office at UBC’s Fisheries Centre and prepared for the cross-country move. Which goes to show you that opportunity takes many different forms.

WorldFish emailed me on a Thursday and wanted me to show up in Bangladesh the following Monday. It was a sudden and exciting opportunity. I figured I should keep my options open, so on the way out the door I applied for yet another job, a post-doc position at Memorial University. Four flights and 36 hours later, I landed in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. 

The first part of my contract was to participate in a consultative workshop of fisheries stakeholders. WorldFish was starting a five-year program to improve the sustainability of small-scale fisheries in Bangladesh. I was there because gender was on the agenda. I sat there hoping my PhD would prepare me to contribute to a workshop on a fishery I had only just started to read about, and a culture that I had never experienced before. 

The lessons I’d learned from my doctoral work were immediately useful. When alternative livelihoods were discussed as an important way to ease fishing pressure, I asked if that assumption was going to be tested because it wasn’t necessarily an effective strategy, as research has shown (thank you, Dr. Nick Hill). And when they formulated the project as comprising three pillars — science, management, and social issues — I had the critical background to realize that the strategy would be better reformulated to account for the scale and the connections between these different issues, something akin to Project Seahorse’s Onion World philosophy

The second and perhaps completely unsurprising legacy of my PhD was the confidence it has given me. After the workshop, I made a five-day field visit to cities and villages in Southern Bangladesh. I was given very little information about the plan or purpose of the trip so my mantra quickly became “roll with it.”  When visiting a fishing community our host suddenly turned to me and told me I could join a group of women to ask them questions. Our sightseeing trip had rapidly morphed into a rapid assessment.  Great. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask.

When for the third time in a community meeting I noticed that the women were standing behind us like colorful wallpaper, I insisted that our chairs be turned so we could face the carefully maintained divide between women and men head on. And at every meeting with government fisheries officials I did not hesitate to ask how they incorporated women and men into their community engagement efforts. 

I came back to Corner Brook two weeks later with a head full of ideas and an interview scheduled for the post-doc position at Memorial University. 

Posted by Clayton Manning
10 Dec 2014
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.