New research leads to conservation win for West African seahorses

By Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor and Kate West

Fisheries in Senegal. Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

Fisheries in Senegal. Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

There are few things as rewarding as seeing science directly contribute to improved policy. We were thrilled to learn this month that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (also known as CITES, the UN body tasked with ensuring sustainability in the global wildlife trade) recently announced the suspension of all exports of the threatened West African seahorses (Hippocampus algiricus) from Senegal and Guinea — thanks in part to our fieldwork supported by People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Mohammad Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Seahorses are listed under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species); they can be legally fished, but a permit is required to export them to other countries. In 2012, CITES became worried about whether exports of the West African Seahorse were indeed unsustainable, prompting an urgent need for field research on this unstudied species and its fisheries and trade. 

During the summers of 2012 and 2013, we studied the local catch and export of seahorses in the West African countries of Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea, with particular focus on H, algiricus. We visited over 40 different sites over three countries and met with more than 300 fishers, traders, scientists and government officials. This led us to realize that discover the scale of seahorse catch and trade in West Africa was much greater than previously understood. Our results for Senegal suggest that in one twelve month period during 2012-2013, a total of 371,000 individual seahorses were caught, and 184,000 kept as catch. This estimate is far higher than the number reported by CITES or other trade data..  We also examined 250 seahorses, mostly of West African but also short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus) in what was by far the largest biological study of seahorses in this region. We also provided the first video of a live West African Seahorse and obtained specimens—with all the required legal permits—that may allow for genetic determination of different populations. 

These findings were communicated to national and global CITES Authorities, and helped provoke the decision in May 2014 to classified exports of West African seahorses from Guinea and Senegal as posing Urgent Concern. As a consequence, these countries were required to meet research, reporting, and management obligations. Such requirements provide useful support in efforts to reduce fishing pressure on wild seahorses in these waters. Unfortunately, though, neither country was able to respond in the required time frames and CITES drew on more of our information to decide on an export ban from these countries.  Our hope is that this notable step will lead to markedly more conservation work in the region, in partnership among researchers, fishers, managers, traders, and the general public. 

This positive outcome for West African seahorses should be celebrated, and is hopefully only the beginning of the story. These are just one of many unsustainably-fished species, and during the course of fieldwork we observed many worrisome practices including finning of sharks, catch of sea turtles, and discarding of many small or unwanted species of marine life. Nevertheless, fishers overwhelmingly noted the importance of sustainability for their way of life, lamented the fact that overarching conditions effectively force them into fishing ever harder for ever less fish, and were interested in learning about potential solutions to this quagmire. A post written during the fieldwork included the thought that: 

“Developing countries face many serious economic and societal problems, such as poverty, which would seem to transcend by far even the most legitimate conservation concerns. Ultimately, these issues belong on a continuum, and need to be addressed together with effective, holistic policies — sustainable fisheries being a step in the right direction. If we only focus on and wait to solve the large-scale issues, we might eventually find that all the smaller conservation battles were lost in the meantime.” 

At least for now, seahorses have provided a crucial win for marine conservation in West Africa. We must now build on this momentum and leverage into even wider environmental and social success. The process may be a long one, but well worth it in the end. 


The seahorse leads the way to sustainable trade in aquatic species

Having laws to conserve nature and knowing how to use them are two different things – if done well, seahorse conservation in the Philippines could pave the way for other species, writes Dr. Amanda Vincent  on World Wildlife Day.

By Amanda Vincent, Chair of the IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group and Director of Project Seahorse

(originally posted on IUCN blog)

Project Seahorse, the marine conservation group I lead, is just about to plunge into new seahorse conservation work in the Philippines. Which is very fitting because that’s really where seahorse conservation began, in the 1990s. It’s also an island country where many seahorse species – ten, to be precise – are found in a great variety of habitats. And a land where people have already made some important changes for the ocean. To bring all this together, we are now working to create a leap forward in management for sustainability, focused on the funky seahorse.

I have a love affair with the Philippines. It all started 23 years ago when, as an aspiring seahorse biologist, I saw an electronic billboard in Berlin that proclaimed seahorses were the “most valuable fisheries export from the Philippines.” Mesmerised, I soon found myself doing detective work, island hopping in this archipelagic nation to interview seahorse fishers and traders.

As a consequence, we were soon helping to set up a marine reserve on a small island called Jandayan, which quickly multiplied to be 35 marine reserves covering the whole region as one part of our national work on seahorse conservation. By that time I had learned some of the local language and Jandayan felt like a second home, so much so that I named my daughter Andaya after the island. As I say, I have a love affair with the Philippines.

I have more mixed sentiments about a UN Convention called CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This is the framework for regulating exports of animals and plants that are – or may become – threatened because of international trade.

I led efforts that generated CITES export controls for seahorse species under a listing called Appendix II, the first such regulation for any fully marine fishes. For species on Appendix II, member countries have to limit exports to levels that are not detrimental to wild populations and have to ensure that specimens are legally sourced. Now my team and I are trying to make those controls stick, so that the wild populations really are supported and rebuilt. It can be an uphill battle and depends heavily on national good will and commitment.Our current SOS Rapid Action Grant is building on our many years of effective work in the Philippines and with CITES by linking the two.

By the time seahorses were added to CITES Appendix II, the Philippines had a Fisheries Code that forbade fishing or domestic use of any aquatic species listed by CITES. This seemed like overkill to us – given that CITES controls are solely directed at export trade and only employ bans judiciously – especially given the number of very poor people who had been earning valuable income from seahorses.

So we were pleased when the Philippines adjusted its legislation last year to facilitate sustainable exports of seahorses and other aquatic species listed under Appendix II. That said, there were some worrying aspects to the wording. In particular, the Philippines law allows free trade of aquatic species on Appendix II unless scientists advise against it, whereas CITES actually takes the precautionary approach of requiring declarations of sustainability before permitting export.

We realized that the Philippines would immediately need expert advice on applying CITES to aquatic species, especially given its lack of recent experience. As CITES mandates, trade in these species is fine but only if it does not damage wild populations!

The SOS project is letting us lay the groundwork for the Philippines’ CITES Authorities to get it right for seahorses, as a trial run for other aquatic species. So we have gathered together everything known about seahorse biology, fisheries and trade in the Philippines and distilled it all into briefings for government and NGOs. The next step is to use all that material, leavened with a hefty dose of common sense and realism, to create a plan for regulating exports at sustainable levels, as CITES requires.

As I write this, we are getting ready for the Consultation Forum in Support of the Philippines Eventual Implementation of CITES for Seahorses and Other Aquatic Species. It’s a heavy title for discussions about quirky small fishes, but does reflect the enormous importance of getting this right.

The Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources – which has to look after CITES for aquatic species – is co-hosting this gathering. With the input of lots of other national experts, we will sow the seeds to grow serious support for marine life that the Philippines exports under CITES. In so doing, the Philippines will become one of the world leaders in seahorse conservation… and add yet further to my devotion to the country.

In memory of Denise Tackett

Denise Nielsen Tackett, 67, was a long-time collaborator with Project Seahorse and respected photographer of undersea marine life.  She is credited with discovering one of the world’s smallest seahorses, named Hippocampus denise in her honor.   

Tribute by Sara Lourie

Hippocampus denise. Phonto by Denise Tackett.

Hippocampus denise. Phonto by Denise Tackett.

Last week (December 2015) we said a final farewell to Denise Tackett, in a place where she spent so much time patiently observing pygmy seahorses, in the Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi. 

Denise was first in contact with me when I worked on an identification guide to world’s seahorses (published by Project Seahorse in 1999). She sent me a photograph of a small, smooth, orange seahorse the likes of which I had not seen before. Even though I had a strong hunch that it was a new species I couldn’t confirm it without specimens, and Hippocampus denise had to wait another six years before receiving its official name. 

I saw it first in 1999 in the Lembeh Strait on my second dive with Denise. We were also fortunate to be the first people to witness the birth of another pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus bargibanti – 34 babies born in 15 minutes to a male no bigger than the size of your thumbnail. It was a truly amazing experience, and one that put us into serious decompression time to make sure that we avoided getting the bends from our extended stay at 26m. 

Denise and her husband Larry have logged over 6,000 dives, more than 1,500 of which have been in Lembeh Strait. They met on a dive trip in 1983 and subsequently dived throughout the Pacific searching for sponges for Arizona State University’s biomedical research program. They always knew that Lembeh was a special place. Within the first few months of being there they had found several hundred different species of sponge in an area of only a few square miles. After many years of diving for the university they clocked up all the statutory holidays that they hadn’t taken and discovered they had a full six months owed to them! They put sponges aside and focused on their photography, and Denise on her pygmy seahorse research. 

Denise came to know the pygmy seahorses intimately. She watched, described and photographed their activities, courtship, mating and birth. She and Larry produced a short documentary film about them, and a beautiful book about seahorses and the many other species with whom they share their underwater world (Reef Life, Microcosm, 2002). Denise and Larry were always strong advocates for the protection of the Littlest Seahorse and its habitats, even though their work and health ultimately took them away from full-time diving. 

Sadly in February 2015 Denise lost her long battle with cancer (an ironic end for someone who spent so many years searching for biomedically active compounds that might combat cancer). Her dying wish was to be cremated and her ashes scattered in Lembeh where she felt such a strong connection. I promised Larry that if there was a way for me to join him there I would. We were a small group – Jeremy, Nini, Ray, Danny, Larry and I – who took a dive boat out from Lembeh Resort on December 9 with Denise’s ashes. Ray said a short prayer and shared his belief that Denise was now in a place of peace and beyond pain, and Larry also said a few touching words. It was a powerful and special moment, and we all helped scatter Denise’s ashes on the water at one of her favourite dive sites. We also dropped three small bouquets of flowers into the water. Two drifted to the front of the boat. I dropped in the last one, and it resolutely drifted in the other direction. “Just like Denise,” Larry commented with a smile, “always going off and doing things on her own.” She is much missed, but will live on in our memories and in the little orange seahorse that bears her name. 

Banner photo of Hippocampus denise.  Photo by Denise Tackett

On witnessing a live seahorse birth - in the wild

By Clayton Manning

Male Hippocampus whitei  giving birth off in Nelson Bay, NSW, Australia. Found by Meagan Abele and Clayton Manning while doing seahorse surveys.  

Male Hippocampus whitei  giving birth off in Nelson Bay, NSW, Australia. Found by Meagan Abele and Clayton Manning while doing seahorse surveys.  

They say that good things come to those who wait. But after what recently happened in the waters of Port Stephens, Australia, I’ve realized that some really cool things happen to those who are just in the right place at the right damn time. On my team's fourth day of research diving we encountered (and filmed) a very, very pregnant male White’s seahorse giving birth.

When I realized I was watching newborn seahorses emerge from his brood pouch, I was mesmerized, but guessed that it must be a common occurrence (this was only our fourth dive, after all). And I was mostly right. Plenty have captured seahorses giving birth on video in aquaria, and even more have seen it without a camera. Earlier this year, in fact, a video of a male Hippocampus kuda (the yellow seahorse) firing babies out like a shotgun went semi-viral. But, again, it was filmed in captivity. I then thought back to every seahorse video I'd seen and it occurred to me that none were of a birth in the wild. It's pretty cool to be a part of something so rare, so when Meagan (my research assistant who took the footage) and I stopped filming, we high-fived and went to the surface. We were positively beaming; not because we'd captured the birth, but because we'd seen it with our very eyes. Did I mention it was only our fourth research dive?  

Seahorses are an iconic marine species for a number of reasons, not least of which is that males give birth. They are a spectacle of nature that are becoming more and more difficult to find in the wild. Luckily, Australia has shown a lot of leadership on marine conservation issues. This type of footage would not be possible in many areas of the world. As incredible as this experience was, capturing and sharing videos like this one is far from our ultimate goal.  We hope that our work contributes to a world where videos and aquariums aren't the only way to observe these incredible creatures.

Read the media release here

Watch the video here 


Tuition, Skype, and Seahorses

By Clayton Manning

Part 2 in this four-part series, Project Seahorse MSc student Clayton Manning ponders the question: "Hey, I'm in Australia doing seahorse research - How did I end up here?"

Now that I was dedicated to study marine biology, I needed to find somewhere to study. Since I was still living abroad, I thought I would keep the momentum going and look at international schools. This was until I was hit with the (very) rude awakening of international student fees. Without naming schools or places specifically it went something like this:
i) Google "school X in region Y for Canadian students",
ii) open webpage,
iii) see $52 000 per year,
iv) close browser,
v) double-check the next day,
vi) re-close browser.

Of course, this is not universal as there are some incredible schools with very reasonable prices and there are others with high sticker prices that have generous scholarship programs to bring the prices down. However not all are like that - Canadian schools included. Being a prospective international graduate student is intimidating no matter how you cut it. Frankly speaking, I wasn't going to go into debt AND live paycheque to paycheque in order to study. At this point I found many Canadian graduate-level biology programs offer a small annual salary so that their incredibly motivated and passionate 20 or 30 somethings. This way they don't have to completely break the bank in order to spend countless hours under microscopes, dredging through literature reviews, or doing painfully hot/cold fieldwork all in the name of science. Seems reasonable if you ask me. Although I'd be giving up international intrigue, studying at home was the best thing for my future.

I immediately pursued professors heading a number of labs in the few schools with solid marine science programs. Although I had an idea of what marine-y I things I did/did not want to study in my head, I was still very open at this point. After all I didn't originally have a specific interest in pine beetles, but I thoroughly enjoyed studying them. By the end of that project I found that I had grown quite fond of entomology and still check up on research coming out of my former lab. Science can make you fall in love with organisms, processes, and study systems you never thought possible - so it's best to keep doors open! I spent hours constructing, deconstructing and tweaking my original opening email. First impressions can matter a whole lot and I wasn't going to let an opportunity slide by because I didn't advertise myself well.

Although most emails I sent got a bite, there were some that didn't. Within the former group there were some that got away after a bit of a back-and-forth, others that I let go, and a small few that... (I'm trying hard to keep this analogy going)... were happy to be caught? There was mutual interest. Note to prospective students: if you don't receive a response immediately, don't fret. Professors are incredibly busy people and sometimes take a little bit of time and coaxing to respond (two months and three emails in the case of one of my more promising candidates). A balance between patience and persistence is key. 

By the time December rolled around (still 9 months before I started) I had narrowed it down to two professors studying very different things in very different places, from different universities. Despite being far more comfortable meeting face to face, the large distances forced me to get very used to Skype - a tool that I'm finding more and more useful as I probe (/annoy) academics around the world for useful bits of advice as I head into my field season. Note to students: I joke. Academics are extremely friendly and almost always more than happy to talk with you over Skype. They can offer you insight on topics and details that you can’t find in a Methods or Results section. There were a few days I had to have Skype interviews at very strange times of the day. My eventual supervisor encouraged me to talk to as many people in her lab as possible so my already variable teaching schedule was made even weirder with all of these inter-continental chats. But a huge reason I sided with Project Seahorse is because of the time they invested in me. When I showed up on Day 1 last September I had already met or corresponded with many of my lab mates, which made the transition much easier. One less thing to be overwhelmed by. I was now based at UBC in Vancouver, and going to study seahorses. 

But where would I study them?

The Marine Biologist (Part 1)

By Clayton Manning

In this four-part blog series, Project Seahorse MSc student Clayton Manning ponders the question: "Hey, I'm in Australia doing seahorse research - How did I end up here?"

Back in April 2013 when I made the decision that I wanted to go to grad school I had no idea that I'd end up going to university in western Canada, or doing field work in Australia. The only thing that was truly clear is that I wanted a Masters, and I wanted to do field work. Since then I've researched, deliberated and eventually crossed out a list of universities in four different countries, and field work in another six. And all of that was after the not-so-easy-for-an-Alberta-boy decision to study marine biology and conservation. Although at times it's been stressful not knowing where I'm going, what I'm going to do, or who I'll be doing it with, sometimes it's this uncertainty that makes the final destination so rewarding, and the road there so exciting.

The journey starts in Japan, where I was living, working, and consuming copious amounts of ramen. After a grand total of about two months at a real job in this ancient land, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. After a research hiatus of less than half a year, I was already yearning to do more cool science. Plus, I'm more of a shorts and t-shirt all-year kind of guy, and the suit-and-tie thing really wasn't doing it for me. I wanted out; not out of Japan, but the Japanese working world. So after Google translating 'graduate school' into 'daikakuin' on my phone, I immediately started searching for grad programs in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I had no idea what I wanted to focus on, so I looked far and wide for anything under the (land of the rising) sun.

Turns out, not so surprisingly, that to study anything in Japan you need to speak some Japanese... and at the time I wasn't even good enough to read the damn eligibility website to find out that my language skills made me ineligible! Learning a second language seemed like a challenge, and I was up for it. I had about 16 months to learn as much of one of the world's most complex languages as possible, and about six to get good enough to qualify for Japan's 文部科学省奨学金, the Monbukagakusho scholarship. It's similar to NSERC - essentially the government pays you a salary to go to school, cover your tuition, and drink beer. However if I learned anything in Japan, it's that nothing in Japan is as easy as it seems. Ever.

The major hitch in my plan to become an incredibly sophisticated foreign-language speaking researcher is that in order to pass the second round of cuts, I would need to do a face-to-face interview with the Japanese consulate IN CALGARY to be eligible for a scholarship to do school where I was already living. A 16 000 km journey to do school 50 km away. I was somehow being penalized for actually living in the place I wanted to study. Skype/phone calls or an interview with the actual Japanese government in Tokyo was not an option... believe me, I checked. Deciding that I didn't want to take holiday time to spend $1200 to fly back to the city I had just escaped to simply increase my chances of making minimum wage, I crossed Japan off the list. Despite the best year of my life, and learning to love teaching, I would leave a year and a half later.

Parksville, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

Parksville, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

It's amazing how things can stick with you. After eliminating Japan, I decided to change my selection criteria from a location-based focus, to subject-based. It was not long after, when searching for scientific inspiration and trying to decide on a field of biology to study, I thought back to a time a few years prior. It was one of those perfect B.C. summer days and a few friends and I decided to a stroll along one of the vast beaches in and around Parksville, on Vancouver Island. At some point that afternoon we stumbled upon an older man who looked to be giving a lecture as he was surrounded by a semi-circle of people hanging on his every word. Turns out he was a biologist and he was discussing the marine ecosystem - the flow of nutrients and water, what was eating what, and how human activity was changing things (mostly for the worse, not surprisingly). Although I had been exposed to what he was saying in a first year biology course during my undergrad, it really resonated with me that day because it seemed more visceral. It wasn't being said in front of a PowerPoint presentation - his classroom was literally in among the subject matter. I'm not sure if anyone was as touched by his storytelling as I was but everyone seemed to be enthralled, even if it were only for a minute or two as they passed by.

The four of us (all Environmental Biology grads) would talk late into that night about life, biology, grad school possibilities, and which of our specific interests was more interesting. But that marine biologist sparked something in me that had existed since studying marine and freshwater ecology during my undergrad. Something about the idea of being underwater and not studying insects really got my science juices flowing (Read my blog about studying these topics here). I had been inspired by marine courses in the past, but I was from Calgary and that is not how things were done. But I was living in Japan now, and how do they say it... "The world is your oyster"? Fitting. 

I then did what anybody in my shoes would do - I put the Planet Earth "Shallow Seas" episode in my DVD player, watched it; YouTubed the Great White shark on seal attack a few times, and was set. I was going to study marine biology!

But where to study?? 

Beyond traditional pollutants

By Prof Sigal Balshine

Prof Balshine spent a year collaborating with us at Project Seahorse in 2014/2015. This blog is about her research in Hamilton, Ontario.

Flush!  The first show to ever feature a flushing toilet was “All in the Family”. Back in the early 1970s bathroom business was still considered a highly taboo subject, and a fairly unsuitable or risky topic for network television. But we all use the toilet.  In Hamilton alone, toilets are flushed about 2 million times a day.  That is about 1500 flushes per minute.  And when the 720, 000 people, who live and work all over the Greater Hamilton metropolitan area, use their bathrooms, it’s not just water that is being flushed down that sink, bath or toilet. The wastewater or “sewage” in Hamilton is treated by three large wastewater treatment plants that collectively “clean” over 520 million liters of wastewater each day. All three of these plants are extremely well equipped to deal with our bodies’ natural wastes, feces and urine. 

But these treatment plants have a much more challenging time filtering out pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, aspirin, and birth control pills or personal care products like sunscreen and deodorants, compounds that unfortunately also end up in wastewater whenever we use the toilet, shower, sink or laundry. The drugs we take are not entirely absorbed by our bodies so they and the cosmetics, perfumes and soaps that we use are passed into the wastewater stream. 

But why should we care if there are small residues of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in our wastewater?

Well, once our wastewater is treated and cleaned up, the liquid component, known as effluent, is pumped right back into our rivers, lakes and oceans.  In Hamilton, this treated wastewater gets discharged into Hamilton Harbour, and into Cootes Paradise Marsh. All of the City of Burlington’s wastewater is also discharged into Hamilton Harbour. Many different fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and even mammals live in these aquatic habitats.  And these water bodies are where we swim and play, and they are connected to Lake Ontario, where we get our drinking water.

How does the treated effluent in these areas impact the wildlife and the ecology of the Bay? The truth is we don’t really know.  It is likely that many aquatic animals encounter treated wastewater everyday.  Cootes Paradise, for example, is an environmentally sensitive wetland, is used by over 25000 water birds as an annual migratory stopover spot and by over 60 species of fish as a breeding and nursery ground (with over 10 million young produced there each year). Unfortunately, removing the removal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) from wastewater is technologically challenging and prohibitively costly to filter out, so more and more of these compounds are ending up in our watersheds.

More worryingly still is that when many PPCPs mix together they produce a complex cocktail and the impacts on wildlife exposed to these mixtures are really not very well understood. Recently in Sweden, Brodin and his colleagues [link to reference?] showed that European perch exposed to just one of these compounds, a mood-altering drug, were far less social. Fish that are less social won’t group together and without the protection from schooling together are at much higher risk of predation. 

In my laboratory (ABEL), we too have found that fish from highly impacted sites in Hamilton Harbour, move less and take unnecessary risks in the presence of predators (Marentette & Balshine 2012). Changes to animal behaviour or physiology can be thought of as a type of early warning system.  The fish may not die but if they look or act strangely something might be wrong.  Fish and other aquatic organisms can be used as firstline indicators.  They are the canaries in the coal mine, for compounds that might affect the health of our aquatic habitats and the quality of our drinking water. But first we really need to understand how precisely wastewater effluent influences biological function in animals that encounter it regularly.

To this end, my research group at McMaster University, the Aquatic Behavioural Ecology Laboratory (ABEL), has begun a research study.  Joining forces with Dr. Graham Scott’s research group from the McMaster Biology Department, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and the City of Hamilton’s Wastewater division, we are examining how treated wastewater effluent influences fish behaviour and physiology. Graduate students Erin McCallum and Sherry Du, and their research assistants, are caging fish in locations ranging from the wastewater plant’s treatment ponds and next to the effluent discharge pipes all the way to a distant clean site far away from the wastewater effluent. The fish are exposed to different amounts of wastewater effluent in these cages for a month. We then test their behaviour and their physiology, looking at traits that are important for reproduction and survival.  We are using two species of fish, the round goby and pumpkinseed sunfish, both ecologically and economically important species in Canada and the Great Lakes.  We want to understand if treated wastewater effluent, even at very low doses, can alter biological function of the animals that encounter it. 

So what can you do about the problem of pharmaceuticals and personal care product contamination? First, always make sure to take advantage of drug take-back programs at your local pharmacy or local waste collection station. Never flush remaining drugs into the toilet or wash unused pills down the sink. Second, whenever possible use less harmful organic cosmetics and cleaning products.  If there is a choice between several different drug options, consider the respective environmental impact and pick the most ecofriendly compound. Third, encourage the city and the province to more strongly protect our natural lands and water bodies. Eventually there will be further advances in removal technology, and possibly even legislation that will better protect our oceans, rivers and lakes. Until then we need to make sure that we know how to accurately detect and measure these chemicals in water, in sediment and in the organisms that live in aquatic habitats.  And of course we really to figure out what the consequences of PPCPs are on ecosystem function and on human health. 

So the next time you flush, take a minute to think about how we can all work to protect water, our most precious renewable resource.  

Dr. Sigal Balshine is a professor at McMaster University.  She is in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour and studies fish behaviour, ecology and evolution.  She received her B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and did postdoctoral fellowships in Israel, Austria and England before joining the faculty at McMaster.  She and her students have been working on round goby behaviour and the effects of contaminants on their behaviour since 2002.  She thanks to the Royal Bank of Canada for a Blue Water Research Grant and to McMaster University for their generous support of this research project.


Taking action for seahorses with Marine Conservation Cambodia

By Lindsay Aylesworth

In our latest Field Notes, Project Seahorse PhD candidate Lindsay Aylesworth(@l_aylesworth reflects on taking action for seahorses in Cambodia.

My most recent seahorse adventure brought me face to face with a man who has a sixth sense for seahorses – Paul Ferber.

Paul Ferber. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Paul Ferber. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Paul runs a volunteer funded group called Marine Conservation Cambodia. They have been working in Cambodia since 2008 to monitor seahorses around the coastal islands and support the local fisheries department to stop illegal fishing. I had met Paul by email a little over a year ago, while working on a collaborative paper about Hippocampus mohnikei, one of the seahorse species found in both Thailand and Cambodia. After hearing about his expertise in seahorses and learning of his group’s mission, I decided to visit my colleague and see what seahorse experiences Cambodia had to offer.  

Location of the Island of Koh Seh.  Google Earth, 2015.

Location of the Island of Koh Seh.  Google Earth, 2015.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going. Paul said he was located on Koh Seh Island, which didn’t mean much to me initially. Turns out, Koh Seh is located in the southern part of Kep Province about a three hour drive from Phnom Penh Airport. By boat it takes roughly one hr to reach Koh Seh from the pier in Kep. It is the furthest island from the mainland and the closest island to Vietnam. The island is uninhabited except for a small marine police station and of course Marine Conservation Cambodia. The island is pretty small, and it takes about an hour to walk around it depending on the tides.

Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth

Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth

On my trip out to Koh Seh Island, I saw how serious Paul and his team were about protecting the seagrass beds in the area. There are many boats that illegally fish in Cambodia, and these coastal waters are also home to dense seagrass and coral reef habitat. As we were making our way to Koh Seh, the Marine Conservation Cambodia team had spotted a trawler fishing illegally, in this case from Vietnam, and the team went into action. One minute there was a Cambodian guy relaxing on the boat in his board shorts and tank top, and the next minute he’s putting on his official Fisheries Department uniform and making his way to the bow of the boat. We approached the boat, and after an exchange of words in Khmer and some angry gesturing, the fishermen pulled up the net, dumped the fish and seagrass back into the ocean and headed back to sea in the direction of Vietnam. This would turn out to be a typical experience for the Marine Conservation Cambodia team since they work full time with the local fisheries staff to increase the number of local patrols of the area.

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

My admiration for this group of passionate and dedicated conservationists increased throughout my short four-day trip out to the island. Paul built the base-camp and operations on Koh Seh island from scratch. He chose the location in particular due to the diversity of underwater habitats surrounding the island. The accommodation is basic – simple huts with bucket showers and electricity only at night – but the scenery both above and below the water is worth it.

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Learning opportunities abound to volunteers who spend time on Koh Seh – with the local staff trained in fish, invertebrate and marine habitat identification – and of course seahorses. While out there I gave an iSeahorse Training workshop to the volunteers and staff and shared our training material with my fellow seahorse lovers. After the workshop, the volunteers and I jumped in the water for a practice dive to work on species identification and practise the iSeahorse data collection method.

Paul’s reputation for finding seahorses is well deserved. Within minutes he can spot a seahorse, which compared to some of the research I’ve been working on in Thailand - where seahorses have been hard to find to say the least - is amazing. In front of the base camp is a 300 x 800 m seagrass bed- with multiple species of seagrass and seahorses. During our iSeahorse practice dives we spotted the two most commonly seen species around Koh Seh – Hippocampus kuda and Hippocampus spinosissimus.  

Hippocampus spinossimus. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Hippocampus spinossimus. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

The future is filled with collaboration for Paul and me. We created a plan to build on the research I’ve been working on in Thailand about appropriate levels of effort needed to monitor local seahorse populations. Seahorses can be hard to find because of their ability to camouflage with their environment and as a scientist it’s important to understand how your ability to detect (find) seahorses in different habitats impacts your results. In Thailand I started to explore these ideas in sandy soft bottom habitats – the simplest habitats to find seahorses. The numerous habitats around Koh Seh and the neighboring islands are perfect for building on this research to include seagrass and shell habitats. During my short time there, I worked with Paul and his staff to create a research protocol and explain data collection procedures. We also discussed marking the seahorses in front of the base camp in the seagrass bed. The area acts as a de-facto marine protected area, since Paul and his team patrol it and would be a great research opportunity to study the population dynamics of seahorses in the wild. Sadly, my time in Cambodia was too short to put this plan into action, but we’ll be working towards starting this research project shortly.

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

My visit to Marine Conservation Cambodia was inspiring. It reminded me of my first marine conservation experience in a remote part of coastal Mexico where I combined scuba diving and science for the first time and the marine biologist inside of me was born. It was also refreshing to see something accomplished in the name of conservation, i.e. the illegal trawling boat dumping out its catch and heading back to where it came from. It can be challenging working in Academia - publishing research in journals and writing policy briefings for government officials – and I’m often left wondering if it makes a real difference on the ground. Are the natural resources in the ocean where I work better off at the end of the day based on my actions? In the case of Marine Conservation Cambodia, the answer is clearly yes. Paul’s group and his setting will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of marine conservationists for years to come.

Murderers, Cannibals and Spanish Dancers

By Kyle Gillespie

At the beginning of chapter 6 of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row he tells a story of murderers, cannibals, Spanish dancers, ferocious cats, frantic children and pulsing rage. Variations of the word “murderer” are used three times and we hear phrases like “leaps savagely,” “moving like a gray mist,” and my favourite: “The smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth, burden the air.”

This is not a story of seedy back alleys, Amazonian adventures, or fields of war. No. Here, he is describing a stretch of rocky intertidal on a sunny, summer day. A place that many of us would look at and say to ourselves: “How pleasant!”

In truth, octopuses are not murderers, hermit crabs are not frantic children, and sea slugs are not – to my knowledge – Spanish dancers waving their dresses. But the author has done something remarkable: in a few sentences he’s created a picture in our minds that is both vivid and relatable. We care about the characters and their fates. The dancers and thugs we meet are far closer to human experiences than the reality of sea animals going about their daily rituals of eating, surviving and finding mates. And I think it’s that quality that makes someone who would usually be indifferent to the ocean, become enthralled by the imagery that now fills their minds.

This is something that stuck with me last August when I attended COMPASS’s Scientific Storytelling Workshop in Glasgow, Scotland. When it came time tell my science story during the International Marine Conservation Congress, it was important that I create vivid imagery and make my study animals relatable.

Like Steinbeck, I’ve been enamoured by the ocean for many years and I’m now lucky enough to study it as a graduate student. It is an incredible, exciting place that is out of sight for many and out of mind for most. Until I have the problem of being overrun with requests for comment on sea cucumber feeding strategies or overfishing, I will be guilty of using vivid, relatable imagery – if even just to bridge the divide between our lives and life in the seas. 

Welcome to the new website!

By Tyler Stiem

After many months of hard work, we're pleased to announce the launch of the new Project Seahorse website. A long time in the making, the latest version of is designed to look and work beautifully on all your devices. 

We've simplified the navigation and added robust search tools, making it easier for you to find everything you're looking for — from basic seahorse facts, to our latest cutting-edge research and conservation tools, to gorgeous photo essays

Please have a look and let us know what you think. With your feedback, the website will continue to evolve over the next few months. We want to make it as fun and interesting for you to use as it was for us to design.

Tyler Stiem is Project Seahorse's Communications Manager and technical lead on and

The ‘other’ seahorse experts: on the importance of listening to fishers

By Xiong Zhang

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

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

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

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.

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.

Microplastics and the deep blue sea

By Dr. Lucy Woodall

Microplastic fibres seen under a microscope. Lucy Woodall/Natural History Museum 

Microplastic fibres seen under a microscope. Lucy Woodall/Natural History Museum 

“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.

The R.S.S. James Cook. P. Boersch-Supan/Natural History Museum

The R.S.S. James Cook. P. Boersch-Supan/Natural History Museum

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.

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.

Conservation: the next generation

By Ally Stocks

Young conservationists gathered at the Cambridge Student Conference. Photo: Allison Stocks/Project Seahorse 

Young conservationists gathered at the Cambridge Student Conference. Photo: 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.

Ally Stocks is a graduate student with Project Seahorse. Follow her on Twitter @Ally_Stocks.

The Gulf of Mannar's trawling problem

By Tanvi Vaidyanathan

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.

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

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

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.

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.

You say 'falsification,' I say 'validation': taking a multidisciplinary approach to conservation

By Ting-Chun Kuo

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.

Checking in on the world’s most endangered seahorse

By Ally Stocks

The Cape or knysna seahorse (H. capensis) is listed as 'Critically Endangered' on the IUCN Red List. Photo: Ally Stocks/Project Seahorse

The Cape or knysna seahorse (H. capensis) is listed as 'Critically Endangered' on the IUCN Red List. Photo: Ally Stocks/Project Seahorse

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.

Eve Perrins (left), the author (center), and Thembisa Jordaan (right). Photo: Ally Stocks/Project Seahorse

Eve Perrins (left), the author (center), and Thembisa Jordaan (right). Photo: Ally Stocks/Project Seahorse

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.

How much do you know about China’s marine fisheries?

By Xiong Zhang

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

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.

The clash between culture and conservation

By Ally Stocks

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  locals. 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

What we talk about when we talk about fishers

By Xiong Zhang

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.

My so-called post-doc life

By Danika Kleiber

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.