Where conservation happens

Where conservation happens

When I left for the CITES CoP, I told my 5 year old son that I was going to a meeting where all the world’s countries were coming together to make sure that all the animals and plants around today would be around when he grew up – and I left South Africa still convinced that this is exactly the best way to describe the CoP. 

Science is cool... and it's about time we showed kids that!

Science is cool... and it's about time we showed kids that!

Midshipmen are not ordinary fish - their songs are loud enough to wake houseboaters, they have rows of small light-producing organs that resemble buttons on the uniforms of naval officers (hence their name), and the males come in two distinct reproductive types, guarders and sneakers.  However when Let’s Talk Science at UBC (LTS) was looking for a cool science project to get students from underprivileged Surrey high schools excited about BC's marine ecosystems, a strangeness or hook is exactly what was wanted.

Getting excited about export regulation … really!!

Our job was to find common challenges and opportunities for managing wildlife trade among seahorses, sharks, rays, humphead wrasse, European eels, and sturgeons.  These very cool fishes are united as the first wave of fishes to come under global regulations, requiring that no export threaten wild populations.  While that sounds good, the challenge, as ever, lies in the implementation … and that was our focus. 

An ocean full of dragons and mermaids

Historical map makers – who worked before the world was fully explored – drew dragons and mermaids at the edges of the known world. Today these mythical creatures have vanished from our maps; the world has been mapped by waves of explorers, surveys, and satellites. We have grown incredibly precise at mapping features as diverse as ocean temperatures, aquifers, and ocean habitats. Yet much remains unknown.

On witnessing a live seahorse birth - in the wild

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.

Murderers, Cannibals and Spanish Dancers

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.

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.