My first seahorse in the field

By Ally Stocks

Allison Stocks is studying the impact of fishing on seahorse populations in southern Vietnam. This is the first in a series of posts about her fieldwork.  

I spent eight months at UBC preparing for my field season on Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam, and once I’d actually reached my research location, I figured I’d be diving and finding seahorses in no time. Of course, that was not the case; there are hundreds of hoops to jump through first. With the help of my research assistant, An, I organized dive gear, found transportation across the island, and had meetings with several staff members of the local marine protected area, plus three different Coast Guard offices to make sure we wouldn’t get arrested when we started diving. 

One day, early in the field season, An and I were trying to find a boat that was willing to take us to the dive sites. We rode our motorbike for an hour and a half to a fishing dock where seahorses are landed. When we arrived, we spoke with several different fishers who were keen to share information about seahorses. We haggled with boat owners for a low price for a day’s rental, and we’d managed to get a pretty good deal by the late afternoon. At that point, I wanted to head back to town, but An convinced me to wait. 

“I want you to see seahorses,” he said. “Also I want to see seahorses.”

So we hung out in the shade with a few fish buyers, and An quickly became friends with them. They warmed up to us and soon enough were chatting and even singing happily. One of them gave me and An some berries that he had stashed in his motorbike helmet. An told me a story about how the berries represented long lost love. He said to be careful, when you eat them you might fall in love with someone. 

After a little while, the first boat came into the harbour and I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I instantly froze, and thought, “There are dead seahorses on that boat. Time to do some research.”

I hadn’t actually prepared to collect any data, since An and I were there to chat with the fishermen, make a good impression, and find a boat to rent. But our new friends urged us to check out the catch. As An distractedly chatted with someone about clams, I saw a woman in yellow polka-dot pants approach the fishing boat, and in a split-second exchange, her gloved hands held tightly to something. My stomach churning, I saw tiny little curled tails poking out from between her fingers.

“An!” I called to him, pointing. “Look!”

He ran up to the woman and asked if we could see the seahorses. She happily obliged, and we lay the four little creatures out on a piece of paper and I took a quick picture. It was surreal to see and touch seahorses for the first time, especially after spending so long reading, talking, and writing about them.

Lying in front of me were four dead seahorses, still fresh. Two of them were Hippocampus trimaculatus, the three-spot seahorse, and two were Hippocampus spinosissimus, the hedgehog seahorse. Three of them were juvenile males; one was a female. I scooped them up and handed them back to the woman in polka-dot pants. It was clear that seahorses are quite valuable in Vietnam, because she tucked them safely away in a small bag kept in her jacket. 

Seahorses are caught in Vietnam both on purpose and as bycatch. They are sold domestically for consumption, and traded internationally primarily to China for use in traditional medicine. Seahorse fishing has placed an immense pressure on populations, and recently a ban was placed on exports of live seahorses from Vietnam until the country can demonstrate that the trade is sustainable. My work will help the Vietnamese government understand the current status of seahorse populations. 

At the fishing port, nine more boats arrived over the next two hours, some carrying seahorses, some without. Whenever we weren’t investigating the catch from the boats, we were back on the dock with our new friends, who had cooked up a feast of fresh seafood and were eager for us to try it. 

I ate a several different kinds of clam, snails, conch, and fish. I gulped it all down and gave a queasy smile, trying my best to make friends with these men who could make or break the next four months of my research. In the end, I must have done well, because they were very pleased with us. One of them kept telling me (translated by An) that I needed to stay in Vietnam and get married, to form a proper partnership between Canada and Vietnam (he clasped his hands together in harmony). I laughed it off, and our jovial seafood feast continued until the light began to fade. 

We saw a total of 19 seahorses that day. They were all three-spot and hedgehog seahorses, freshly caught, and quickly snatched up by buyers on the dock. 

It was time for us to motorbike back to town. I’d had no idea what to expect from the fishing communities in Vietnam. We’d made some new friends, and I looked forward to returning to this dock to get to know them better, and to gain more valuable information about the seahorses being caught there. 

Follow Ally on Twitter @ally_stocks.