Am I really a conservationist?

By Xiong Zhang

Am I really a conservationist? 

As a young marine biologist, I’m kind of ashamed to confess that I had never bothered to ask myself that question until last April, after I started fieldwork to initiate seahorse conservation in China. I took it for granted that I was. Before this project I would confidently tell you that I am a conservationist simply because I study endangered marine animals, like seahorses. But over six-month journey traveling from fishing port to fishing port in China, I began to appreciate what it really meant to be a conservationist … and to understand that I wasn’t there yet.

On the first day of my fieldwork at a local fishing port in Southern China, I saw hundreds of seahorses, landed by a bottom trawler after a two-day fishing trip in coastal waters. I was feeling excited at that moment for being able to see so many wild seahorses for the first of my life. I was thrilled to get my first piece of field data about seahorse fisheries in China! 

Seahorses (Hippocampus trimaculatus) landed along with a few other small fishes caught by a bottom trawler at Qinglan Fishing Port, Wenchang, Hainan Province, China.

Seahorses (Hippocampus trimaculatus) landed along with a few other small fishes caught by a bottom trawler at Qinglan Fishing Port, Wenchang, Hainan Province, China.

However, upon reflection, I feel ashamed of myself. In my excitement I completely overlooked the fact that such a finding means that local seahorse populations, along with many other marine species, can be so easily removed from the ocean! Given that China has hundreds of thousands of bottom trawlers, which all catch seahorses (mostly accidentally), I finally realized that the seahorses that I was claiming to protect face an incredibly uncertain future in China. I am actually swimming against a huge wave, a nationwide overfishing of seahorses along with a culture of using seahorses in Traditional Chinese Medicine — especially in Southeast China. How could I be happy at that moment if I was a conservationist?  I was behaving as if I was merely a researcher who cares more about data than the animals themselves. And I soon realized that being a conservationist has nothing to do with my research unless I put it to good use.

The Qinglan Fishing Port, Wenchang, Hainan Island.

The Qinglan Fishing Port, Wenchang, Hainan Island.

So during the following journey, I started to collaborate and communicate with local colleagues, fishers, divers, non-governmental organizations, and many other groups, in order to mobilize them to protect these highly overfished but lovely species in China with my findings.

Among my communication with more than 500 local fishers, I found that they were, for sure, aware of fisheries collapse and the harm of using destructive fishing gears such as trawl nets. But driven by the competition for decreasing fisheries resources, they were forced to use these destructive gears since they are more efficient in catching fishes than traditional methods (for example hook and line). This results in a vicious spiral with fewer fishes left in the ocean. 

A massive fleet of fishing vessels sighted at Yangkou Fishing Port, Shouguang, Shandong Province, China.

A massive fleet of fishing vessels sighted at Yangkou Fishing Port, Shouguang, Shandong Province, China.

A critical step to address the issue is to help fisheries authorities to guide local fishers so they can avoid critical habitats for those threatened marine animals. In my case, I will generate a map of critical seahorse habitats for seahorses in order to meet this end. Local governments can conduct conservation planning based on this map to identify zones where fishing activities should be restricted or relocated. But this cannot be achieved without the engagement of local fishers. Therefore, I need to collaborate with our allies (e.g. local NGOs) to mobilize fishers to become responsible for local seahorse conservation. Only when fishers’ fishing behaviour is changed, can I then be proud to say I am a conservationist.