By Lily Stanton
“Extinction Lasts Forever” reads the colourful poster of a seahorse, wrasse, turtle, and octopus beside my desk at Project Seahorse. It reminds me of the poster hanging in my room as an undergraduate biology student, the one that said, “Protect them: because once they’re gone it’s too late.” That poster has disappeared, most likely hiding in some dark and dusty closet, but remains etched in my memory: a picture of several Pacific salmon swimming freely, adding impetus to my dream and aspiration to work in conservation biology.
Fast forward to today and I am now proud to work with Project Seahorse, a marine conservation group dedicated to securing a world where marine ecosystems are healthy and well-managed, with seahorses as the charismatic species at the center of our efforts. Some of this surprised me, as a biologist previously focused on species and ecosystems. When I started my position just four short months ago, I was surprised to learn that Project Seahorse is also closely involved with fishing communities, national and global trade issues, policy change, and public outreach. Now, however, I realize that all these layers of endeavour are essential.
As we embark on the third meeting of Syngnathid fishes in Tampa Bay from 15-19th of May, I am excited to learn more about these fantastical fishes, which in fact, is the theme our SyngBio 2017 meeting this year. Over 100 scientists, educators, aquarium professionals, graduate and undergraduate have gathered together from 19 different countries to share their research and shared enthusiasm for this unique group of fishes. With topics ranging from physiology, phylogentics, phylogeography, genomics, sexual selection, behavior, aquaculture, conservation and management, there is lots to learn and I am eager, set and ready.
Among our other roles, Project Seahorse serves as the Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group for the IUCN Species Survival Commission. This means we act as the core of the global expert group for conservation of these fishes. Following the SygnBio meeting, the Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group (SPS SG) will have its first in-person meeting - on Endangered Species Day. An ambitious day is planned, aiming to draw out a global conservation strategy to protect the over 320 species under their watch. Seahorses have long been used as a flagship species for the protection and management of the fragile ecosystems they inhabit such as seagrass meadows, mangroves and coral reefs. However, the 41 species of seahorses only comprise a small fraction of all the fish species that need conservation attention and that fall under the watchful eye of this specialist group.
We are also responsible for supporting amazingly beautiful and bizarre fish species, many of which most of us have never heard of. Cornetfishes, trumpet fishes, sea moths, sand eels, bellowfishes, tube-snouts, snipefishes, seahorses, pipefishes and sticklebacks live in a wide variety of habitats both marine and freshwater and are also worthy of our attention. Fantastical fishes they are indeed. So how do we protect them in a world where marine habitats are being damaged, overfished, and trawled to extract any or all fish and invertebrates, beautiful or not, large and small. And then there’s climate change...
The new word on the street is “conservation optimism” and I like this approach. No more focusing on doom and gloom, because after all where will that get us? Let’s focus on the many promising solutions and successful conservation stories. Just check out the twitter hashtags #conservationoptimism, #oceanoptimism, and #earthoptimism.
From the Critically Endangered Greek nine-spine stickleback, Pungitius hellenicus, and the Estuarine pipefish, Syngnathus watermeyeri, in South Africa to the Threatened seahorses in many parts of the world, 7% of all species under the responsibility of this Specialist Group have been assessed as threatened in the IUCN Red List. Of great concern, too, are the more than 30% of species assessed as Data Deficient, meaning we do not have enough information to accurately measure their extinction risk. There is much work ahead but armed with Red List assessments for all 324 species under their responsibility and a revised taxonomy for seahorses, the next obvious goal is to deploy this work for conservation gains - and that is exactly what the SPS SG intends to get done today - on Endangered Species Day.