Field Notes

We return to searching for clues in the catch and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam 

Seahorses enter a complicated system of trade from fishers to various levels of buyers and/or traders. By piecing together information from a number of different sources, we have been able to create a fuller, more accurate picture of the true catch and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam.  More on that in part three of our blog, but in the meantime here are some images, taken by Hoang during his time in the field, which provide a glimpse into the life of a seahorse trade detective. 

The strange case of Stratoni seahorses

I went to Greece after a call from Vasilis Mentogiannis, a professional archaeological diver who contacted Project Seahorse to urge us to protect a local seahorse population. As I was not aware of any seahorse population in Greece (apart from some rare occasional sightings), I was very curious about this intriguing story.

Patagonian seahorses send excited chills down my spine

I may have been shivering with cold, but my heart was leaping with excitement … I was face to face with the Patagonian seahorse, Hippocampus patagonicus, and it was magical. The species was only described in 2004 and is assessed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Investigating the Thai seahorse trade

By Ting-Chun Kuo

“First you grind the specimen into powder, then you boil it with herbs,” the trader told me. He showed me a box with about 50 dried seahorses in it and explained that, prepared in the right way, the animals act as a tonic to improve kidney and lung function as well as improve men’s virility and cure back pain. 

I was at a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Yawarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, investigating the seahorse trade in Thailand. There were more than 10 traditional Chinese medicine shops on this street, and I found seahorses in almost every of them. Used in medicines, for aquarium display, and as curios, 15-20 million seahorses are traded internationally every year. 

Thailand is the biggest seahorse exporting country in the world. Seahorses are controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that countries that have signed on to this international agreement must ensure their exports are not detrimental to wild seahorse populations. To move the Thai seahorse trade toward sustainability, Project Seahorse and the Thai Department of Fisheries agreed to investigate the situation in Thailand together. It is the first such investigation in Thailand since CITES controls on seahorses came into effect in 2004.

To really grasp the scope of the trade and the impact of these protections, we need to study the route, quantity, price, and species/size composition of Thailand’s dried and live seahorse trade, comparing this new data to the data gathered before the CITES regulations were implemented. 

Starting in Bangkok, my Thai colleague, Jaeb, and I interviewed traditional Chinese medicine traders and aquarium dealers We then spent a month traveling along the coastline of Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, talking to fishers and local traders. In Thailand, most of the seahorses involved in trade are caught unintentionally in fisheries that are targeting other species. Fishers collect the seahorses in their catch, dry them, then sell the specimens to local buyers at port. The sales provide important extra income. Local buyers then sell the seahorses to higher-level traders, who then sell to wholesalers, who finally distribute the seahorses to retailers and exporters. Sound complicated? This diagram might help:

 Figure 1. Dried seahorse trade structure in Thailand. Arrows indicate the direction seahorses were sold.

Figure 1. Dried seahorse trade structure in Thailand. Arrows indicate the direction seahorses were sold.

The work in Thailand has had its challenges. Although the seahorse trade is legal in Thailand, traders – especially in traditional Chinese medicine retailers – were reluctant to talk about how they sourced their seahorses or about the volume of their trade. Such questions were very sensitive in a business context. Therefore, we had to cross-validate the information we got from people at different trade levels to gain a more complete picture of overall Thai seahorse trade.  

Seahorse buyers in fishing villages were easier to approach. Almost every day, they come to the ports to purchase seahorses from the trawler crews, and then keep them until the higher-level traders comes to buy their catch. The first local buyer I met was a man opening a classic old style karaoke bar in a fishing village in Phuket. He was very frank about the trading he does, and even asked us whether we want to go to collect seahorses together. He spends most afternoons and evenings, from about 3 p.m. to midnight, at the port, waiting for trawler boats to come in and making sure he’s one of the first to buy their seahorse catches.

We went with him to the port near his home, which was used primarily for landing the massive bycatch from trawlers, for eventual reduction to fishmeal or fish sauce. Usefully, the buyer soon found a trawler with eight dried seahorses. He bought the seahorses from the crew, as well as many other bycaught animals, such as sea cucumbers, shells, and lobsters. He also arranged for us to interview the trawler captain, who provided us with good information. 

The higher-lever traders were more difficult to find, because they usually lived in bigger cities and only occasionally visited the ports where seahorses are landed. Still, we managed to interview a few of them. They told us that they usually sent their seahorses to wholesalers in Bangkok for export, and some of the seahorses were re-distributed to TCM stores in other parts of Thailand.

As our research continued up the trade ladder, a picture began to emerge of the complexities of the seahorse trade and how urgently the Thai government needs to enforce fisheries regulations to ensure sustainability. Stay tuned for the next update! 

Two weeks on Haida Gwaii

By Riley Pollom

As the plane touched down on Haida Gwaii, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. In preparation for the trip I’d devoured all the material I could find on the establishment of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Marine Conservation Area and Haida Heritage Site, a conservation success story if there ever was one. Established in 1988 on the southern part of the archipelago, Gwaii Haanas protects some of Canada’s greatest biological and cultural treasures. Even so, I was astonished by what I saw over the next two weeks.

My partner and I started the trip at Rose Spit on Graham Island. According to Haida tradition, it’s here where life on earth first began. It was here that Raven, a trickster figure in Haida cosmology, opened the clamshell to release the first people. The creation legend is famously portrayed by Bill Reid in his 1980 sculpture, The Raven and the First men, housed at the UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. We hiked from Tow Hill, the highest point on the northern part of the island, down along the rocky and aptly-named Long Beach. Along the way we encountered the many signs of marine life lapping onto the beach — dungeness crab molts, giant kelp stalks, and the shells of countless mollusks. We also encountered many locals harvesting razor clams at low tide, a practice that has gone on sustainably for thousands of years. The spit itself was quite a sight – picture two perpendicular coasts meeting, with a long, tapering stretch of land jutting into the strait.  

From there we visited Tlell, home of the Edge of the World Music Festival, and then the ancient village of Tanu for an ecological and cultural tour with Haida guides.  We started out in Queen Charlotte, a logging town that became the largest settlement on the islands, and then zipped across glass-smooth water to Skedans on Louise Island. 

Skedans is an abandoned Haida village, one of the many that flourished for centuries, until the nineteenth century. The village’s 200-year old totems are slowly returning to Mother Nature, as the remaining Haida elders wanted it. Central to every aspect of life for the Haida, including village life, hunting and fishing, and even in determining who could marry whom, the totems are a stark reminder of how this community once thrived.

Life here was disrupted by a smallpox epidemic that took decimated the local villages, reducing a population of 20,000 to a few hundred people. As large portions of each village succumbed to the disease, it was decided that the survivors would congregate in two villages – Skidegate and Masset – the only Haida villages still inhabited.  As a result of the epidemic, the Haida lost valuable traditional knowledge, along with the governance structures that helped them manage their forest and ocean resources effectively. In their absence, commercial fishing and extensive old-growth logging took hold on the islands for many decades, badly damaging the ecosystems that the remaining Haida communities depended on for survival. 

But today it was hard to see any sign of these past hardships. The new management plans instituted as part of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement — which gave the Council of the Haida Nation a direct stake in the park — are clearly working. In Skedans, ocean and forest were both teeming with life. I struggled to grasp how such a place of abundance could have once suffered such cataclysmic losses, human and animal. As we departed Skedans, en route to the more southerly village of Tanu, we came across a large pod of humpback whales feeding near Moresby Island. A huge adult humpback leapt completely out of the water within 100 metres of our boat, sending our jaws to the floor. What a sight! Our guide, on the job for 20 years, had never seen such a complete breach, or one so close. 

Tanu was another sight to behold, with large hemlocks, cedars and firs growing up out of ancient Haida totems and longhouses. Although many of their ancestors and cultural traditions lied buried there, there’s a sense of comfort that comes out of the fact that these remnants are giving way to new life. 

On our last day in Haida Gwaii we ventured through Skidegate Inlet to the west coast of the islands to see the salmon – some of the largest in the world — that make Haida Gwaii so popular with sportsfishers. As our aluminum boat bounced out over the Pacific chop, I told our guide that we would be unable to ship our catch home (we had a three-day train ride to Vancouver awaiting us), and so we were okay with catch-and-release. “The Haida never play with their food,” he said, teasing me. To our amazement (and regret) we caught large coho and chinook salmon with in a few minutes. The biggest was 30 pounds!  An abundance of boats, both Haida and charter, bobbed along the steep cliffs of the islands catching as many as we did, revelling in the abundance of such magnificent creatures. 

And so the Haida go on. Fishing and living off the ocean as they always have. I returned to Vancouver convinced that, under the right conditions, both human societies and biodiversity can recover from unspeakable hardship and degradation and even flourish. The thriving ecosystems and animal populations of Gwaii Haanas are a thrilling testament to this. 

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.

Putting seahorses on the map

By Jennifer Selgrath

 Researcher Jenny Selgrath mapping a rare coral reef with local fishers.  Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse

Researcher Jenny Selgrath mapping a rare coral reef with local fishers. Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse

If I asked you to map the location of, say, your local aquarium, you would whip out your smart phone and Google would tell you where it is. But what if I asked you to map the location of corals and other important habitats in the Danajon Bank, a coral reef ecosystem in the central Philippines and within the global center of marine biodiversity? You would have had trouble because that map did not exist — until now.

I moved to the Philippines to work on conserving coral reef ecosystems and seahorses, but I could not find an accurate map of things as simple as where different villages were located. I took a few trips to local government offices where friendly staff showed me the maps that they had on their walls. With that information and a bit of computer time I made a digital map of the villages I was going to do research in. A first step. But the next step was to make a map of coastal habitats (including the underwater ones), and that was going to more complicated.

Why map ocean habitats when I work for Project Seahorse? Seahorses are the most charming fishes in the sea, but a lot of seahorse populations are threatened. One major threat to seahorses is the loss of their habitats. In tropical oceans, seahorse habitats include corals, seagrass and mangroves. These connected habitats provide shelter for seahorses, and they also support a lot of other biodiversity.

But these habitats can be seriously degraded by overfishing, coastal development, pollution and climate change. An important step in protecting seahorses — and other amazing marine wildlife — is to know where their habitats are and how healthy those habitats are. To do this we need good maps.

Mapping things that are underwater is challenging, but I wanted to compare how useful two approaches were for conservation. One approach for making maps involved using satellite images and remote-sensing software. This is cutting edge because, for a number of technical reasons, like the sections of the light spectrum that satellites photograph, it’s been hard see what was underwater from space. New satellites have fixed some of these problems, opening up this possibility.

To make satellite-image-based maps, I did snorkeling surveys and took coordinates of the habitats I found. Those surveys helped identify color, texture and location patterns specific to each habitat in the satellite image. I made the remote-sensing maps in collaboration with Chris Roelfsema at the University of Queensland.

The second approach involved making habitat maps by interviewing local fishers to map the habitats that are in their fishing grounds. I interviewed approximately 250 fishers from 21 villages located in different regions of the Danajon Bank. Then I combined the maps each fisher drew into one map representing local knowledge about habitats. This is a lot less technical and expensive, and it can get fishers excited about protecting important habitats.

 

Remote-sensing map

When I compared these two approaches, both maps were fairly accurate, but each approach had different strengths for conservation programs. The remote-sensing map was slightly more accurate and did a better job of showing fine-scale details, such as indicating the amount of habitat edges present. This is important because some fishes, along with invertebrates such as scallops and lobsters, are strongly affected by habitat edges. Other species, however, such as highly mobile fishes, are not affected by habitat edges. Conservation programs focusing on them do not necessarily require such finely detailed maps.

Fisher map

The map I constructed with fishers was better at documenting habitats that were in murky waters (which the satellite-image map missed) and was informative about coarse habitat patterns. But the fisher maps were blank in places where the fishers did not fish, such as local marine protected areas (MPAs).

Because there are benefits to both techniques, at Project Seahorse we are planning to combine both maps to use in upcoming conservation projects. We recommend that conservation programs that are planning to make marine habitat maps identify their goals (i.e., what they are going to use the map for) early in the process so that they can make an informed decision about the best mapping approach to use.

If you want to learn more about the Danajon Bank, you can check out the iLCP photo exhibition in the Wild Reef exhibit at Shedd. And if you want to get involved with mapping and help protect seahorses, check out iSeahorse.org. iSeahorse is a new citizen science initiative that allows people to upload information and photos whenever they see seahorses in the wild. Information you provide will help us make maps of where seahorses are located around the world and will help us improve seahorse conservation.

Jenny Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse. Follow her on Twitter @JennySelgrath.