At Project Seahorse, we recognize that the pressures on our oceans are so urgent that we can't afford to do science for its own sake. Our research is always geared toward real-world conservation impact.
We were the first scientists to study seahorses underwater, the first to uncover the huge global trade in seahorses, and — turning our research into conservation action — we have been instrumental in achieving a series of landmark international protection for marine fishes under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Much of Project Seahorse's research is carried out by our graduate students, based at the University of British Columbia and Zoological Society of London.
Find out more about our current research programs below.
(Banner photo: Luciano Candisani/iLCP)
Seahorse Biology and Ecology
Project Seahorse is the leading scientific authority on seahorses and their relatives. We study the genetics, life history, taxonomy, and population distributions of these species, always with a view to improving seahorse conservation, from IUCN Red List assessments to marine protected areas to management tools.
Our scientists were the first to study seahorses underwater, generating the very first estimates of seahorse growth and survival rates in the wild and making the discovery that many species form long-term monogamous pairs; we produced the first seahorse identification guide (1999), which has become the core reference for seahorse conservation and management action; and we completed the first synthesis and analysis of seahorse life history (2004).
PhD student Xiong Zhang is mapping seahorse populations in China and the threats they face, both from overfishing and habitat loss. Our work will identify conservation priorities, inform fisheries policy and the creation of new marine protected areas, which are still relatively rare in China.
Selected past projects
- Seahorses and habitat quality (Australia)
- Gene flow between populations of the two European seahorses, H. guttulatus and H. hippocampus
- DNA sequencing of several species of seahorse across Southeast Asia, and relating the observed genetic patterns to historical events
- Life history, ecology and conservation of the long-snouted seahorse (H. guttulatus) and the short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus) in Europe
- Movement and dispersal of exploited populations of the seahorse H. comes (Philippines)
- Mark-recapture studies of the big-bellied seahorse (H. abdominalis) and the Sydney seahorse (H. whitei) to determine population sizes, age, growth and movement (Australia)
Habitats and Marine Protected Areas
Project Seahorse has been doing marine protected area (MPA) research and implementation for nearly 20 years. We study the effect of human activities (e.g. overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and pollution) on coastal marine ecosystems as well as the impact of MPAs as a tool for species and habitat recovery.
We use our findings to improve existing MPAs, establish new ones — 35 and counting, in collaboration with local communities — and we develop marine resource management tools that are used by governments, conservation groups, and other scientists all over the world. Project Seahorse helped pioneer 'frugal' conservation — highly time-efficient, cost-effective methods of tracking changes in habitats and fish populations — and we have shown through our research that MPAs established quickly using local knowledge can be as or more effective than those set up using a slower, more rigorous scientific approach.
PhD student Kyle Gillespie is investigating how MPAs can be used to protect invertebrates. We're also studying how the growth patterns of invertebrates can be used to develop effective minimum size limits (i.e. rules about how large an animal must be before it can be caught) for whole groups of species. This will safeguard against animals being caught by trawls and other fisheries before they have had the chance to reproduce and replenish their numbers.
MPAS EFFECTIVENESS IN RESTORING MARINE ECOSYSTEMS (PHILIPPINES)
MSc Student Iwao Fujii is studying how MPAs affect marine habitat in the Central Philippines - a region with intensive and often destructive fishing pressures. Using long term data sets and new habitat surveys, he is examining temporal changes in benthic composition within community managed MPAs.
MSc Student Emilie Stump is investigating habitat use by seahorses and pipefishes (family Syngnathidae) in Biscayne National Park to advance conservation of these species and their ecosystems, and to attract public support for this critical marine area.
Selected past projects
- Establishing no-take marine protected areas for conservation and food security (Philippines)
- Comparing community-driven and scientific approaches to selecting the locations of MPAs (Canada).
- Changes in fish populations in response to marine protected areas (Philippines).
- Studying the biological, socio-economic and anthropological implications of establishing and managing MPAs (Philippines)
Our research on small-scale fisheries — which involve 100 million people worldwide and take a considerable toll on shallow seas habitats and species — is wide and varied. Project Seahorse generated the first management recommendations for small-scale seahorse fisheries, pioneering the use of minimum size limits as a conservation tool. Among our many other projects, also revealed that women play an essential role in small-scale fisheries and that, to be truly effective, marine conservation must take their contributions into account.
Selected past projects
- Mapping the impact of small-scale fisheries (Philippines)
- The impact of small-scale fisheries on local seahorse populations in southern Vietnam
- Evaluating the social and economic impacts on a small-scale fishery involving a threatened species (seahorses) (Philippines)
- Developing regional coastal resource management programs in the central Philippines
- Managing fisheries and adjusting supply through community-based conservation
Bottom trawling and other forms of non-selective fishing are among the biggest threats to seahorses and shallow seas. Trawlers sweep large nets along the ocean bottom, indiscriminately scooping up marine life (also known as bycatch) and destroying delicate marine ecosystems in the process.
Through our research we have discovered that approximately 2.2 million seahorses are caught in trawl nets every year. We have developed effective ways of using the life histories of small fish species to predict the effect of trawling on affected populations. We have shown that there are few effective management options for trawl fisheries, and those that do show potential, such as modified gears designed to reduce bycatch, depend on buy-in from the fishers operating the boats to succeed. This research supports our work to end trawling and promote sustainable fishing practices in its place.
PhD student Tanvi Vaidyanathan is investigating the impact of fishing and trade bans on seahorse populations. One of the unintended consequences of all-out bans is that it drives these activities underground, where they continue illegally and without monitoring. This in turn makes it more difficult to track seahorse abundance, distribution, and exploitation. Tanvi's work will inform the creation of alternative policy options.
Selected past projects
- Accurately determine the size and distribution of marine species populations where little to no information exists (Thailand)
- Investigation of bycatch in tropical shrimp fisheries, which are believed to be a major cause of populations declines of many species, including seahorses (Mexico)
- Analysis of bycatch of syngnathids in major Australian fisheries — catch composition, abundance, habitat associations and trade (Australia)
Trade and Policy
Project Seahorse researchers track the global seahorse trade through a combination of field work and data analysis. In the 1990's, we were the first to uncover the vast geographical and economic scope of the trade and, working under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), we continue to generate critical insights that inform our policy work.
Our trade analyses helped generate landmark protections for seahorses under Appendix II of CITES (2002), inspired the first-ever ban on the export of seahorses in Vietnam (2013), and have helped to clarify and reinforce the role of CITES in the conservation of marine fishes subject to international trade.
The international trade of animals is a large industry, but sometimes control of this trade is important so that wild populations are not harmed. PhD student Ting-Chun Kuo is studying how international trade agreements impact the movement of at-risk species across international borders. Using seahorses as a case study, she is investigating the key players and influences in the global trade of marine species. By understanding the complicated web of supply and demand across regions and over time, Ting hopes to provide a better understanding of how trade regulations can be used to conserve marine wildlife.
Selected past projects
- Supporting a landmark CITES Appendix II listing for marine fishes of commercial importance
- Empowering developing countries to meet and exceed international obligations for seahorse conservation
- Developing implemention tools for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
- HippoCampusInfo website trade resource
- Monitoring seahorse trade in major exporting countries (Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, East Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, South America, Mexico, Hong Kong)
- Trade of Echinoderms in Mexico