marine conservation

The Three Seahorses of Biscayne National Part 2: A park under pressure

In part two of this three-part series, marine ecologist Emilie Stump reports on threats impacting seahorse habitats and populations in Biscayne National Park, with a focus on the relationship between land use and water quality and the commercial bait shrimp fishery.

With applause comes responsibility 

In 2000, I was given one of the best awards in marine conservation, a Pew Fellowship.  It came with generous funding, which we applied towards work on non-food fisheries and towards obtaining the first global export controls on marine fishes (for seahorses) under CITES.  It also came with the most wonderful gift of a meeting each year.  But not your ordinary meeting…

Getting on with marine conservation

By Julia Lawson

Dr. Amanda Vincent at IMCC.  Photo: D. Curnick

Dr. Amanda Vincent at IMCC. Photo: D. Curnick

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) is the biggest global event of its kind, an opportunity to engage with some of the brightest minds in marine science and hear some of the big, inspirational ideas in conservation today. As a graduate student with Project Seahorse, I was excited to attend this year’s event.

To kick off the conference, our own Dr. Amanda Vincent delivered a plenary talk that got the conference delegates buzzing. The thrust of her talk, which will be familiar to Project Seahorse supporters, is that we need to get on with marine conservation even if the science isn’t perfect (while collecting more information as needed). Ocean ecosystems are declining at such a rapid rate that research must always be geared toward action. “Do not end your [conference] talks with ‘we need more research,’” she implored the audience. “Instead, tell me what you’re going to do.”    

Many were inspired by Amanda’s fiery call to action. A number of delegates told me during the conference that they’d begun to rethink the future of their own work, changing the final message in their talks from “we need to gather more data” to “let’s get a move on with what we have.” During Rebecca Weeks and Bob Pressey’s connectivity and marine conservation planning symposium, on the last day of IMCC, several marine ecologists closed their talks by mentioning what they termed “the Amanda Vincent approach” – getting a move on with what data they had in hand. 

As you might expect, approval was not universal.  Some marine conservationists in the audience feared that moving on limited data might create more problems rather than solutions. One person commented that “the ‘just get going approach’ is why we have thousands of poorly designed, ineffective and unenforced marine protected areas.”

Hearing Amanda - and seeing the generally excited response to her talk - made me reflect on what I’ve learned during my time with Project Seahorse. I began my Master’s degree firmly believing that the role of a scientist was to conduct objective research and disseminate that research to decision-makers. I believed at the time that we must avoid activism at all costs as it compromises our scientific integrity. However, during my time with Project Seahorse my views shifted. While I still believe strongly in scientifically grounded advice, I awakened to the reality that everyone has core beliefs on the topic they study, even seemingly objective scientists. The best thing we can do is to be honest about those beliefs — with ourselves and our target audiences — when we share our work.

In the words of Amanda: “you are either an activist or an in-activist.”

Julia Lawson is a graduate student with Project Seahorse.

The art of selling conservation

By Dr. Nick Hill

I couldn’t possibly recall the number of times I’ve attempted to explain to my friends and family, for the most part patiently and calmly, but sometimes, I confess, angry and frustrated, why it is important that they choose the fish they eat carefully and use the various fish guides when making their choices, only to come for dinner another day and be proudly presented with tuna sushi or baked cod, or even a prawn cocktail.

When I ask them where this came from and whether they checked it was sustainable, I inevitably get a blank stare back. I repeat the arguments again, to which I always get sympathetic groans and understanding nods — but it obviously doesn’t stick for long. This battle to get people engaged in issues of marine conservation is shared by many marine conservationists across the world in a wide variety of contexts. If we can’t convince our own friends and family, how can we expect to reach the rest of the public?

This is exactly the question taken up at “Shallow Seas: The Future of Marine Conservation,” a recent talk at the Zoological Society of London in the UK. The talk looked at how scientists try and often fail to connect with the public about conservation issues. I thought which readers of this blog might find interesting.

Dr. Amanda Vincent, Project Seahorse’s Executive Director, put forward the case that we should focus marine conservation efforts at the ocean’s coastal areas: the world’s “shallow seas.” Not only is this the area of greatest collision between humans and the oceans, and where a huge variety of species live and important ecosystems that provide invaluable services to humanity are found (think seagrasses, coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes, estuaries), but this is also where millions of people work, rest, play, and explore. By focusing on areas that the vast majority of people have experienced in some way, Dr. Vincent argued we stand a much better chance of engaging people in marine conservation. However, we need to improve the tools that we use to engage people in the shallow seas, and we need to tap into emerging support for marine conservation. You can read more about her ideas in a recent editorial published in Aquatic Conservation.

Dr. Sarah Coulthard, from the University of Ulster, focused on the developing world, where many of the world’s poorest and most numerous fishers depend on the ocean fringes for their very survival. Sarah highlighted the importance of understanding people’s well-being when designing marine conservation strategies for these shallow zones. Conflicts can exist between the use and value that people obtain from these areas and potential conservation policies and strategies. Without understanding the wishes and needs of these people, any conservation efforts are likely to fail. You can read more about these ideas in the following papers:

Coulthard, S., Johnson, D. and McGregor, J.A. (2011). Poverty, sustainability and human wellbeing: A social wellbeing approach to the global fisheries crisis. Global Environmental Change 21: 453–463.

McGregor, J.A. (2004). Researching wellbeing: Communicating between the needs of policy makers and the needs of people. Global Social Policy 4(3): 337–358.

Vivekanandan, V. (2010). Trawl Brawl India — Sri Lanka trans-border fishing. Samudra report 57.

Dr. Richard Harrington, from the Marine Conservation Society, highlighted the importance of public engagement in driving forward the UK’s marine conservation agenda. He argued that the vast majority of the public’s reason for engaging in consultation comes from their personal experiences with the ocean fringes. However, despite widespread public pressure and engagement from a wide range of stakeholders from businesses to recreational yachters and holidaymakers, even now the UK government is stalling in their delivery of conservation plans.

Dr. Rebecca Jefferson, from Plymouth University, provided a fascinating insight into the UK public’s perception of the oceans and opportunities for connecting people to the sea — to increase the public’s “ocean citizenship.” Few people even know what lies beyond the coast. For example, 44% of the English public believe coastal shallows to be generally, mostly or totally barren. This illustrates one of the many barriers to developing the society-sea connection.

But there is reason for hope. Dr. Jefferson has found many people are at least interested and open to new information and ideas about our oceans. Her research has discovered that different people have different interests and motivations, and that we need to understand these differences and how to work with them. For example, women were generally more interested in pretty species, while men were more likely to be interested in species they could eat. Promisingly, however, she found that, yes, people relate to dolphins and similarly cute or anthropomorphic species, but they also relate to non-charismatic species that are nevertheless important — seagrasses for example. The challenge is in the storytelling. How do we give people the information they need to become invested in the conservation of these species? Her message was that we should not underestimate or patronise the public, but we do need to find ways to get more interesting stories out there.

How do you make conservation more effective?

By Dr. Phil Molloy

When I tell people that I do coral-reef conservation, they usually tease me about the tough life I must lead, spending all that time in the sea, sun, and sand. If only it were so relaxing! In fact, my work tracking the changes in fish populations starts with days of poring over species identification guides, shifting dive gear on and off boats, making seemingly endless forays to and from field sites, and spending hours underwater, wishing I’d gone with the 5 mm wetsuit instead of the 3 mm one.

Don’t get me wrong: I love it. I wouldn’t be doing reef conservation if I didn’t. But the widely unrecognized reality is that marine conservation fieldwork is time-consuming, physically demanding and, critically, expensive. Yet it is work that must be done carefully and accurately. Without accurate studies of the impact of external pressures on marine ecosystems, or the effectiveness of marine protected areas, we wouldn’t be able to create better conservation tools.  

So, as marine conservationists, we are under considerable pressure to develop quick and cheap methods that allow us to get in the water, collect the data we require and get back to terra firma.

To this end, I’ve been exploring ways to streamline the methods used to detect changes in coral-reef fish populations over time. Can we, for example, obtain meaningful results even if we reduce the frequency of visits to each study site or the amount of replication required each visit, or by considering just a handful of fish species?  In particular, we were hopeful that we could detect general changes in fish populations using a subset of locally fished species or those whose names make them particularly easy to identify (like the blackfin barracuda — a barracuda with, you guessed it, black fins).

By re-analyzing an existing dataset, we found that we could still detect changes in the number of fish and the number of species if we visited sites every other month (instead of monthly), or by halving the amount of replication done each visit. Most interestingly, we also found that we could detect these changes by only considering three-quarters of the locally fished species or all easily identified species. Still with me?

What this means is that we don’t need to count every fish species to detect changes in the overall fish populations on the reef. By using commonly fished species as indicators, conservationists can reduce the amount of time and money needed to train research volunteers — and they can more easily involve local fishers in their fieldwork, making it faster and more effective!

This is good news all around. Our results mean that we’ll have more time to do more conservation, and maybe, just maybe, a little more time to enjoy that fabled sea, sun, and sand!

Dr. Phil Molloy is a postdoctoral fellow with Project Seahorse. Learn more about this research in “Frugal conservation: What does it take to detect changes in fish populations?” published in the November 2010 issue of Biological Conservation

Project Ocean: From designer handbags to marine conservation

By Dr. Heather Koldewey


Even though I had been part of the planning process, walking up to Selfridges on the day of the launch of Project Ocean was a jaw-dropping experience. Situated on one of the busiest shopping streets in the world – Oxford Street in London — Selfridges is an iconic department store known for its trend-setting, high-end fashion. I found myself faced with a giant activist-style banner covering the front of the building with the message ‘No more fish in the sea?’The shop windows — each one a bold and thought-provoking tableau — were also attracting considerable attention, with people stopping and taking photos with their smartphones.

What made me grin was that the attention was focused not on a piece of jewellery, designer dress or expensive handbag, but on our oceans: All these windows creatively and simply presented marine conservation issues, translating ‘heavy’ topics that include bycatch and overfishing into striking statements: ‘Jellyfish and chips’ on offer from a van in one window, ‘Would you eat a panda?’ in another, with a bluefin tuna swimming next to a panda. And — hooray — ‘Save our seahorses’! Had we achieved our goal of making fish fashionable and marine conservation mainstream?

Project Ocean is a partnership between Selfridges and the Zoological Society of London, but it is a truly collaborative initiative involving Project Seahorse and 21 other conservation NGOs, as well as many artists, musicians, celebrities, chefs, fishers, industry representatives and more. Beyond the windows and facade, Project Ocean is about promoting the sustainable consumption of marine resources.

Selfridges has switched to sustainable seafood, produced a seafood guide and iPhone app, and is running fun and educational activities in its restaurants and foodhalls. We’ve been working with Fish2Fork (founded by Charles Clover from the ‘End of the Line’) to encourage all of the 148 cafes and restaurants along Oxford Street to become sustainable too — a marine protected area (MPA) in the heart of London!

As part of a series of launch events, Project Seahorse hosted a day of presentations and activities on May 25th. We introduced a brand-new short film about our work and I gave a series of talks throughout the day on the weird and wonderful world of seahorses. Guylian Belgian Chocolate, our longtime donor, provided free chocolate tastings and a series of prize draws. They certainly managed to pull shoppers away from the bucking bronco whale and the people walking around dressed in plankton-like balloon sculptures.

Our event proved a great way to reach new audiences. I fielded questions such as ‘What, seahorses are fish?’, ’Corals aren’t plants?’, ‘Why do people catch seahorses?’, and ‘Why can’t we have more protected areas in UK waters like they do in the Philippines?’. Good questions, all of them....

It was great to see so many people, including donors and supporters, collaborators and former team members, friends and family and people who had heard about us through Project Ocean. Not to mention people who just happened to be shopping there at the time: stunning seahorse imagery combined with yummy chocolates seemed to be a winning combination!

With financial support from Selfridges, the Project Seahorse Foundation (PSF) team in the Philippines has established a new MPA in Matabao near Tubigon, the 34th we have helped to implement in the region. Last week, PSF team member Angie Nellas did a live video link from the Philippines where shoppers at Selfridges were able to ask her questions about our work there. That evening, UK TV celebrity Kate Humble explained with passion her experience of our community-based MPA successes in the Philippines as part of the Thursday evening talks series.

Project Ocean is raising funds for more marine reserves, meaning more fish in the sea and a more positive response to that enormous and daunting slogan, ‘No fish in the sea?’ And hopefully we’ll have a whole new set of ambassadors — complete with designer suits, heels and handbags — for our oceans.

The Project Ocean launch runs until June 12th. For more information visit

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Associate Director of Project Seahorse and Programme Manager, International Marine and Freshwater Conservation, at the Zoological Society of London.