Race to save the seahorse

October 15, 2012

Seahorses are faring better but much work remains to be done to before they reach healthy populations, says Canadian conservationist Amanda Vincent.

By Alice Ghent

A gnawing sense of the betrayal of future generations is part of what drives 1998 Laureate Amanda Vincent in her quest for the conservation of marine fish – and seahorses in particular. “It’s a question of intergenerational equity. I don’t see why this generation should use up all the fish in the sea. I was very passionate about the ocean before I had kids, but I am even more passionate now,” says Vincent.

A decade has passed since the Canadian biologist used her extensive work in seahorse conservation, much of which was funded by her Rolex Award, to mobilize the world to take action for these beguiling creatures.

Incontrovertible evidence gathered by Vincent showed that the international trade in 2002 was about 25 million seahorses. As a result, all seahorse species were added that year to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This was a watershed moment. For the first time, global trade in a commercially valuable marine fish would be controlled with the then 164 signatory countries obliged to limit exports to levels that do not damage wild populations.

To assist countries ensure that their exports are sustainable, Vincent’s team came up with a characteristically pragmatic 10-cm minimum size limit on the export of seahorses, even though seahorse sizes vary wildly. This would allow most species to give birth before being caught.

K. O'Donnell/Project Seahorse

So, how are seahorses faring now? When asked, Vincent pauses, composing her response with trademark thoughtfulness. “We have probably slowed the rate of decline, but we have not reversed it to a resurgence of healthy populations.”

Vincent now collaborates with CITES to help implement the Appendix II listing for seahorses. Analysis of CITES data provides evidence that many countries are not reporting their exports as required, and that few are actually ensuring that exports are sustainable . Some do not have the management capacity. “But,” Vincent explains, “others are choosing not to pay much attention. They are being encouraged to improve and they will be given time and support to do that. If they neglect to do so, their exports will no longer be acceptable to the other 174 signatories.”

Professor Vincent also points to the need to do more field trade surveys so that the declared exports can be cross-validated and compared with the official data.

Interestingly, the trade has shifted geographically. The Philippines no longer allows the export of seahorses, but the gap has been filled by west Africa. “None of the west African signatories has explained their exports,” Vincent says. “That is certainly a capacity issue and we sent a trade researcher to the region in May to assist by collecting information.”

Currently on sabbatical at the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University from her role as Canada research chair in marine conservation at the University of British Columbia, Professor Vincent runs Project Seahorse, which has a team of 15 staff and students in Vancouver and others scattered around the world, particularly at the Zoological Society of London in the U.K. The team is responsible for conservation policy and management of 300 species. “We don’t just deal with seahorses, we deal with pipefishes and seadragons, too.  And indeed with the entire ocean in which they live,” she points out.

The trade in dried seahorses is driven by traditional Asian medicine, with the vast majority of exports going to mainland China, Hong Kong SAR and Taiwan, and a huge domestic market in Indonesia. For certain locations and species, the CITES listing has succeeded in reducing pressure on wild populations of the most sought-after seahorses for aquariums. The live trade is significant at perhaps 5 per cent, with the cost of a captive-reared seahorse reaching US$750 for the most glamorous specimens.

CITES controls do not apply to many animals bred in captivity, as long as you can prove they are farmed. An enterprising individual in Sri Lanka decided to avoid the complications of CITES and set up a business farming seahorses of a species only found in the Caribbean, making it easy to prove they weren’t wild. “As a result, the entire world market has shifted as everybody has decided that it is easier to buy from this enterprise than to extract live seahorses from the wild,” Professor Vincent says.

She established, many years ago, ties with traditional medicine merchant organizations in Hong Kong. This has increased industry co-operation, to the extent of generating voluntary trade controls by traders. It has also allowed Project Seahorse to discern how the international trade works, with many imports to Hong Kong re-exported to Taiwan or mainland China, for example. “Until we put people back in the field to do surveys in Hong Kong shops, we will not know how [the seahorses are] consumed.” Each trade survey costs around $50,000. Raising funds is a critical aspect of Vincent’s work, along with policy development and good communications.

Compromise and pragmatism are two defining qualities of Vincent’s attitudes towards ushering countries towards sustainable use of coastal marine ecosystems. “There is no point in yelling at people,” she says.

Vincent started to study seahorses in 1986, and it is still an enduring passion. She visits field projects two or three times a year and even occasionally gets to satiate the “aqualust” that first launched her odyssey to save these bewitching upright fish, with their frills and coronets, from oblivion.

Learn more about Amanda Vincent

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