Director of the Vancouver-based Project Seahorse and winner of a Rolex Award in 1998 for a plan to protect seahorses in the Philippines, Professor Amanda Vincent believes that the way to protect entire species and the oceans is to focus "on the big picture, not on a single animal".
Her methods for safeguarding the oceans are far removed from the views of ideologues who refuse any compromise and activists who resort to violence to protect animals or agriculture.
"Conservation is seldom successful if you work in isolation, and never successful if you yell at people.”
Last year Vincent’s pragmatic approach proved crucial in achieving a major victory for the world’s 33 seahorse species. At a meeting in Santiago, Chile, in November 2002, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreed to add seahorses to its Appendix II, meaning regulations will be put in place to control the export and import of all species of seahorses.
CITES, to which 164 nations are signatories, is a trade convention which is also considered to be the world’s most effective environmental protection convention. CITES prevents or regulates trade in numerous animal products from ivory to alligator skins. The convention classifies animal species on two lists, Appendix I — which bans all trade in a species — and Appendix II — which regulates, rather than bans, the export and import of particular animals for sustainability.
Because of the vast global trade in them, seahorses are marine (sea) fish of commercial importance, a category that includes thousands of species, from sardines to sharks. Up until last year’s meeting, no such fish had been listed by CITES, partly because fish are generally regarded as commodities, not wildlife. Marine fish had proved a controversial issue in previous CITES meetings because of the determination of many governments that fishing and trade should continue without international trade restrictions.
Argument in Santiago over seahorses was heated, with several nations vigorously opposed to listing them in Appendix II. Towards the end of the debate, as the signatory nations prepared to vote, Dr Vincent, representing the Swiss-based IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), was given a few minutes to speak. Project Seahorse had provided information to CITES consultations on seahorses in the years leading up to the Santiago meeting, and Vincent was the chair of CITES’ working group on Syngnathids (seahorses, pipefishes, pipehorses and seadragons), so she was ready. "I was able to address — with facts — six of the major objections from concerned governments," she explains, adding that it is wrong to appeal to emotions in such debates.
For example, I rebutted the surprising claim that very high and rapidly increasing volumes of trade must, per se, denote strong populations, Vincent says.
A two-thirds majority was required for the vote to be successful. "We got a three-quarters majority," she explains. "We now had commercial marine fish on Appendix II." On the back of that success, in the last hours of the convention, the delegates also voted to put two shark species in Appendix II.
Dr Vincent points out that it is difficult to do justice to the importance of the vote on seahorses.
"This is now the single biggest wildlife trade to be brought under international management. Each year at least 25 million seahorses from tens of species move [in trade] among up to 80 countries.”
The listing in Appendix II will regulate that figure, to achieve a trade that is not detrimental to seahorses. Exporters and some importers will soon be required to hold permits to trade in seahorses. And countries that issue the permits will need to show that the trade does not put the survival of the species at risk. Discussions with Project Seahorse and other organisations about the mechanics of implementation are now well under way. The regulations for seahorses will come into effect in May this year.
Even more significant, Vincent says, are the wider ramifications. "CITES has never before agreed to list a commercially important, fully marine fish. Fish have now been recognised as wildlife too. That is precedent-setting. And it’s wonderful to think it comes about thanks to a little, curly-tailed fish that holds your hand [with its prehensile tail]."
She adds: "Some well-intentioned advocates would seek to ban the trade in seahorses entirely, but such action would alienate all the stakeholders, from Filipino fishers who make a living out of catching seahorses to the millions of people who use them for medicinal purposes. Project Seahorse believes in conservation and cooperation. In the end, after all, the stakeholders will determine the fate of these fish."
In Western countries, many people know about seahorses because they are sought after for home aquaria. Dr Vincent advises against it. "They are not good fish for home aquaria as they are difficult to keep. Only experts should keep them in aquaria. Sadly, part of the trade in seahorses is for people buying replacements after their aquarium seahorses die."
To add to that, thousands and thousands of seahorses a year are made into key chains and paperweights, or dipped in gold and made into brooches. "It’s hard to see the benefits of a seahorse key ring," says Vincent.
However, in much of Asia, seahorses have another significance. About 95 per cent of the world’s seahorse catch is used in traditional medicines, sold mainly in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China, where dried seahorses are prized as an aphrodisiac and used in remedies to cure problems ranging from asthma to high cholesterol.
Remaining faithful to Project Seahorse’s policy of cooperating with "rather than alienating" those involved, Dr Vincent and her colleagues have held fruitful discussions with Hong Kong authorities in traditional medicine. "The Hong Kong Chinese Medicinal Merchants’ Association has issued a call to similar merchants’ organisations to avoid using reproductive-age seahorses and to seek out alternatives that are less vulnerable," she says.
Coalition for Survival
"We’ve been working with that group since 1998. Chinese traders’ associations are sympathetic once they understand the issues. They don’t want these species to disappear. Previously any material on the risk to seahorses was in English, and they didn’t realise the extent of risk of extinction. Now we have a Chinese team member in Hong Kong, working jointly with us and TRAFFIC [an international wildlife trade monitoring network], so we can communicate far better with the people concerned."
Vincent adds that using seahorses as medicine may well be "perfectly valid" — research has proved benefits of many traditional Chinese medicines — "but it should be done wisely and carefully. And it should be done in ways that don’t threaten their survival in the wild."
Amanda Vincent’s work on seahorses began with university studies leading to a doctorate on their unusual courtship and reproductive cycle. Seahorses are almost always monogamous, and, while the female seahorse produces the eggs, it is the male that is regularly impregnated with them, giving birth to hundreds or thousands of tiny seahorses during the breeding season.
The first academic to study seahorses underwater, Vincent has spent thousands of hours doing so, principally in Australia and the Philippines. She was also the first person to document the extensive trade in these fish, and the first to initiate a seahorse conservation project. In 1996, she and leading English aquarium curator Dr Heather Hall, of the Zoological Society of London, founded Project Seahorse, an interdisciplinary, international conservation organisation whose goal is to advance marine conservation in general by focusing on specific case studies.
Project Seahorse’s work and reputation have experienced rapid growth in recent years, as has the profile of Dr Vincent who, in 2000, won a Pew Fellowship, the world’s top award in marine conservation. Project Seahorse now has 40 professional team members, as well as village staff, working in Australia (which has more seahorse species than any other country), Canada, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.
In mid-2002, Vincent was appointed to the Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation at the University of British Columbia. She uprooted her life and home to move, with her team of researchers, from McGill University in Montreal to take up her new post in Vancouver.
Since she won her Rolex Award in 1998, Vincent has spent less and less time studying seahorses. "Make no mistake, I am fascinated by seahorses," she says. "But my job has evolved — it’s more and more about policy."
"Since I won the Award, I’ve got a lot better at multitasking. But I still go to the Philippines twice a year, and I love being underwater watching seahorses. Watching them beats watching politicians work, though I must say both are rather slow.”
"Underneath all this I am a university professor," says Vincent, who has been described by Time Canada magazine as one of 40 "Leaders for the 21st Century". "I have a responsibility to undertake rigorous research. But unlike many academic units, we are always ready to offer advice on the basis of what we already know, rather than waiting for certainty. Of course, we also always add the caveat that our advice may change as our knowledge evolves. We straddle the boundary between non-governmental organisation and academic unit."
More and more, Vincent and her colleagues are looking at the huge problem of which the threat to seahorses is only a small part.
“Seahorses are symptomatic of the global fishery decline," she says. "People are not grasping the seriousness of the situation. We are grossly depleting many of our main food resources, and taking biodiversity with it."
But Vincent is optimistic about the future — she and her colleagues see the CITES listing as a "call to action" rather than a victory — and is preparing for greater challenges ahead. "We’re getting requests from all around the world to help. They far exceed what we can do. Generally we get no money from governments — it mainly comes from private enterprise like Rolex and from non-governmental organisations and individuals.
“It’s all about marine conservation, and we have found a wonderful emblem animal to use as a means to move forward. People might lose interest if we were talking about the loss of cod or herring, but they continue to pay attention if we talk about seahorses.
“To save the seahorse, we have to save the seas.”
Published in 2004