It was a small beginning for Project Seahorse, says Amanda Vincent, director and co-founder of the now-global non-profit organization dedicated to conserving seahorses. Founded in 1996 with Heather Koldewey, Project Seahorse is a group dedicated to securing marine ecosystems through extensive research and effective action — with Vincent at its helm. She’s also the chair of both the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s seahorse, pipefish and seadragon specialist group and its marine conservation committee. Not only is she teaching the conservationists of the future at the University of British Columbia; she also won the 2020 $250,000 U.S. Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for conservation. Vincent spoke to Canadian Geographic about how protecting seahorses fits into the success of ocean conservation on a worldwide scale.
On why seahorse conservation is important
Seahorses are the most fantastic flagship species to generate action for the ocean. That’s partly because they’re so magical in and of themselves. But they also represent the complexities of ocean conservation. They have economic value, cultural value, medicinal value, ecological value. They’re subject to many of the major pressures on the ocean. They also live in sea grasses, mangroves, coral reefs, estuaries, macroalgae, kelp, seaweed — these are critical nursery habitats for most of our world’s fisheries. The corollary is that seahorses respond really well to a range of conservation actions. So, whether it’s protected areas or fisheries regulation, or managing coastal development properly or paying attention to climate change, seahorses represent the benefits that can come from putting our hearts into actually effecting change.
On her approach to effective conservation
Conservation to me is real gains for wild populations and wild places. Project Seahorse has a mind map that you could think of as a cross-section of an onion. Right at the centre, you might have seahorses. But to do anything good for seahorses, you’ve got to be looking after the marine communities, habitats and ecosystems in which they live. You’ve got to look at miners, fishers, dredgers, dumpers, shippers and coastal developers — and work with them to make good decisions. They will make better decisions if their families are fed and they have a decent income. Then beyond that, you’re worried about law and order and economic governance and opportunity at the regional, national and global levels. If you want to do anything really good for seahorses, you have to keep all those layers in mind.
On training future conservationists
Early in your career, you want to make the mark yourself. Later in your career, you want to grow the group of people who can make the difference for the long-term future of the ocean. My graduate students are one set, and my undergraduate students are really important to me. We’ve also trained hundreds of people through internships, volunteer work and collaborative endeavours. If I can give them a leg up or support them, that’s really reassuring. I’m not going to be around forever. It’s absolutely vital that I convey my enthusiasm, my passion, but also my expertise, to people who are going to carry that torch forward.
On future projects
Our major focus for the future is going to be on reigning in bottom trawling. Bottom trawling is when you drop nets to the ocean floor, and they’re weighted in a variety of ways. You drag them along the bottom and you scrape up everything in the path of the trawl, leaving a lot of habitat damage behind — right down into the sediment. You’re taking off the sponges and the sea grasses and sometimes corals — and you bring up everything, including a lot of stuff you didn’t mean to catch. It’s the major cause of death for seahorses because they’re dragged up along with everything else. It’s particularly acute in countries in Asia, but it is a concern in every country, including Canada. It is clearly not a sustainable means of trawling and fishing.
Canada still has protected areas where we allow bottom trawling — and, in fact, new protected areas just a couple of years ago were set up where bottom trawling was still allowed, which really begs the question of “what is a protected area?” But Canada has now come up with a formal decision that it will not allow bottom trawling in protected areas going forward.
On her motivation
I love the ocean. I love seahorses. And we’re seeing change, we’re seeing opportunity, we’re seeing possibility. There’s a sea of pressures — no pun intended — bearing down on our ocean. But if you find the right approach, you can often relieve some of those pressures surprisingly quickly. So, I have a lot of hope and a lot of optimism.