Rolex recognizes scientist for seahorse conservation work

Canadian researcher enables local fishermen in the central Philippines to conserve seahorse populations and to develop alternative means of livelihood

provided by Rolex

For 22 years, the Rolex corporation has awarded the Rolex Awards for Enterprise to individuals whose efforts expand knowledge of the world, improve the quality of life on the planet or contribute to the betterment of mankind. The Awards include a $50,000 prize and, of course, a gold Rolex chronometer. The five 1998 winners included Amanda Vincent, whose work is described here.

First drawn to study seahorses by their unusual way of reproducing - it is the male of the species that gets pregnant and gives birth - biologist Dr. Amanda Vincent has spent more than a decade trying to save these highly unusual creatures. Their use - dried in traditional Chinese medicine, as aphrodisiacs and curios, or live in domestic aquariums - has made them vulnerable to exploitation around the globe. Dr. Vincent has begun an innovative seahorse conservation project in the Philippines where seahorses are at risk from overfishing by villagers who rely on them for their livelihood. An example of sustainable development, the program has already succeeded in stemming the decline of seahorse populations and developing new means of employment for the local people who fish them. It is expected that this project will become a prototype for more villages in the area and a model of how to address the global problems of declining subsistence fishing and threatened marine species.

Seahorses - long the subject of legend and myth - are unique among sea creatures. Thought to have evolved more than 40 million years ago, these strange and enchanting fish are characterized by horse-shaped heads, upright bodies and prehensile tails.

What truly sets them apart, however, is not their distinctive shape but their means of reproduction: It is the male seahorse that becomes pregnant, endures labor and gives birth to the young. "To a biologist intrigued by the evolution of sex differences, and to someone with feminist beliefs, seahorses were irresistible," explains Dr. Vincent. "When I started as a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge in 1986, no biologist had followed the lives of seahorses in the wild."

Today, 12 years later, Vincent, a 38-year-old assistant professor of conservation biology at McGill University in Montreal, is the world's expert on seahorses and the driving force behind seahorse conservation. What began as theoretical research into sex roles led the biologist to discover how seahorse populations were seriously declining due to overfishing and habitat destruction. She soon turned her attention to ensuring the survival of these legendary creatures.


Maternal males


To understand Amanda Vincent's project and the plight of genus Hippocampus, one needs to understand seahorse biology. "The sex and social life of seahorses are surprisingly intricate," says Vincent, who has spent thousands of hours underwater studying these fish and their mating habits.

Like all other animals, male seahorses produce sperm and females produce eggs. Unlike other animals, the female transfers her eggs to the brood pouch on the male's tail. It is the male that fertilizes, protects and nourishes the eggs and, ten days to six weeks later, releases anywhere from dozens to hundreds of miniature seahorses into the surrounding area. The seahorse's monogamous mating habits are also unconventional.

Demonstrating a sexual fidelity rare in the animal kingdom, most seahorse species form long-term pair bonds, with one male and one female mating repeatedly and exclusively and staying close to home.

"Their low reproductive rates, strict monogamy, site fidelity and low mobility make these fish susceptible to exploitation," Vincent remarks. "Virtually all of the approximately 35 seahorse species around the world are listed as 'Vulnerable' by the IUCN (the World Conservation Union) and remain under constant threat from the extremely high global demand."


A booming trade


Seahorses are big business. The world trade in seahorses is conservatively estimated at more than 20 million fish a year. In Asia alone, nearly 16 million dried seahorses, or 45 tons, are traded annually, primarily for traditional Chinese medicine and aphrodisiacs - as well as for key rings, earrings and other curios. Several hundred thousand live seahorses go to fill domestic aquariums, primarily in North America and Europe.

At least 40 countries trade in seahorses. Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and India are the main exporters. China and countries with large ethnic Chinese populations are by far the largest consumers. "Trade has escalated over the past decade as a result of consumer demand arising from China's rapid economic growth, about 14 per cent each year since the mid-1980s," Vincent reveals. "And sure enough the demand for seahorses in the same period has mirrored that growth quite closely."

With thousands of subsistence fishers - both fishermen and fisherwomen - around the world dependent on seahorses for a large portion of their annual income, the effects of overfishing have become evident. In 1993 in the central Philippines, 250 animals were needed to make up a kilo, whereas only two years later, as smaller, less mature seahorses were traded for use in prepackaged pills and tonics, it took 300 to 450 for the same weight.

Vincent understood that to tackle the seahorse conservation problem she had to carry out a two-pronged attack: one targeted at saving the fish and the other helping those who fish them to maintain their livelihood. Only through such an integrated approach could she be assured of success.

"I knew that simply banning seahorse trade or setting quotas would be self-defeating. Instead, my goal was to find a sustainable way of conserving these unique animals," Vincent says.

Her investigation into seahorse trade led her from traditional Chinese medicine dealers to poor fishing communities in the Philippine archipelago. She managed to secure funding from the UK Department of the Environment's Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species and was soon ready to return to the Philippines to begin her first seahorse conservation project. Her destination was the village of Handumon, located on the Danajon Bank, a region of extensive coral reefs.

"Seahorses are an important commodity in Handumon. About 20 percent of households rely on seahorses for approximately 40 percent of their annual income," explains Vincent. "Spearfishers collect seahorses by hand, at night, while seeking fish for their families' food."

The villagers of Handumon have cause for concern. Fishers reported that their seahorse catches declined by about 70 per cent from 1985 to 1995, with the number of seahorses caught each night plummeting from about 50 to 15 over that period. The size of the fish has also decreased as the fishermen have been forced to collect juveniles and pregnant males.

In her pioneering scheme, a model community-based project, Vincent and her team of young Filipino biologists and social workers have encouraged villagers to change their fishing methods. "We have believed all along that we should never impose our will on the villagers," says Vincent, "but they knew the fish were disappearing and were open to doing something about it."


Sustainable development


In January 1995, Vincent and her colleagues from the Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, a Philippine-based group, set about introducing innovative conservation initiatives.

The community established a 33-hectare marine sanctuary, vigilantly patrolled by villagers who ensure that no fishing of any sort takes place. Adjacent areas are reserved for traditional fishing methods. Importantly, although fishermen, confronted with competition from neighboring villages, continue to catch juveniles and pregnant male seahorses, trade in these ecologically important groups has declined drastically. Instead, the pregnant males are placed in meshed underwater cages from which their newborn young can escape before the male deplete of its brood is sold. Fishermen have also begun building underwater corrals in which the juvenile seahorses are held. Once they have doubled in size (and therefore in value), they are sold. The conservation gain is that the seahorses reproduce while held in the corral, their young escaping into the sea.

An extensive program of training and environment education complements the initiatives. For example, the team works with the community to develop skills that the villagers can use to tackle problems such as resource management. Four children from the village have received high school scholarships and, as part of the learning process, work with the project team as apprentices at weekends.

Socioeconomic, market and biological research, as well as reports from villagers, provide information on the seahorse trade. The team also spends a lot of time underwater, tracking individual seahorses that have been tagged and monitoring populations. Indications are that there is a marked improvement in the situation and that seahorse numbers are stabilizing.

"The timing of the Rolex Award couldn't be better," says Vincent. "Current funding for this project will run out this year, making the Award vital for the program's continuation and development."


Next stages


According to Vincent, the Rolex Award will allow her to move forward with the prototype Handurnon project, continuing to encourage local involvement at every stage. "We must renew our efforts to provide alternative livelihood options for fishers and their families, in order to reduce pressure on marine resources."

Vincent and her team will be building on the conservation initiatives developed over the past three years, extending and improving the sanctuaries and corrals and introducing processing methods to add value to the catch of other fish. Food items such as savory fish chips have already become a popular byproduct of their efforts. The recently begun production of handicrafts will be expanded, and villagers will be encouraged to start seaweed farms and fruit and vegetable cultivation.

Small-scale adventure tourism offers additional employment alternatives. "Hopefully, seahorse watching will prompt a novel form of ecotourism," says Vincent. "Small numbers of tourists will be encouraged to take part in a 'real Philippine village experience'. Now, rather than catching seahorses, the fishers will be paid for pointing them out on nighttime expeditions."

Repeating the Handurnon experience is key for the biologists as they now begin work throughout Danajon Bank and beyond. One goal is to encourage the implementation of a marine sanctuary in every village, with local enforcement and monitoring.


An enterprising spirit


"Our project must do much more than manage seahorse populations," Vincent asserts. "The fate of these creatures ultimately depends on the extent to which we can encourage local people to develop a new awareness of, and pride in, holistic conservation."

Those who are familiar with Vincent and the Hardumon project agree. "This is the only project I am aware of that empowers local communities in the conservation of seahorses," says Rob Parry-Jones, program officer for TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) East Asia. "Such tenacity and drive is to Dr. Vincent's credit, especially as this enthusiasm has been tempered by a willingness to work with people towards realistic and cooperative solutions."

Nigel Leader-Williams, professor of Biodiversity Management at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, concurs: "Had a heavy-handed conservationist come in and recommended total protection for the fish, this effort to conserve seahorses would have completely failed."

Amanda Vincent is on her way to winning her challenge saving seahorses in the central Philippines while, at the same time, giving hope back to the fishermen and women whose livelihoods have been threatened. Through her relentless efforts and personal dedication, the Handumon project is succeeding, and it stands as a shining example of what can be done as part of an intelligent, wide ranging and innovative conservation program worldwide.

  Rolex Awards, Contact: Ellen McGovern, Rolex Watch USA (212) 758-7700.