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The Species and its Habitat
We estimate that there are currently 32 species of seahorses around the world, ranging in size from 1-30 cm. The majority of seahorses are found in the shallow waters of the West Atlantic or the Indo-Pacific regions while two species can be found off the south coast of Britain. Seahorses belong to the family Syngnathidae, along with pipefishes, pipehorses and seadragons, all of which are thought to have evolved at least forty million years ago. Seahorses are unusual in that it is the male who becomes pregnant, carrying the developing young in his brood pouch.
Many seahorse species were added to the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Animals in 1996. Both heavy exploitation and habitat degradation are contributing to declines of up to 15-70% in many seahorse populations over periods of 5-10 years. At least twenty million seahorses are traded each year - the majority used as traditional medicines. The aquarium trade also deals in live seahorses, despite the fact that they are difficult to keep in an aquarium. In this way, a vicious circle is created: aquarium owners often replace the dead ones, thereby contributing to their continuing decline. Seahorses are also traded as tacky souvenirs, incorporated in shell craft, yo-yos and other curios.
Seahorses are found in nearshore habitats that are among the most threatened in the world. Degradation and destruction of these coastal eccosystems due to mangrove cutting, coral mining, dynamite fishing, trawling, land-derived pollution and a host of other human activities negatively affect these threatened species.
Seahorses are caught as target catch and trawl by-catch in the coastal waters of Vietnam. In recent years, there has been concern that the number of seahorses is decreasing. However, prior to the establishment of Project Seahorse - Vietnam, no fisheries data were available for seahorses.
Project Leader: Dr Amanda Vincent
Seahorses are our focus because of their biological interest, their threatened status and the way in which they represent most of the major issues in marine conservation, from habitat destruction to fisheries collapse to the need for alternative livelihoods in poor fishing communities.
My first research on seahorses focused on the seahorse's male pregnancy which allowed me to explore questions about the evolution of sex differences. During this seemingly esoteric Ph.D. research on reproductive ecology, I began to suspect a large trade in these fishes. No published data were available, but National Geographic gave me the opportunity to investigate this hunch in 1993 by allowing me to go to Asia to meet seahorse fishers, buyers, exporters, practitioners and consumers. This trip confirmed that the demand for seahorse was large and expanding, which in turn was placing wild populations at risk. My involvement with the Vietnam project, locally led by Truong Si Ky, began in 1995. Then in 1996, Dr. Heather Hall (Curator of Lower Vertebrates at London Zoo) and I launched Project Seahorse, a global integrated programme to conserve and manage seahorses, their relatives and their habitats.
Project Leader: Dr Truong Si Ky
I am a marine biologist at the Institute of Oceanography in Nha Trang, Vietnam. In 1991, after finishing my Doctorate in Moscow, I began to carry out a small project on seahorse aquaculture funded by our Institute. If aquaculture is successful, it would benefit fishers and decrease pressure on wild seahorse populations by transforming seahorse fishers into seahorse farmers. My goal: providing an alternative livelihood for impoverished fishers with few options other than the continued exploitation of already declining resources.
In 1995, our Institute and Project Seahorse became partners in seahorse conservation in order to expand our activities. We now have three areas of interest - aquaculture, fisheries and trade monitoring, and marine conservation education, the last two supported in 1999 by WildInvest. This has been very exciting. Since 1995, we have collected data on seahorse landings and trade. This data allows us to monitor changes in the fisheries that may indicate declines in wild populations, and help us understand supply and demand for seahorses.
Before 1995, Marine Conservation education in schools and communities was not discussed in Nha Trang. Since then we are doing and learning about community education, both for fishers and children. This year our team gave presentations on Marine Conservation 3 -4 times per month. We bring children to the Aquarium of the Institute of Oceanography and hold drawing competitions with the subject "Marine life in your eyes".
This year we have also printed a poster on Marine Conservation with a child's painting. Fishers who participate in our community discussions on marine conservation are gaining knowledge on how to protect marine resources. This is only the first step. Now we have to use this knowledge to help them change their behaviour to conserve marine resources. I think education is one of the best ways to conserve seahorses. I believe also that many Marine Conservation projects have failed because they do not include participation of local people. So now we work very hard on this which is important in Vietnam where very few projects focus on Marine education. Happily, many people here in Nha Trang are excited about our conservation activities and support us a lot.
The Seahorse Conservation Project, Vietnam
Project Seahorse works to conserve seahorse populations while respecting the needs of those who depend on them. To this end, Project Seahorse's approach is collaborative and inclusive; sustainable use of seahorses can only be achieved through partnership with fishers, traders and consumers. We thus work in local communities with in-country teams affiliated with national organizations.
Project Seahorse field teams are active in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Vietnam. WildInvest members supported our work in the Philippines and now assist us in Vietnam, a country that appears to be among the top five seahorse exporting nations in the world. Such trade will likely grow as seahorse demand increases, particularly in light of Vietnam's close ties to seahorse consuming nations such as China. This growth is troubling as fishers in Vietnam are already reporting declining seahorse catches.
In Vietnam, our focus is threefold: monitoring seahorse fisheries and trade; developing small-scale, low technology seahorse aquaculture; and providing marine conservation education to school children and the community. WildInvest specifically supports our fisheries and trade monitoring in four regions of Vietnam. Fisheries monitoring allows us to follow changes in seahorse populations that may indicate overexploitation, such as numeric declines, decreases in size, and other conservation warning flags such as changes in sex ratios. Trade monitoring allows us to determine trade routes as well as evaluate the effect of changes in demand on effort.
We have been monitoring fisheries and trade in Vietnam since June 1995. These data are part of only two long-term seahorse monitoring programs in the world. They provide rare and essential evidence of seahorse declines, evidence critical to the implementation of wise seahorse conservation policy and management initiatives.