Pontoh’s Seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi). Image © Patrick Decaluwe, Guylian
What are some of the stories that seahorses can help you tell?
Seahorses capture most of the threats in the marine environment, as well as many of the solutions. They are subject to heavy fishing pressure from small-scale subsistence fishers, but also to enormous, astonishingly bad fishing pressure – from bottom trawling, seine nets and gill nets and other non-selective forms of fishing. They’re disturbed by degradation of their coastal habitats: seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs, estuaries, macro-algae/seaweed. And they are also very vulnerable to climate change as these habitats are damaged.
At Project Seahorse, we look at the world as a bit of an onion – think of the concentric rings in a cross section of an onion. We put seahorses at the centre of our world and then of course, to protect seahorses, you have to look after their habitats, their ecosystems, their communities. For those to flourish, you’ve got to work on managing human pressures: fishing, dredging, dumping, mining, coastal development. We work with subsistence fishers, for example, developing regulations, putting in place alliances of small-scale fishers to help them find a voice.
But we also know that the fishers, the miners, the dredgers, the dumpers will only make good decisions if they and their families are well supported. You have to support the economic wellbeing of the community.
Amanda Vincent and fishers in Balicasag, the Philippines. Image © Amanda Vincent, Project Seahorse
In today’s world you have to look at the global context, so we work at the UN and IUCN levels a lot: we catalysed the first global export regulations for marine fishes, for example, under a UN Convention called CITES. Perhaps the outermost layer of this onion is the human behaviour that drives all this, the social context of greed or altruism, self-discipline or self-indulgence.
What is encouraging is that seahorses respond really well to solutions so, whether it’s putting in place measures such as protected areas, size limits for fisheries or export regulations, actions that are beneficial for the seahorses actually support so much more. And because seahorses are so funky, more people will listen!
What are the most severe threats to seahorses and their environments?
Well, bottom trawling is an obvious one. Bottom trawling is to the ocean what clear cutting is to forests. It is an astonishingly damaging and wasteful practice that just doesn’t discriminate. It’s not even profitable! Bottom trawling is commonly a money-losing proposition – but bottom trawl fisheries are kept alive by government assistance in the form of fuel subsidies. To make it worse, in many countries – Thailand for example – the crew