A driving force for ocean conservation

Image © Matt Mays

By |2020-07-29T15:07:45+00:00July 29th, 2020|Conservation, Fisheries, Interviews, Oceans, People and Wildlife, Southeast Asia|Comments Off on A driving force for ocean conservation

An Interview with Dr Amanda Vincent, winner of the Indianapolis Prize, 2020

Dr Amanda Vincent has been a driving force for ocean conservation for more than three decades, anchored in her speciality of seahorses. She was the first person to study these extraordinary animals underwater and in 1996 she co-founded Project Seahorse, a conservation organisation that works to save seahorses by finding solutions for coastal marine ecosystems. This year Amanda – who still directs Project Seahorse – won the world’s most prestigious award in animal conservation, the Indianapolis Prize, becoming the first person to win the award for ocean conservation.

Congratulations on becoming the first conservationist focusing on life in the ocean to win the world’s most prestigious environmental prize! What does this prize mean to you and the Project Seahorse team?

It’s huge on many levels. As the top prize in the world for animal conservation, it’s enormously valuable as a seal of approval. People have to sit up and take notice if we’ve got the Indianapolis Prize in our pocket, so that gives us a platform to talk about critical issues. And then of course it brings the funding, which comes to me personally. I have to decide what to do with it, which is a nice challenge!

But more than that it brings a sense of pride and validation for what we are doing. We’re a tiny band of people – no more than six professional people at any given moment – supplemented by lots of students, volunteers, partners and collaborators, but we’ve always punched far above our weight in terms of funding and capacity. I also want to pay special tribute to Heather Koldewey, who co-founded Project Seahorse, and to Sarah Foster, who joined us 20 years ago. These two inspirational friends have made all the difference to our success and my enjoyment.

Thorny Seahorse (Hippocampus histrix). Image © Project Seahorse

Seahorses are iconic, extraordinary creatures, yet what lies beneath the surface of the waves often seems to be ignored when people talk about wildlife. Why do you think that is?

Try a little experiment:  close your eyes and think about the ocean. Chances are you’ll think about waves lapping on a shore, but that’s just like thinking of the wind whistling through the very tops of the trees in the rainforest. Trying to convey to people that we have canyons and forests and jungles and prairies and plateaus and all their abundant marine life underwater is very hard if people just think of the ocean as a bowl with a sloppy top!

When you’re talking about ocean wildlife conservation, people’s thoughts might extend as far as whales and the dolphins, occasionally marine turtles, but you very seldom get much beyond that. One of our greatest challenges has been to convince people that marine fishes and invertebrates are wildlife too.

Not enough people have a sense of connection with the ocean, so it’s extraordinarily difficult for the majority to identify with the life within, which is where the seahorses come in. Seahorses are incredibly attractive, alluring and iconic animals: people engage with them and they can help us tell really quite complicated stories. I’ve never started talking about seahorses and had someone turn away with a bored look in their eyes. For many people, seahorses are quasi-mythical – they’re in the same camp as unicorns! The mere fact that they exist astonishes people. When people learn that I studied seahorses and know a lot about them, I instantly have a captive audience, from the two year-old child to the village elder.

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.