Magical and Powerful Ocean Ambassadors

Seahorses are a flagship species, raising awareness against bottom trawling, and for Marine protected areas

Odette Auger

Female Patagonian seahorse (Hippocampus patagonicus) | photo by Amanda Vincent / Project Seahorse

Female Patagonian seahorse (Hippocampus patagonicus) | photo by Amanda Vincent / Project Seahorse

For twenty-nine years, UBC’s Project Seahorse has been bringing awareness to the threats to seahorses, along with innovations in conservation.

Program leader Dr. Sarah Foster has been working with Project Seahorse for over twenty years, originally as a volunteer after finishing her master’s degree in Fish Physiology. “I was looking for a way to contribute more to the world, while still geeking out on fish,” she recalls.

She remembers being out at night with lantern fishers and seeing her first seahorse in the wild – and the wonderment she felt. Seahorses are evolutionary marvels, being the only known species with male pregnancy. We often hear of scientists discovering species in the ocean that we didn’t even know we have. It makes Foster wonder, “Are we negatively impacting species that we don’t even know are in the ocean?”

iSeahorse is one of their projects, ten years in the making. A community of scientists, conservationists, and citizen scientists around the world report sightings on iSeahorse, helping keep tabs on seahorse populations, habitats, and their conservation status. Sightings logged on the platform are validated, and this information can extend known habitat ranges, depth distribution, habitat use, and breeding season.

“If we don’t know what the ocean floors were like before bottom trawling began, how can we say how we’re really doing?”

Of the 44 known species of seahorses, at least 14 species are threatened. Of those, eight are vulnerable to extinction, and 17 are labelled as “Data Deficient” – meaning they are unable to be assessed for The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. This lack of a designation impedes conservation decisions and policy.

Project Seahorse has developed a way to model threats by estimating cumulative human impact (CHI) at the species level. The researchers are now calling on the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and local managers to use species-level modelling, so that threat-mitigation plans can be tailored to protect species – rather than a broad-stroke approach on ecosystems. This species-specific modelling could estimate conservation status “for thousands of Data Deficient species on the IUCN Red List,” says Project Seahorse website.

Bottom Trawling

Foster spent many years focusing on fisheries and trade, so she has “seen many more dead and dried seahorses than living.” Through trade surveys, the project estimates 25 million seahorses are dried alive for the Traditional Medicine Trade. Project Seahorse mapped the human impact of 12 human-created stressors, and found the most severe pressure to be grossly non-selective bottom trawling.

“A mark of the intensity of such bottom trawling globally,” Project Seahorse researchers found, “is that catches of only one or two seahorses per vessel per night amounted to a total extraction of more than 11 million seahorses annually from just the first 21 countries we surveyed.”  A myriad of other species are impacted, from molluscs to sharks and rays. The catch is unmanaged and unreported, says Project Seahorse.

Bycatch in Mexican trawler | photo by Dr. Sarah Foster

Bycatch in Mexican trawler | photo by Dr. Sarah Foster

Hundreds of thousands of bottom trawlers operate all over the world, and more than 80% of the seabed is trawled in some regions, “most of it repeatedly.” Trawling generates 25% of global marine catches, and as much as 50% in Asia. Bottom trawlers drop wide-mouth nets with heavy weights that gouge and scrape the ocean floor. The catch is often sold unsorted “for mere pennies,” as feed for fish farms, chicken feed, fish meal, or fish oil. Government subsidies offset the low value, enabling the cycle of going out in search of all marine life indiscriminately – “annihilation fishing,” as Project Seahorse founder Dr. Amanda Vincent has described it.

“People may say some bottom trawl fisheries are well managed,” says Foster,  “but you have to ask – to what reference point?” There is no historical pre-trawling data to compare numbers against. “It might be managed if your only goal is to maintain the catches of the targeted species over a short timeframe, but the picture changes when one considers ocean health more broadly.”

Bycatch in Mexican trawler | photo by Dr. Sarah Foster

Bycatch in Mexican trawler | photo by Dr. Sarah Foster

Left in the wake of trawlers are ruined habitat: seagrasses, corals, sponges destroyed. As Pacific Wild states on their website, if our unique glass reefs recover at all, it takes “well over 100 years.” Even the chemistry is changed, found another study of shrimp fisheries. The disturbed sediment interferes with carbon sequestration, re-suspending stored carbon into the water where it can more easily break down. One study has calculated this carbon release to equal the aviation industry.

Some people think the problem can be resolved by regulating mesh size, says Foster, but that doesn’t work when the thing you’re trying to catch and the thing you’re trying to protect are the same size – “They’re going to get caught no matter what.”

Part of the problem is being out of sight, out of mind. When people think of the ocean, they think of a blue expanse, explains Foster. Think of your favourite forest, she illustrates. “If we were using bulldozers to go in and catch a few of the animals, and left the rest behind or ground it up for animal feed, you would be pretty upset.” Getting bottom trawling on the radar, and people talking about it, is how it enters policy dialogues at the government level.

Something people can do on a personal level is to consider how their seafood is caught. It’s spot prawn season here in BC, and as Foster says, “they are ridiculously delicious, local, and caught by traps which are far more sustainable than bottom trawls.”

Foster is cautiously optimistic – “It seems we’re moving towards a more holistic sense of management where we need to look at ocean health in general, and make sure that we have oceans that support livelihoods and food security well into the future.” Circling back to the data deficiencies, Foster asks, “If we don’t know what the ocean floors were like before bottom trawling began, how can we say how we’re really doing?”

Through research and advocacy work, Project Seahorse aims to provide solutions and drive conservation interventions. Phasing out bottom trawling is one focus, along with demanding that governments favour selective fisheries, remove harmful subsidies, enforce laws that control trawling, and implement protected areas that explicitly exclude trawling.

“They’re magical ambassadors for the problems facing the ocean,” says Foster. “The solutions that are going to help seahorses are going to help many other species.”

infographic - how you can help tackle bottom trawling

Learn more about how you can help Project Seahorse take action here.  

Odette Auger is Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother. As a freelance journalist, Odette’s bylines include Watershed Sentinel, The Resolve, La Converse, The Tyee, Asparagus Magazine, and APTN National News. Odette lives on Klahoose, Homalco, and Tla’amin territories (Cortes Island). You can follow all her stories in one place here.

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