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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 12 | Oct. 10, 2002

Saving the Seahorse by Saving the Seas

UBC prof starts first seahorse conservation program

By Hilary Thomson

Males get pregnant. Couples dance daily after dawn. A tail holds your hand.

Welcome to the curious world of the seahorse and the fascination of Prof. Amanda Vincent.

The new Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation, Vincent has recently arrived at UBC from McGill University. She calls the seahorse a charismatic rallying point for advocacy and action.

“These curly-tailed little beasts act as a flagship for marine conservation issues,” she says. “To save the seahorse, we must save the seas.”

Vincent is the first biologist to have studied seahorses underwater, the first to document their trade and the first to start a seahorse conservation program.

At UBC she will work at the Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory. Now in the design phase, the unit will be located on Main Mall and will include the Fisheries Centre that Vincent describes as ‘world-class’ and a big part of her decision to come to UBC. She also looks forward to the interdisciplinary possibilities offered by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

The co-founder and director of an international group called Project Seahorse, Vincent leads a team of 35 biologists, social workers and other professionals -- as well as Filipino villagers and scholars -- working in eight countries promoting marine conservation.

Eight team members moved with her from McGill and three more students will commute regularly to UBC.

Their research has five major themes: biological research; managing marine populations and fisheries; monitoring and adjusting consumption of marine life; developing conservation policy; and educating and promoting awareness of the need for conservation.

Thanks to Vincent’s efforts, 160 countries will vote in November on an international proposal to manage seahorse trade. Countries trading in seahorses include Canada and the U.S. with the largest exporters being India, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Vincent and her team work with both fishers and consumers to establish sustainable use of the seahorse.

Found in tropical and temperate waters -- as far north as Baja-California on the west coast -- seahorse numbers are declining rapidly due to habitat loss, accidental capture in non-selective fishing gear and sales for traditional medicines, aquariums and curios.

There are about 300 species in the seahorse family, including sea dragons, pipefishes and pipe horses. Ranging in size from less than an inch to a foot in length, they have the ability to change colour to camouflage themselves. In addition, a prehensile tail allows them to grip and anchor themselves to seaweed and underwater plants to hide from predators. They feed on live food such as brine shrimp, which they suck through their snout.

And most intriguing from a human perspective, only the male becomes pregnant.

Pairs of most seahorse species are monogamous and reinforce their bond with elaborate early morning greeting dances involving colour changes, promenades and pirouettes. Eggs are fertilized in the male’s brood pouch. He provides oxygen and nutrition throughout the 10-40 day-pregnancy before going into labour.

One of Vincent’s favourite seahorses is James, a Caribbean seahorse that she studied while at Cambridge. James took the record for reproduction when he gave birth to 1,572 babies from a pouch about half a teaspoon in size.

This is the Year of the Water Horse, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, and Vincent hopes to co-operate with Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadian community to advance marine conservation. Traditional Chinese medicine accounts for the largest consumption of seahorses.

Canada could show more leadership in marine conservation, Vincent says. In issues such as ecologically sensitive aquaculture, sustainable fisheries and the establishment of marine protected areas, this country’s track record is poor.

“Marine conservation is everyone’s responsibility,” she says. “Oceans are in crisis and we need to engage urgently on nearly every issue.”

Designed to build Canada’s research capacity, the federal government will invest $900 million to support the establishment of 2,000 Canada Research Chair positions at Canadian universities by 2005. UBC now has 58 faculty members designated as chairs from a total allocation of 156 positions.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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