Project Seahorse evolves into major marine protector

October 29, 2012
Stephen Dale
Lasting impacts
Some people may know Project Seahorse as an organization that mobilized poor Filipino fishing communities to create dozens of marine protected areas in the central Philippines. These coastal refuges, protected by local people, have greatly improved the prospects of survival for threatened species.
 
To others, the organization’s biggest claim to fame has been to engage Chinese traditional medicine suppliers in efforts to protect the exotic seahorse. Developing an aquaculture system to breed seahorses — a popular ingredient in Chinese remedies, in the aquarium trade, and in souvenirs — has taken pressure off species living in the wild.
 
After these achievements, accomplished with IDRC support, the organization went on to become a world leader on marine sustainability issues. Project Seahorse is now a global alliance of local researchers and policy advocates with the reach and expertise to work in the multiple arenas where marine sustainability issues unfold.
 
“We tackle issues on any political level or geographical scale, according to what is needed,” says Project Seahorse director Amanda Vincent, who was the Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation at the University of British Columbia from 2002 to 2012. “We do a lot of community-based work, but also help guide international conventions.”
 
Building broad consensus
 
This organizational reach is accompanied by an impressive consensus-building approach. Vincent remarks that the commitment to finding common threads that link seemingly polarized points of view was influenced by Project Seahorse’s early work funded by IDRC.
 
“Even people we would infer to be natural antagonists, we treat as natural allies to find the common ground,” Vincent explains. “That has led to gains in policy and trade circles that one wouldn’t have thought likely.”
 
For example, Project Seahorse not only enlisted the prime harvesters of wild seahorses, the Chinese traditional medicine industry, as protectors of the species, it also lobbied patiently and persistently to change policy at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
 
After years of CITES steadfastly refusing to regulate trade in marine fish, Project Seahorse was successful in convincing it to put seahorses under its protection. Since then, the convention has begun regulating exports in a variety of marine fishes.  

Communicating good science
 
Former IDRC program officer Brian Davy lauds Project Seahorse’s ability to simultaneously conduct research, raise public awareness, and influence the global policy agenda.
 
“They produce good science,” Davy says. “But they also bring that science down to the community level and communicate it to the world.”
 
A partnership with Belgian chocolate manufacturer Guylian, for example, provides a novel means of communicating with the public — through seahorse-themed chocolates. Guylian is Project Seahorse's major sponsor and a supporter of its programs around the world.
 
Project Seahorse continues to evolve. For example, it is planning a “citizen science” network, through which individuals will contribute to data collection. This initiative recognizes that “there are too few of us for the huge problems that are hitting our oceans,” Vincent says.
 
Stephen Dale is an Ottawa-based writer
 
Photos: Project Seahorse
 
This story is part of the Lasting Impacts series that highlights how IDRC-funded research has improved lives in the developing world.
 
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