Crowdsourcing Seahorse Conservation with Recreational Divers

July 22, 2014

Shedd Aquarium, Project Seahorse, PADI launch world’s largest SCUBA diving training to protect endangered seahorse population

CHICAGO – Marine conservationists from Project Seahorse and John G. Shedd Aquarium will launch a Seahorse Diver Specialty course for divers in Phuket, Thailand with Kiwi Diver and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world’s largest SCUBA diving training organization, with more than 23 million certifications issued to date

Through the Seahorse Diver Specialty, certified instructors will teach student divers the basics of seahorse biology and conservation, how to identify and search for seahorses, and the many actions divers can take to secure sustainable seahorse populations. Trained divers can then help to protect seahorses by monitoring populations over time and reporting seahorse sightings to iSeahorse.org, a global citizen science program created by Project Seahorse with support from the Shedd Aquarium.

“With the creation of this course we want to build a network of knowledgeable and passionate divers who will answer the call to protect seahorses,” says Lindsay Aylesworth, lead author of the Seahorse Diver Specialty, PADI dive instructor and PhD candidate at Project Seahorse.

Because of their small size and ability to blend into their surroundings, seahorses are difficult to study in the wild. Of the 48 seahorse species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, 26 are considered ‘Data Deficient’ – meaning there isn’t enough information for us to know whether these species are thriving or disappearing.

However, we know that many seahorse populations are in decline, mainly due to overfishing and habitat destruction. Millions of seahorses are captured accidentally in bottom trawl fisheries each year. These same types of fishing gear often cause substantial alterations to the marine environment that, along with coastal development, reduce the quality of habitat for seahorses. Seahorses and other inhabitants of marine ecosystems need immediate action in order to secure their future.

The PADI Seahorse Diver Specialty will engage the diving community at large to participate in data collection using standard protocols for conservation science. This expands the number of people studying seahorses in the wild to potentially thousands of “citizen scientists,” all contributing to a global seahorse monitoring network. Data from these monitoring efforts will help identify populations and places that most need conservation action.

“This is an exciting program for recreational divers — with a cohort of trained surveyors, we can track vulnerable seahorse populations and inform management strategies for fisheries, seahorse trade and marine protected areas,” says Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh, postdoctoral research associate at Shedd Aquarium and Project Seahorse, and co-author of the Seahorse Diver Specialty.

With crystal-clear waters and diverse marine habitats, recreational diving contributes substantially to Thailand’s tourist economy. Every year, thousands of open-water divers are certified in Thailand, with many returning thereafter to continue with their exploration of the underwater world. Divers visit many different dive destinations and they can contribute valuable information to address key knowledge gaps in marine research.

“We have been actively diving the local areas looking for seahorses and have learnt so much from working with the ProjectSeahorse team. It is great to now be involved with passing that knowledge on,” says PADI Course Director Kevin Black from Kiwidiver.com.

A love for travel and good observation skills can relay useful information on where seahorses are found and which species prefer which habitat types, leading to a better understanding of seahorse distribution and abundance. Divers are thus great observers of environmental conditions over time, and the PADI Seahorse Diver Specialty aims to harness this capacity to contribute data directly to conservation research and management. Interested divers can contact their local PADI dive shop to find out more about the seahorse specialty.

ABOUT SEAHORSES
- Approximately 15-20 million seahorses are traded globally, live and dead, every year around the world. They are used in traditional Chinese medicine, for display in aquariums, and as curios and souvenirs.
- These tiny sentinels of the sea thrive in healthy habitats: conserving seahorses helps protect the oceans for all of us who depend on them.
- Of the 48 seahorse species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened
- Species, 11 are listed as threatened. Twenty-six species are listed as Data Deficient, which means that we do not have enough information to confirm their conservation status.
- Many seahorse species appear to mate for life. Where seahorses are monogamous, their pair-bonds are reinforced by daily greetings, during which the female and male change color and promenade and pirouette together. The dance lasts several minutes, and then the pair separates for the rest of the day.

NOTE: High resolution photos of seahorses and citizen scientists in action are available for download:
Photo credit: ©iSeahorse Philippines https://www.dropbox.com/sh/im2zhxkwkzv5biy/AADj006cLxYHkGvBnFtfhCnba

ABOUT iSEAHORSE
iSeahorseharnesses the power of ‘citizen scientists’ — anyone, anywhere in the world who sees a seahorse in the wild — to improve our understanding of these animals and protect them from overfishing and other threats. Anyone, from divers to fishers, scientists to people on beach vacations can use upload photos and observations to iSeahorse. These citizen scientists can help identify seahorse species and even advocate for their protection in their ocean neighborhoods. Scientists around the world will use this vital information to better understand seahorse behavior, species ranges, and the threats seahorses face. They will use this knowledge to improve seahorse conservation across the globe. iSeahorse is made possible by the generous support of Guylian Belgian Chocolate, Harmsworth Trust UK, and Whitley Fund for Nature.

ABOUT PROJECT SEAHORSE
Project Seahorse is a marine conservation group based at the University of British Columbia,, Canada, and Zoological Society of London. Recognized by the IUCN as the global authority on seahorses and their relatives, Project Seahorse works to protect seahorses in order to support ocean conservation more broadly, generating cutting-edge research and using it to inform highly effective conservation interventions. Led by Prof. Amanda Vincent and Heather Koldewey, both global experts on seahorse conservation, Project Seahorse has won many international awards and honours, and works in collaboration with researchers, governments, conservation groups and local communities worldwide. The world’s leading expert on seahorses, Prof. Vincent first uncovered the thriving global seahorse trade in the mid-1990s and co-founded Project Seahorse in response. Project Seahorse researchers were the first to study seahorses in the wild and the first to identify the scope of the threats they face from overfishing and trade. As the IUCN Specialist Group for seahorses and their relatives, we have produced a large proportion of the world’s research on these fishes, approved global conservation assessments, chaired a working group for an international trade accord, provided expert advice to the world’s definitive fish database, and advised public aquarium and aquaculture ventures internationally. The team’s efforts have resulted in the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) adopting international trade controls for seahorses in 2002.

ABOUT JOHN G. SHEDD AQUARIUM
The John G. Shedd Aquarium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to public education and conservation, is among one of the world’s largest indoor aquariums. The facility houses over 32,000 aquatic animals representing some 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the world. Beautifully situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Shedd Aquarium is known as “The World’s Aquarium.” Since its opening in 1930, the aquarium’s mission has been to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the aquatic world. The Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research at Shedd is committed to conserving species and ecosystems through research that advances understanding, informs policy and enhances livelihoods. A longtime supporter and partner of Project Seahorse, Shedd currently works with them in Southeast Asia to build local capacity for monitoring and managing seahorse populations.

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