Saving Seahorses in Southeast Asia

When Shedd scientist Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh dons her dive gear and grabs her waterproof datasheet and camera for a seahorse survey, she never knows what she and her team will find. On many surveys, their seahorse census is zero. But on others, they might swim into a hotspot, a “seahorse city,” finding and collecting data on as many as 22 of these elusive, equine-faced fishes. It’s the possibility of the latter that keeps Tse-Lynn eager to keep searching.

Tse-Lynn is studying seahorse populations in the waters off Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia to document what species live where and what habitats they prefer. In the process, she is working with local fishermen, in-country trade authorities and nature lovers around the world to advance seahorse conservation throughout Southeast Asia.

Why seahorses?
For more than 15 years, Shedd has partnered with Project Seahorse in a conservation program to protect fragile marine ecosystems in Southeast Asia by championing the cause of their most charismatic residents, seahorses.

The region’s reefs and coastal waters are home to 14 seahorse species. They are also where most seahorse populations are under heavy pressure from fishing. Millions of seahorses are exported from Southeast Asia every year, the majority for the traditional medicine trade.

Between their increasing commercial value and their life history—pairs of many species bond for life, and the pregnant male must survive for the young to be born—seahorses are exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing.

In 2002, seahorses became the first commercially important marine fishes to gain protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement that identifies wildlife species whose trade must be regulated to ensure their survival. For the convention to work, however, the signatory countries must have extensive data to manage their seahorse populations sustainably—data that for the most part don’t exist. That’s where Tse-Lynn’s surveys come in.

She is developing the first comprehensive distribution maps of seahorse populations in target countries in Southeast Asia, with detailed information on population structure and habitat quality. Together with information on life history, trade volumes and fishing levels collected by Project Seahorse researchers we will now have what we need to identify environmental pressures and make management recommendations to exporting countries.

Creating a network of seahorse conservationists
Much of Tse-Lynn’s work is also outreach. Her field assistants are local university students or people with a background in biology, environmental science, or natural resources. Working closely with in-country wildlife agencies and conservation organizations as well as those most familiar with seahorses—fishermen and local divers—she is establishing long-term field research sites where they can carry on the surveys. She has developed a citizen science toolkit, iSeahorse Trends, to train ordinary people on how to identify seahorse species in their region and start a monitoring program.

Tse-Lynn is also promoting iSeahorse Explore, a website and app developed by Project Seahorse that enables anyone anywhere in the world to contribute to seahorse conservation by sharing his or her sightings in the wild online or with a smartphone. This citizen scientist tool was launched by Project Seahorse and Shedd in October 2013.

Tse-Lynn already relies on social media to help her locate seahorses. Before her survey in Thailand last fall, she sent out a social media blast asking for sightings. It helped her refine her search along the country’s 2,000 miles of coastline.

Location

Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia

About the team

Learn more about Dr. Loh and the conservation research team.

Blog

See Tse-Lynn's recent work on the National Geographic blog!

You can help!

By downloading the iSeahorse Explore app on your smartphone or tablet, you can log sightings of seahorses that you see in the wild. You’ll help marine biologists track seahorse populations and contribute to what we know about these mysterious fishes.

About Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh
Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh jumped at the opportunity to expand Shedd’s seahorse conservation research efforts throughout Southeast Asia. The marine biologist grew up in Malaysia and Singapore and developed a deep love for the coastal habitats in the region. Her work keeps her in the field much of the year. She joined Shedd as a postdoctoral research associate in 2012.