Awards in the time of COVID-19

Winning an individual award is an exciting yet awkward experience for me. Exciting because it’s lovely to be acknowledged for hard work, persistence and insights. Awkward because I am hugely conscious that the recognition directed at me should embrace the entire Project Seahorse team of wonderful people, along with a large number of other contributors. That said, there’s no doubt that awards are joyous events, ones that put a spring in your step.

It was absolutely amazing to be honoured with the Indianapolis Prize in 2020. Cited as the leading award for animal conservation, it is presented every two years, and has been won by a string of luminaries. It is accompanied by a prize for a public figure – to be announced later this year so watch for it! – who contributes hugely to conservation. Last time the awards went to Dr. Russell Mittermeier, primate conservation wizard and to Harrison Ford for his generous commitment to saving our animals. The Prize really is a big deal, with news of my award reaching 2.6 billion people globally.

I am the first winner for fish or marine conservation, recognized for our work on seahorses and their near relatives.

Most other winners have excelled at conserving mammals although two of them achieved great things for birds. I’m also only the second woman, after Dr. Patricia Wright won for her remarkable efforts with lemurs in 2014. The 2020 finalists included two other marine people, so the selection panels’ appreciation of the ocean was much in evidence. Let’s hope we see awards for freshwater or invertebrate conservation soon, too.

The Indianapolis Prize brought a lot of happiness at a very opportune time, with cause to rejoice even as COVID-19 exhausted and frightened us (and forced my team to pull back from all international field work). How wonderful that Project Seahorse can use my honour to highlight the huge importance of the ocean for all of us. Our new focused effort is on bottom trawling, the devastating form of non-selective fishing that removes all life in its path while scouring ocean habitats. The Prize adds new impetus to our push to #EndBottomTrawling. This work is vital because trawling exerts the biggest pressure on seahorses and on thousands of other species too. It also has heavy social and economic costs.

The Indianapolis Prize is usually awarded at a black tie, red carpet gala dinner for 1200 people. Those festivities had to be deferred, of course, but will happen as COVID-19 allows. In the meantime, my family threw me the most wonderful celebration at home. My 13-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old son set up a glorious backdrop and a lectern (made out of cardboard) with improvised microphone from which I could give my speech. They invited a great many stuffed animals to form the audience, made sure the paparazzi was in attendance, and live streamed the event. Their generous efforts brought great joy to my heart.

As the excitement of the Indianapolis Prize calmed slightly, I learned of another remarkable honour. I had been elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC). The RSC is Canada’s highest accolade for distinguished scholars, artists and scientists. Being offered a Fellowship in this august body felt simply amazing, not least because I had always prioritised conservation action over academic papers. This commendation really celebrates the high quality of the Project Seahorse research that underpins our management and policy advice. Disconcertingly, it involved giving a pecha kucha style talk, with 20 slides changing automatically every 20 seconds… a bit like riding a runaway train.

The formal RSC celebration was moved online, with the virtual induction of the Fellows as wonderful as it could be, given that I was sitting in my living room. Still, it was a disappointment. The one benefit of this inevitable Zoom compromise was that, although the visible part of me was well dressed, I got away with wearing no shoes. I also received a lovely basket of goodies from UBC, who obviously felt as sorry for me as I felt for myself. Sad to say, I really like pomp and ceremony… and a good party.

I feel such pride and gratitude for my wonderful team. They made it possible to celebrate both the world’s top award in applied and practical conservation AND Canada’s top honour for scholarship and intellectual pursuits in one crazy year. As I say, I find it awkward to accept individual honours when everybody at Project Seahorse has given so much.

Heartfelt thanks to all who have shared their enthusiasms, expertise and experiences with me over the past few decades: volunteers, interns, students, researchers, field staff, donors, stakeholders, partners and collaborators. And special hugs to Heather Koldewey, Sarah Foster and Jessica Meeuwig for being leading lights over the years. You are fantastic. My hope is that these tremendous accolades will buoy you up, too, especially in this truly exhausting and stressful time.


By Dr. Amanda Vincent, Director, Project Seahorse
Professor, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, UBC