Global assessments alone just aren’t enough

Kulbicki’s pipefish (Festucalex kulbicki). Photo by Richard Smith

What started out as an interesting little notion turned into a massive undertaking. Does this sound familiar?!

As scientists, we know all too well that this is how big research projects often begin. One bright idea… “You know what would make a cool study?” “I wonder if we can find out x or research y?” “Wouldn’t it be neat to know z?” We seldom reflect on whether information on x, y, z is even available. Yet that can be the biggest challenge.

This is exactly how our project began. The members of the IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish, Seadragon Specialist Group (IUCN SSC SPS SG) are a curious lot…  and we had a bright idea. We wanted to know what the conservation status of seahorses, pipefishes and seadragons (syngnathids) at the national level is and what, if any, national regulations exist to protect these quirky fishes.

The first question that may pop into your mind is why do we want to know the national conservation status of species when we have an awesome global resource available at our fingertips – The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species?

Side note: if you have never checked out their website ( you should, it has much valuable information on the current status of 278+ species worldwide, including the threats and challenges they face. We are in a biodiversity crisis after all, and you may want to find out how your favorite bird, animal, fish, plant or fungi species is faring in this uncertain world.

A few years ago our Specialist Group completed global IUCN Red List assessments for all syngnathid species under our remit. This is a great starting point and baseline for the global status of many syngnathid species.  The problem is that we also needed to know how the status of a species may differ at the national level. Although global assessments are extremely valuable, they do not always lead to meaningful conservation management and/or protection at the local and national levels. Management and protection lies squarely with regional, national and local governments. But how can you create management plans and protective measures and/or regulations if you do not know the status of specific species in your country?

Next you may ask, well shouldn’t IUCN global assessments be enough for national governments to enact specific management and protection measures? Well, not exactly… A species might be considered globally Least Concern or Data Deficient but could be locally threatened in a country due to restricted range, habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution, exploitation – the list goes on but I’ll stop there.

Let’s not forget that the reverse could be true. A species could be globally threated with extinction but it could be doing really well in a specific region/country due to enhanced protection measures and regulations to protect habitat such as MPAs, restrictions on fishing, strict ocean and environmental policies etc. Or perhaps, they might be in a relatively untouched location where there are few threats and their population is thriving.

Either way you look at it, it’s important to be aware of these differences and use them as learning tools for conservation.  A national conservation assessment may provide clues as to what is working and what is not working to protect a species from extinction. We know that conservation measures that work in one country may not necessarily work in another and for this reason we must tailor our approach to match the unique circumstances in each area/habitat/country/ocean, taking into account the distinctive cultural, social and economic aspects in the country where a species occurs.

To create specific conservation measures, we need to know how a species is doing at the national and/or local scale. Global conservation assessments alone are just not enough, especially if a species is widely distributed and found in many different continents around the world.

Lastly, our Specialist Group  submitted a Motion that was approved as a IUCN World Conservation Congress Resolution – Conservation of seahorses, pipefishes and seadragons (family Syngnathidae) which specifically calls on members, especially state and government agency members to “by 2022, ensure that the status of syngnathids is assessed and included in national/regional Red Lists as warranted.” This work has been identified as a priority by the IUCN and our research will provide an important baseline to meet this target and identify gaps where more work is needed at the national level.

To learn what we found out stayed tuned for Part 2 of this blog.

Written by Lily Stanton, Sygnathid Research Biologist at Project Seahorse