As soon as Project Seahorse begins to understand pattern in any fisheries that affect seahorses – whether small-scale or industrial – we start trying to help regulate such fisheries for long-term sustainability.
We engage in adaptive management, applying our knowledge in an explicitly experimental way, in consultation with stakeholders (including government), and always ready to modify recommendations and action as new knowledge emerges. In our choices, we are encouraged and informed by emerging examples of sustainable fisheries around the world; although still few and far between, they offer models of how to go forward.
In our work of supporting the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and its 182 member countries towards sustainable trade in seahorses, we also advise on how to relieve unacceptable pressures from fisheries in general. We have developed tools that allow countries to determine whether the fisheries supplying their seahorse trade are threatening wild populations, in a framework called Making Non-Detriment Findings. Part of such analysis involves determining changes in catch per unit effort (CPUE) over time. Monitoring is key to understanding the impact of fisheries on wildlife and natural resources, and also whether management is working. We also offer advice on regulating fisheries extraction.
Getting it right for seahorses will certainly help address fisheries impacts on other species, through monitoring and alleviating pressures.
Our engagement with small-scale and subsistence fisheries in the Philippines has taken many active forms. In all cases, the frontline programme has been undertaken jointly by our team’s Filipino biologists and Filipino community organizers (social workers), working together. There is no point developing conservation action if it does not have community buy-in. The corollary is that community-led ideas are likely to work better than externally created agendas. That said, community-based conservation can also be slow and fragile, and vulnerable to political vagaries.
In the central Philippines, most seahorses are caught in breath-hold fisheries, where people swim all night, towing a boat with a light on the bow that illuminates the shallow marine habitat. Seahorses are among the most valuable of the catches in terms of cash income, and fishers’ concerns about declining catch mean they were very willing to engage with managing the fishery. Their active commitment allowed a number of valuable endeavours, as these examples indicate.
- Development of an award-winning alliance of about 1000 small-scale fishing families, called KAMADA, that gave fishers the capacity to plan conservation and management.
- Creation of People’s Organizations in villages, for fishers (primarily men) and for women, where members of the community can develop capacity and plan management measures.
- Development of 35 marine protected areas, locally driven and protected through community initiatives.
- Agreement on a 10 cm minimum size limit for seahorse catches to allow individuals to reproduce at least once before capture.
- A scholarship programme that helped 12 children of small-scale fishers go to high school while involving them in marine conservation projects.
We are energetically turning our attention to the thorny problem of non-selective fisheries, which so damage seahorse populations and also the oceans writ large.
Our initial work in this domain has been focused in two directions: evaluation and enforcement. Our emphasis has been on urging governments to target their take, constraining indiscriminate fisheries in favour of selective fisheries.
1. Countries should consider the significant effects of non-selective fisheries when evaluating implementation of CITES Appendix II listing for seahorses.
CITES requires that countries confirm that exports are not damaging wild populations and that the specimens were legally sourced before they can be permitted. In the framework we created for making such Non-Detriment Findings under CITES, we urge countries to evaluate and address the impact of their non-selective fisheries on seahorses, noting that these were often operating illegally.
2. Governments should enforce their own spatial and temporal restrictions on non-selective fisheries.
These are often banned in in-shore waters, marine protected areas, or particular seasons. Yet enforcement of such restrictions is generally lax, leading to persistence of pressures on marine life that have already been ruled unacceptable. In formulating recommendations for countries under the CITES enforcement process, and in supporting engagement with such recommendations, we have urged national Authorities to implement existing legislation fully.