Talking syngnathids – (early) morning, noon and (late) night

2020 has been a strange year, to say the least, not exactly what we were hoping for, but here it is. There was so much to look forward to and many of our plans have been disrupted, like everyone else around the world. Our colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences were working so incredibly hard to plan and organize what was to be an amazing SyngBio 4 in Guangzhou, China.

SynBio is a meeting every 3-4 years that gathers scientists, biologist and researchers from around the world who work on the magical fishes we love, the Syngnathids (Seahorses, Pipefishes and Seadragons). However, as we are all too painfully aware, 2020 was not shaping up to be the year for travel and regrettably we had to postpone our meeting to May 2021. Despite the bad news, our colleagues in China are determined to use this extra year and time to make SyngBio 2021 even more fabulous.

We also had to cancel our IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon Specialist Group gathering – which was set to take place following SyngBio in Guangzhou. It is usually an intense day to meet and discuss progress made on our strategic plan and determine ways forward to protect the animals we all love. But we are a determined group of now 33 members from 16 countries worldwide and conservation work must go on, even though the world has stopped the normal routine of life.

Together, we blocked out our calendars for the time we would be at SyngBio and organized three consecutive days of meetings each lasting four hours over ZOOM. You can imagine how complicated it was to arrange meetings with everyone located in different time zones. Someone had to be up at five in the morning, stay up past their bedtime or stay up all night so that we could talk syngnathids. But despite the unusual hours for many, the enthusiasm and energy from all our members was truly infectious.

It was wonderful to “see” and chat with old colleagues and friends and to welcome new colleagues to our Specialist Group. Over the three days, we had over 20 people on the call at any one time. A truly dedicated group. As members updated us on their conservation work to help protect syngnathids- from the creation of new Marine Protected Areas, sanctuaries and parks to a new pygmy seahorse being described from the Indian ocean for the first time ever – you could see and feel the excitement amongst us all.

I was truly impressed with all the incredible work our colleagues are doing around the world to protect syngnathids – working together to tackle some of our biggest challenges. Our members are teaming up with local communities, citizen scientists and stakeholders in the Bahamas, Greece, France, Kenya, Portugal, Malaysia, and Mozambique to survey populations of seahorses. We have made significant progress on research, communication and outreach on some of our most threatened species. For example, members built so-called “seahorse hotels” to enhance habitat in Australia and used eDNA to detect seahorses and pipefishes in South Africa. In addition, significant strides have been made in the policy front towards improving national level implementation of CITES. Over the next few months and years we will continue our efforts to ensure the trade in seahorses is legal, sustainable and monitored and will be looking more closely at the live trade in seahorses. We also have bold plans to improve national threatened species assessments and the implementation of laws and regulations that affect syngnathids. The SPS SG is building knowledge to use syngnathids as flagship species to expose and reverse perverse incentives such as subsidies. We are also excited about a big push to bring awareness to the destructive practise of bottom trawling.

Together the SPS SG embarked on a new plan to appoint Regional, Thematic and Species Focal Points within our Specialist Group. These colleagues will act as syngnathid experts and tackle conservation issues in six regions across the world. Some Focal Points will cover specific themes such as ex-situ conservation, global trade, climate change, and taxonomy and evolution. Others will assume roles as the global champions for our most threatened species.

The SPS SG plans to meet again in November to move our Strategic plan forward in even more exciting and ambitious ways and we can’t wait to share more news on our progress with all of you!

Stay tuned. And stay safe.

(Cross-posted on IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon Specialist Group website)