Shedd Aquarium & Project Seahorse Collaborate in Southeast Asia

By Jordan Schaul | National Geographic | November 8, 2012

Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews Dr. Charles Knapp, Shedd Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation and Research, to learn about some of the institution’s field conservation work in Southeast Asia.

As Shedd Aquarium embarks on new on-the-ground field conservation initiatives to save aquatic environments, they have recently deployed three post-doctoral researchers around the world to coastal regions that harbor some very important species of concern to marine scientists.

In this series of posts, we talk with Dr. Charles Knapp, Shedd’s Vice President of Conservation and Research, to learn what each of his new research associates will be working on as part of the Aquarium’s global science and outreach efforts.

First, we will discuss a project coordinated by Shedd and Project Seahorse, which will focus on the conservation of these remarkable and odd-looking piscine organisms in the waters off the coast of South Asia.

Beautiful, but peculiar at first sight, seahorses seem to become more bizarre the more you learn about them. These bony fish are slow-moving creatures that swim upright, which is one reason people don’t immediately recognize them as fish at all. Most seahorses are highly monogamous, able to change color much like chameleons, variable in shape and size, and may be most familiar to you because they were commonly sold dead and dried as souvenirs to patrons of seaside vendors.

These close relatives of pipefish and sea dragons – living in the world’s most vulnerable coastal habitats and challenged by the very same threats facing the vast majority of marine species – have emerged as a flagship species for marine life. Ironically, we don’t even know how many species of these charismatic, mini-marine predators exist in the waters of the world; it is, however, presumed that population numbers are declining.

Degraded habitats from dying coral reefs, to polluted mangroves and damaged seagrass beds, along with overfishing have contributed to the demise of seahorse populations. It is unknown how fewer seahorses, predators of plankton and small crustaceans, would in turn destabilize marine and estuarine communities.

Jordan: Seahorses are found in several marine environments and even estuarine environments around the world. Why did you choose Southeast Asia as a location to study seahorses?

Charles: Southeast Asia is considered a hot spot for seahorse diversity but it is also where most seahorses are collected and exported to the world market for aquaria, curios, and traditional medicines. Thankfully, through the efforts of Project Seahorse and support from Shedd Aquarium, seahorses were listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This listing means that in order to export certain listed species, signatory countries are required to prove their exports are not harming
wild populations. Unfortunately, some countries do not have the resources or the capacity to monitor seahorse populations, which are critical to inform management strategies. This new research endeavor for Shedd Aquarium and Project Seahorse is part of a larger initiative to help maintain healthy seahorse populations, and also maintain livelihoods through sustainable trade.

Jordan: Are your programs driven by organismal research or do you focus on whole
ecosystems?

Charles: There is a benefit to both types of research to advance conservation initiatives. This project is a blend as we will be looking at monitoring specific seahorse populations in order to inform the larger conservation landscape of how the animals are faring across the region. Seahorses are good representatives of the ecosystems they live in. Studying the biology of the organism goes hand in hand with understanding the inner workings of seahorse habitats.

Jordan: How important is it from a conservation standpoint to determine the exact number of seahorse species?

Charles: Understating species diversity is a basic underpinning of conservation. It is difficult to protect imperiled species if we don’t understand how many are actually in the wild. Also, misunderstandings of species designations hinder efforts to prioritize geographic areas of concern or may mask the actual rates of species loss.

Jordan: Does Shedd complement this on-the-ground initiative with Aquarium-based programs, such as the display of seahorses in exhibits or through education initiatives in the states?

Charles: Certainly one of the primary benefits of welcoming 2.1 million guests to Shedd each year is our ability to have a direct line to our conservation programs. Our involvement in seahorse conversation, and partnership with Project Seahorse, evolved from our “Seahorse Symphony” special exhibit in the 1990s. Today we continue to tell our stories and raise awareness through our wonderful animals.

Jordan: Are there capacity-building initiatives for local people abroad that are included in the seahorse conservation program?

Charles: To be sure, the sustainable advance of seahorse conservation requires in-country capacity and support. By expanding our existing partnership with Project Seahorse, Shedd Aquarium will play a central role in not only the study of seahorse ecology but also in developing local stakeholder, citizen science programs that support seahorse conservation. Our ultimate goal is to launch initiatives that build local capacity and ensure the sustainability of conservation programming through in-country training and program development.

Jordan: Will this program serve as a model for the conservation of seahorse species elsewhere?

Charles: We anticipate that our strategy for seahorse conservation will serve as a model for developing sustainable conservation and monitoring programs. The initiative has already been endorsed by international colleagues and we look forward to sharing our results.

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MEET THE AUTHOR

Jordan Carlton SchaulWith training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine, and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska (As Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (As executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition, he was an ex officio member of the council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.