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Shedd Aquarium & Project Seahorse Collaborate in Southeast Asia

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.

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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 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 costal
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 sea grass 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 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 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 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.