Trailblazers 2020: UBC seahorse saviour Amanda Vincent lays foundation for protecting other marine creatures
Amanda Vincent didn’t set out to become the world’s foremost authority on seahorses and their conservation.
The UBC marine biologist was researching the evolution of sex differences in animals while studying for her PhD in zoology at Cambridge University in England.
“I had a ‘save the world’ fervour,” Vincent told the Straight by phone.
Because seahorses have the unique distinction of the male becoming pregnant and giving birth, Vincent decided to look into the little-known fish.
“That’s what I studied for my PhD,” Vincent said, “never dreaming…”
After her degree, Vincent saw a billboard in Germany that advertised seahorses from the Philippines as a treatment for impotence, selling the tiny creature’s effectiveness “for men with weak tails”.
The nonsensical claim launched Vincent on a years-long research project into illicit seahorse commerce that took her throughout Asia and opened her eyes to a thriving hidden trade that involved tens of millions of seahorses every year in about 80 countries.
Besides traditional-medicine uses, seahorses were also being hunted for the aquarium trade and to be sold as gift-shop curios.
“We’ve never been rude or dismissive of traditional medicine,” Vincent said of her work in convincing some big distributors and sellers of seahorses to embrace a conservation ethic. “Our approach is to reduce overuse or overexploitation.
“The seahorses were the jumping-off point.” she said of a career that gave her academic fellowships in Europe and Australia, six years at Montreal’s McGill University, and a professorship at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, from where she also directs Project Seahorse.
Vincent was the first researcher to study seahorses underwater, and she has recorded a few other firsts as well, with one of the more notable ones being when she spearheaded an international effort in 1996 to get seahorses included on the influential International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List for animals at risk of extinction.
Six years later, she helped get sustainable and legal export limits set for the international seahorse trade by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The tiny animal was the first marine fish to be granted that consideration.
And now the Kitsilano resident and single mother of two has become the first marine conservationist to win the prestigious Indianapolis Prize, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of international animal conservation.
Vincent won the Indianapolis—which is awarded every two years and comes with US$250,000 in cash—not only because of her decades of work directed at saving seahorses globally, but also because of her many projects that have helped spawn conservation efforts to aid other ocean animals, such as rays and sharks, and preserve coastal habitats for innumerable marine species.
“It’s the biggest award in my field, internationally, so it’s huge,” Vincent noted. “It’s very much a result of massive cooperation and a great team. And it’s given us a platform to discuss marine issues.”
As for her work’s value outside of animal conservation, Vincent said: “I think we’ve been able to use seahorses to enable people to relate to marine life as something more than food and commodities.”