British Columbia

B.C. marine biologist wins $250K award for work protecting seahorses around the world

Amanda Vincent, a professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of B.C., has won the prestigious Indianapolis Prize for exposing the global trade of seahorses and establishing projects to protect them.

UBC professor Amanda Vincent is the recipient of the 2020 Indianapolis Prize

University of British Columbia marine biologist Amanda Vincent has won the prestigious Indianapolis Prize for her work protecting seahorses. The influential prize recognizes conservationists who have made significant progress in saving a species, or multiple species, from extinction. (Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse)

Marine biologist Amanda Vincent started studying seahorses because she was fascinated by the fact that the males of the species give birth. What she couldn't have known when she began was protecting the tiny marine animal would become a labour of love for much of her career.

Vincent's decades of research and activism were recognized Tuesday when she won the prestigious Indianapolis Prize, which includes a $250,000 US cash award, from the Indianapolis Zoological Society.

"It's pretty exciting — it's about the top prize in our field globally," said Vincent, speaking on The Early Edition the day her win was publicly announced.

Vincent, a professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of B.C., where she directs Project Seahorse, is a leading expert on seahorse biology. She's studied them in 38 countries and co-authored a definitive taxonomy that helps distinguish between the 44 species. 

Though she was initially drawn to research seahorses' extraordinary biology, she soon discovered the massive hidden trade market that exploits them for souvenirs, aquarium decor and traditional medicine.

In 1996, Vincent was instrumental in getting seahorses included on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List — the world's most comprehensive guide to species' extinction risk.

Then, in 2002, she worked to persuade the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to adopt milestone legislation to limit global seahorse trade to sustainable and legal exports.

As of 2018, according to a media release from UBC, countries that previously exported 96 per cent of dried seahorses have suspended trade in the animals.

Vincent's work has not only brought attention to seahorses but has also helped develop effective approaches to conservation that have improved the status of many other marine animals, such as sharks and rays, and protected vast swathes of coastal habitat across the world.

Seahorses mate for life and are among the only animals on Earth where the male goes through pregnancy and labour. (National Aquarium)

"We have been able to put in place protected areas in many small communities around the world, and we've been able to introduce global export regulations for marine fishes," said Vincent.

One of the biggest threats to seahorses today, Vincent said, is fishing. According to her estimates, 70 million seahorses a year are killed by non-selective fishing gear.

She said bottom trawling, which involves large nets that essentially scrape the bottom of the sea and catch everything in their path, bears a large part of the blame.

"The good news is there are lots of ways forward," said Vincent, adding that once bottom trawling stops, ocean habitats can recover quickly.

According to the website proclaiming the prize winner, since 1996, Vincent and Project Seahorse have trained more than 175 professional conservationists and countless amateur conservation advocates, who now contribute to seahorse science and conservation through a citizen science program called iSeahorse.

Because of Vincent, there are now active seahorse conservation projects across six continents.

Amanda Vincent at a market in Beihai, China. (Amanda Vincent/Seahorse Project)

"Dr. Amanda Vincent's determination to protect our oceans and the species that inhabit it is nothing short of heroic," Rob Shumaker, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoological Society, said in a statement.

And how will the hero be using her winnings?

"I'm going to treat a lot of people who have made a difference and contributed and supported our conservation work over the years," said Vincent.

She also plans to get herself an electric bike.

Vincent is the eighth winner of Indianapolis Prize and the first to focus exclusively on marine conservation.

To hear the complete interview with Amanda Vincent on CBC's The Early Edition click here.

With files from The Early Edition