"Kingdom of the Seahorse"

PBS Airdate: April 15, 1997
Go to the companion Web site

TONY KAHN: Tonight on NOVA, into the realm of one of the most elusive creatures of the sea, tiny, secretive. Seahorses reveal little of their fragile existence. Now, NOVA takes you into a hidden world of elaborate rituals where only the male gives birth. Surprises abound in the kingdom of the seahorse.

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TONY KAHN: Enchanting, almost magical in appearance, the seahorse is long inspired myth and legend. They pulled the chariot of the Greek god Poseidon. And in China, they're considered charms of love. They have the majestic head of a dragon and a grasping tail of a monkey. Their skin, stretched over a knobby skeleton resembles the armor of an insect, and free roving eyes circle like those of the chameleon. Yet seahorses are simply a type of fish. But unlike other fish, or most animals on earth, they possess one truly magical trait. In seahorses, it's the male who gets pregnant and gives birth. The mysteries of the seahorse kingdom hold an irresistible allure. Led by biologist, Amanda Vincent, this team is the first to track seahorse life in the wild. After rising at 4 a.m., they pull on scuba gear still wet from the day before and head into the cold and murky water of Sydney Harbor, Australia. Right off-shore in the shallows of this suburban bay lies a hidden realm, a thriving seahorse colony Amanda Vincent found in 1989. She has by now spent thousands of hours swimming with these remarkable creatures.

AMANDA VINCENT: One response I get if I say I study seahorses is disbelief. People say, "They don't really exist, do they?" And more or less classify them with the unicorn as a mythical animal and get positively excited when I say, "Not only do they exist but I work and live with them."

TONY KAHN: While they've captivated humans for thousands of years, the details of their secret lives are only now coming to light. They've remained mysteries of nature in part because they're among the most elusive of animals. This bright yellow species is easy to spot. But the other seahorses that live in the harbor are masters of disguise. They lie well obscured in thick sea grass beds. In the underwater meadow, the only clue to their presence may be the curl of a tail, or the glint of an eye.

AMANDA VINCENT: Seahorses are really very difficult to watch in the wild. My first attempt was a screaming disaster where I couldn't see anything, and it wasn't until I developed this really clear image of what a seahorse looked like that I was able to find them even in my sleep.

TONY KAHN: Camouflage is the best means of protection for these sedentary fish. Some have the ability to change color to match their surroundings, whether muted sea grass or brightly colored corral. Within minutes, a solid purple seahorse develops speckles when showered by the bubbles of an aquarium tank. If swept out into wide open seas, seahorses will seek shelter in any available cover. This floating mat of weeds a hundred miles off the Florida coast offers many hiding places. But predators also lurk here, so seahorses take a further step to protect themselves. This Sargassum fish may be puzzled. His potential prey has not only changed color, but has also grown spikes that help him blend into his floating home. But seahorses generally stay close to shore. In the shallows of most coastal waters throughout the world, from NOVA Scotia and as far south as Tasmania, some type of seahorse can be found, if you look carefully. These unusually upright fish are designed for stability rather than speed. A dorsal fin that flickers up to thirty-five times a second helps precision movement through the grassy maze. But they spend most time anchored to whatever hold is handy: sea grass, sponge or soft corral. They reach out to catch small crustaceans floating by. Seahorses have neither teeth nor stomachs, yet manage to digest thousands of tiny shrimp each day. They patiently watch as their prey come near, shift slightly to position themselves, and strike with a powerful suck. But the most intriguing thing about seahorses is their social life. And only in the wild, spending time in their domain, can biologists watch it unfold. Within a grassy meadow of Sidney Harbor lies a complex social world, one that Amanda Vincent has come to know well. Every year, about a hundred seahorses swim here from deeper waters to spend their seven month breeding season. Each is tagged with a numbered necklace. This allows Amanda's team to recognize every animal and observe the curious relationship between the sexes. In this world, the male is the homebody. He lays claim to a small patch of seabed, often clinging to the same blade of grass day in and day out. The one social interlude in an otherwise solitary day is when his partner arrives for her morning visit. It happens like clockwork, within a few hours of each dawn. And Amanda is there to take note. A female roams widely, passing through the territories of many males, but she has eyes only for her partner. She knows what he looks like, and knows where he lives. After their initial greeting, each seahorse pair perform a gentle and familiar dance. The couple entwine tails and promenade through the sea grass together. This daily ritual cements the strong bond between them. They make the most devoted of partners, remaining in pairs and scorning all others throughout the breeding season and maybe beyond.

AMANDA VINCENT: This is quite extraordinary in the animal world. Usually, we find that males are cheating madly and have a few other partners on the side, or females are off seeking more matings. And these seahorse, they're strictly faithful to one partner. And the way we've looked at this is by tracking individuals through the sea grass bed.

TONY KAHN: The researchers spend up to six hours a day under water, making rounds to check on each seahorse in the colony. Spending so much time with these fish, Amanda hardly needs the tags to tell them apart. Each seahorse has a distinctive look, and a crown on its head as unique as a thumbprint. They also have their own personalities.

AMANDA VINCENT: Well, I was particularly fond of male 97. He was just a handsome, big, solid seahorse who every now and then would throw a mild tantrum, and I liked that. Theoretically, we're never meant to ascribe any human emotions to animals, but to be honest, when you're under the water for half of your waking hours with a particular community of animals, it's very hard not to think that they have something in common with you and not to develop some rapport with them. We just have to be very careful not to let that social viewpoint enter the scientific research we're doing. And we try to be very detached on the actual data.

TONY KAHN: In the turbulent waters of the harbor, the seahorses must cling tightly to their blades of grass. They feel comfortable only as long as they have an anchor.

AMANDA VINCENT: There's something rather extraordinary about having a fish hold your hand. And seahorses just do that. If you want to handle a seahorse and you offer it a finger, it stays calm and relaxed as long as it can hold your hand.

TONY KAHN: Amanda carefully captures any new seahorse she finds in the colony. She leaves a clip behind to know where to return it. For the seahorse, this patch of sea grass is home. Back on shore, each animal can be measured and tagged.

AMANDA VINCENT: His partner is female 124.

TONY KAHN: Across all species, the size of an adult seahorse ranges from roughly half an inch to more than a foot. This Australian seahorse fits neatly in a human hand. By studying them over time, the researchers have found that seahorses grow continuously throughout their lives, which can be as long as four years.

AMANDA VINCENT: And the snout length is 11.1.

TONY KAHN: A pregnant seahorse from the study site has given birth. Amanda's team takes particular care with the tiny offspring, for these babies are unlike any in the world. They were born from a pregnant male like this one. Over the course of his breeding season, this seahorse will father over a thousand young, all nurtured within his body. The male seahorse is distinguished from the female by a pouch which acts as a womb. In seahorses, it's only the male who gets pregnant and gives birth. It was this extraordinary fact that first captivated Amanda. But to learn more about seahorse parenting took patience.

AMANDA VINCENT: I'd been studying seahorses for maybe five years before I ever saw a mating in the wild. And when you consider that my research was on their reproduction, their mating, that was a big gap in my understanding. And when finally, after nine hours in the water one day, I stuck with it and got a mating in full—full glory just in front of my mask, it was like finally—it was all paying off. It was just wonderful.

TONY KAHN: For the first time, seahorse mating in the wild has been captured on film. It begins with the greeting dance the pairs perform each morning. But then continues, like a slow moving minuet over the course of many hours. Each pair stays in tight formation. They move, tails entwined, to different resting places within the sea grass bed. At times, they cling to the same blade of grass and spin around it like a May pole. As the moment nears, the male seahorse twists his body, perhaps to signal that his pouch is empty and that he is eager to mate. With a rear of their heads, they are ready for the attempt. The male is on the left and it's actually possible to see his pouch bulge as it fills with eggs from the female. Fertilization takes place within his body. Back on the grassy sea floor, the male sways gently to settle the eggs in his pouch. His partner has left the rest of the work to him.

AMANDA VINCENT: A lot of people find it really difficult to believe me when I say it's the male that gets pregnant. And I think that's because we're mammals, and in mammals, by definition, it's the female that carries the young. Which raises a whole interesting perspective that we have to think about whether the roles of males and females are permanent and defined or fixed, or whether in fact there's quite a lot of flexibility.

TONY KAHN: In the animal kingdom, parenthood is a loosely defined term. Most underwater animals, like this sea urchin, invest little in each offspring. Their reproductive strategy relies on numbers rather than nurturing. This male releases clouds of sperm into the open water, while a female sea urchin spawns another cloud with thousands of eggs. Some fish do protect developing young from the dangers of the open water, but the means may strike us as unconventional. African cichlids incubate their offspring in their mouths. After sucking up eggs she's laid, the female cichlid entices the male in this circle dance. She may mistake spots on his fin for more eggs. When he releases sperm, she takes some into her mouth. After ten days of brooding, the young will hatch. Here it's the female who endures this bizarre form of labor. But it's not unusual for male fish to do the mothering, like this one building a nest for eggs he'll fertilize. In over half of the fish families known to care for their young, it's the male who invests the effort. This father is no exception. A close relative of the seahorse, pipefish provide clues to how male pregnancy may have evolved. Pipefish vary greatly in size and color, but on close inspection, all resemble seahorses that have been stretched and straightened out. A number of pipefish species form faithful pairs, and those that do engage in their own daily dance. The other close relatives of seahorses are the equally magical sea dragons. These leafy sea dragons from Southern Australia float well disguised among the weeds. In both sea dragons and pipefish, it's the male who carries the fertilized eggs to development. The eggs may be covered under a flap of skin or exposed on the belly of the fish. It's a form of male pregnancy, but the seahorse goes a step further, protecting the fertilized eggs in a womb-like pouch. Male seahorses may seem maternal, but they produce sperm, and this, by definition, makes them male. But do they show the macho behavior that's the norm among males in the animal kingdom? Do they fight over females? Or are the females the aggressors? To answer these questions, Amanda Vincent set up a sort of dating service in a laboratory aquarium. She puts a single male into a tank full of females. His pouch his empty and he's ready to mate. The females, ready and eager themselves, do compete for his attention, but the contest remains relatively tame. The situation is quite different when a single female is placed with two males. The gentle seahorses begin snapping and circling one another, vying for the chance to mate. Adding an additional male to the mix heightens the competition. Here, three determined suitors try to out-maneuver each other with tail wrestling, head butts, and body blocks, unusual moves for these docile fish. Even after one succeeds in winning the female's favor, the other two are so worked up, they continue chasing each other. For these males, as for others in the animal kingdom, nothing spurs aggression like the challenge of a rival. In the wild, such aggression is rarely seen, but other forces can interfere with mating. Occasionally, in the surge of turbulent waters, the male and female must struggle to position themselves. Some of this female's large clutch of eggs squirt into the sea instead of her partner. Despite the loss, the male settles down to tend the eggs he has received. In three weeks, he'll be ready to give birth. The King George Maternity Hospital in Sydney delivers five hundred babies a month, but they've never seen a patient like this one before. With the help of a narrow endoscope, Dr. Martha Hickey offers Amanda an astounding view right inside the pouch. The male seahorse has been anaesthetized.

AMANDA VINCENT: OK. That's it. I think we're in. OK. Goodness, what am I seeing now, I am a bit confused. Ah, there is something breaking loose because those are all the tissues they are wrapped in, each one has it's own pockets, you see the seahorse's eye, there's the tail and this—it's just breaking loose from its tissue pockets. These guys are ready to be born. Look at the eye. Can we get a better focus on that eye? There's the tail—ah! Brilliant. OK. Great, there's it's snout. See, it's breathing in the pouch. They're already, when they're born, they're fully independent, they're completely, fully formed seahorses. This is amazing.

TONY KAHN: The pouch is a self-contained world of its own. Each baby has it's own tissue pocket and it gets oxygen and nutrients from the father's blood stream. Surprisingly, their development is regulated by the same hormone as in mammals, prolactin. The male must withstand the constant activity of these near full-term babies. Some seahorses brood up to fifteen hundred young.

AMANDA VINCENT: He'll probably have about 150 or 200 young in there, something like that. Maybe—maybe ninety, I don't know. I'll have to have a look. He's not a very big male, so it may only be about ninety.

DR. MARTHA HICKEY: And they're very active inside. I'm surprised at how active they are.

AMANDA VINCENT: Well, I think he was probably going to give birth tonight. I had no idea he was this pregnant. I thought he was getting towards pregnancy, but these guys are just amazing. Gosh. I've always wanted to look inside one of these. This is a first.

TONY KAHN: The birth, itself, is equally remarkable. The labor begins at night. It can last as long as two days. The male has contractions. He pumps and thrusts to dislodge the young packed inside his pouch. Finally, the seal of the pouch bursts open, and tiny seahorses emerge. The fluid in the pouch has changed throughout the pregnancy to become similar to salt water, easing the shock for seahorse young. The day after his ordeal, the male is usually impregnated again. Immediately after birth, the young seahorses leave their father's care, fully formed and independent. But few will survive the dangers of the ocean. Their first threat is starvation. They must catch thousands of tiny shrimp each day. They struggle to anchor themselves to the sea floor, but they're often cast adrift on ocean currents. By six months, the survivors are ready to find mates. At this size, they are stronger, but still not safe. They are prone to parasites and diseases, devoured by crabs and tuna, skates and rays. But the greatest threat to their survival lies beyond the ocean. Millions of seahorses are sold each year for use in traditional Chinese medicine. And Hong Kong is the center of this trade. Amanda Vincent came here to find out more. What she saw shocked her.

AMANDA VINCENT: When I see complete mounds of seahorses like this, I'm completely struck by the fact that I've never seen this many living seahorses in my life, and here they are in a great big heap and I can't even imagine the range, the number of places they must have come from to fill buckets like this. And I know that there are many more buckets like this.

TONY KAHN: The seahorse trade is legal and unregulated, and demand for seahorses is growing rapidly.

AMANDA VINCENT: I guess I get frightened because I have no idea how many seahorses there are in the world. I know that seahorse's populations are declining and I don't know at what rate. I just feel like we're not in control of what's happening here.

TONY KAHN: Seahorses come from dozens of countries, from Belize and Brazil to Vietnam and Malaysia. In a single year, over a hundred thousand were fished in Florida alone where trawling boats are equipped to harvest a catch in quantity. This fisherman makes his living primarily from shrimp, but he keeps an eye out for other goods caught in his net. As it skims over the ocean floor, the trawl may trap or kill any number of animals that make their home in the sea grass. When shrimp are separated from the other sea life, seahorses are often part of the mix, including pregnant males. Even if they are kept alive, their young will not survive. Most of the seahorses found will be sold. A few injured are swept back with the debris. In other parts of the world, the fishermen may be less well-equipped, but they're even more determined to catch their quarry. Seahorse fishing is critical to the livelihoods of thousands in the Philippines. In the village of Handumon, Nestor Botero is one of the fisherman who hunts them. Six nights a week he heads out to a reef armed with a bucket and a lantern. The seahorses emerge from crevices in the corral during the night. Even though it's dark, and Nestor is diving as deep as thirty feet on one breath of air, he is still able to find them. Once spotted, a seahorse is easy to catch. Rather than fleeing, a threatened animal will grasp its perch all the more tightly, relying on camouflage and body armor for protection. But all to no avail when the predator is an expert human fisherman. Most of the seahorses caught around the world end up in Hong Kong. So it was here that Amanda, rather cautiously, began her investigation.

AMANDA VINCENT: You can't go in straightforwardly and say, "Hey, I'm here to find out about the seahorse trade." Instead, you have to approach it quietly, so some days I was just a silly little giddy tourist who just wanted to buy a yellow seahorse for my brother who wanted one as a souvenir. And other days, I was interested in explaining that we wanted to culture seahorses and was there a market and to raise capital in the West, we'd have to know how big the market was and looking for serious figures and data. Nearly every importer we visited in China needed a hundred kilos, five hundred kilos, a ton tomorrow. Are you able to get lots of seahorses? How many more seahorses could he use every month if we could supply them?

MERCHANT: They want more than three hundred to five hundred kilograms or endless, whatever you've got.

TONY KAHN: Five hundred kilograms, half a ton, is a lot of seahorses. In the Philippines, fisherman like Nestor Botero may catch only a few each night, and the buyers are hungry for more. A seahorse this size earns Nestor fifteen pesos, only about sixty cents. By the time they get to Hong Kong, weight for weight, seahorses are more valuable than silver. Bleached and dried, seven seahorses are worth over seventy-five dollars. The mystique surrounding these remarkable animals has been their downfall. They are sold as if there's no limit to their medicinal powers, as everything from a heart disease cure to an aphrodisiac.

AMANDA VINCENT: Who uses these? Men or women, uses these mostly?

DOCTOR: Mainly men. They use it to become more manly. Something like that.

AMANDA VINCENT: So for sexual function, sexual disorders and things like that?

DOCTOR: Oh not disorder, but just to become a little bit stronger—

AMANDA VINCENT: More virile. Yes.

DOCTOR: We believe that when they alive they stay together in the sea, I mean for their lives. So we believe that they have a great ability for otherwise they couldn't stay that long for life together.

AMANDA VINCENT: And so you believe that because they form pairs for life, it must be because they're sexually happy, is that right?

DOCTOR: That's right.

TONY KAHN: One grave concern to Amanda is the move from the sale of whole animals to seahorses that are ground up for prepackaged pills and capsules.

AMANDA VINCENT: Seahorse genital tonic pills. And what's the ingredient in here?

MERCHANT: They mix it with lots of other medicines.

AMANDA VINCENT: So seahorses and other things.

MERCHANT: And other things, as well.

TONY KAHN: These prepackaged medicines feed a fast growing market, driven largely by economic expansion in China. And they're used in other countries, as well.

AMANDA VINCENT: That one, is that Japanese?

MERCHANT: Yes, that's Japanese.

AMANDA VINCENT: So they must sell these in Japan, as well.

MERCHANT: Japanese like this a lot.

AMANDA VINCENT: The Japanese like—

MERCHANT: There's a very big market over there.

AMANDA VINCENT: The best estimate at the moment is that something like twenty million seahorses are used every year in Chinese medicine alone. And that's a conservative estimate. I'm having to revise it upwards all the time. It is impossible to know exactly what impact that's having on wild populations. I mean nobody else is underwater looking at seahorses.

TONY KAHN: Seahorses are collected for more than use in Chinese medicine. Hundreds of thousands are sold live for display in aquarium tanks. With their extraordinary looks, it's no wonder that seahorses are collector's items, and those that come in brilliant colors are particularly prized. Seahorses might appear well-suited for aquarium life, but few adults thrive, and their young fair even less well.

AMANDA VINCENT: I think it's really important to realize that any seahorse you see in the aquarium or in captivity has come directly from wild populations. Very few are captive bred. And the way seahorses are traded right now, many, many of the seahorses that come into the aquarium trade are still juveniles. So, you're taking the very young seahorses from the wild populations before they can even get around to breeding. They get a lot of diseases. And it's extremely rare for anybody to manage to raise young to adulthood.

TONY KAHN: Some aquariums have the skill and resources to care for seahorses, but most hobbyists who collect them do not. As this trade grows, survival of seahorses in the wild is further endangered. The trip to Hong Kong helped convince Amanda that she had to do something. She found support to set up a conservation project in the Philippines, a small crusade to save the seahorse. She entered a remote world with little idea of the challenges ahead.

AMANDA VINCENT: I guess I didn't know when I came to the Philippines what I was going to find. I'd never been to the Philippines until I started looking into the whole seahorse trade issue.

TONY KAHN: She would soon discover just how vital seahorses are to this area. Nine hundred people live in the village of Handumon, and their lives revolve around the sea. It might look idyllic, but this is one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. By catching fish, Nestor Botero can feed his family. But to earn hard cash, he has to find seahorses.

NESTOR BOTERO: I've been fishing seahorses for eighteen years. They're very important to the livelihood of my family because I use them to buy food and medicine.

TONY KAHN: Over half of Nestor's income is from seahorses, and with this money, he can buy rice for his family of nine. But there is trouble ahead. Each morning as the villagers compare catches, the buckets are nearly empty. A few years ago, they would bring in as many as fifty seahorses from a night's work. Today, they are lucky if they catch fifteen. It's a dire situation, for both the villagers and seahorses.

NESTOR BOTERO: Seahorse fishing has changed over the years. Before, there were very few fishermen. Now there are many more, and that's why the seahorses are disappearing.

AMANDA VINCENT: If you asked the fishers what would happen if the seahorse populations totally collapsed, if there were no seahorses to catch, they almost refuse to consider it because it's such a frightening prospect. One of our main jobs here is to make sure that we work simultaneously for the seahorses and the seahorse fishers. It's actually quite easy because we want the same thing as the seahorse fishers. We want there to be enough seahorses that you can fish off a few without losing the entire species.

TONY KAHN: This scenario would work only if Amanda could convince the villagers to radically change their fishing practices. Not surprisingly, she faced some resistance. But at her side to help was Marivic Pajaro of a Philippine conservation group, a biologist herself. She tried to enlist the villager's support.

MARIVIC PAJARO: We were very hopeful that the project would go well. It's just that we had some doubts about the village accepting us, because we don't know them, they don't know us, especially there's Amanda, a Westerner, so a white—a white lady, so they would call. We had to consult the village if they would be willing to work with us.

AMANDA VINCENT: The meeting seemed to be going pretty calmly until eventually one man, Nong Nestor, developed enough confidence to say, "What are you really here for? What are you actually trying to do?"

TONY KAHN: Amanda didn't realize it, but there were rumors about her ulterior motives. Handumon is a tight-knit community and the mayor of the village, in particular, was suspicious.

GREGORIO BOTERO: When Amanda first came here, some people said that she was looking for sunken gold, and we were all worried about the motives of her project.

TONY KAHN: Amanda had to convince the people of Handumon that she went diving, not to find gold, but to learn more about the seahorses there. And ultimately, it was her seahorse expertise that was the key to gaining their trust. She found on her dives that the seahorses of the Philippines behaved much like others she knew from around the world. Pregnant males stayed put in their own small territories. And their faithful partners were often at their sides. When she shared her insights about seahorse life with the local fisherman, the tide began to turn.

NESTOR BOTERO: I believe what Amanda said because I also see the male and female seahorses face each other underwater.

TONY KAHN: Amanda also had new things to teach them.

AMANDA VINCENT: I think a lot of people are really surprised that it's actually the male that gives birth.

TONY KAHN: The women found this more amusing than men.

NANG LUDY: The seahorses are doing it right, so the males will experience the pains of the birth.

TONY KAHN: Amanda was on the right track, but her style had to be tempered.

MARAVIC PAJARO: She could get imposing, and we would get into arguments with her. She could be very excited and she would go go go. And I would say calm down Amanda, your pace is too fast for us. So, in the end, we would settle it. We would understand her, she would understand us, so our partnership for now is going well.

TONY KAHN: The gradual approach began to pay off, as biologists and local people worked together to design a conservation plan. The old-timers of Handumon had much to teach the scientists. They could point out areas where various species once thrived and now were scarce. The villagers also agreed to help the project by showing the biologists their seahorses before they sold them. This was a simple way of finding out the types and numbers of seahorses they caught, and where they fished for them. While the seahorses were measured, the biologists questioned the fishermen for extra details. One young villager has even joined Amanda's team. Milo Soscias used to catch seahorses himself, and his knowledge of the fishing practice has made him invaluable.

AMANDA VINCENT: We got really worried because so many of the fishers were bringing in pregnant males. And when you take a male and kill him, you also kill the young. You can try asking the fishers not to catch pregnant males, but realistically, if they leave them in the sea, somebody else will take them. It's just a fishery where everybody fishes everywhere. So we were trying to think of some way where the fishers wouldn't lose money, but we would be able to get those young into the wild.

TONY KAHN: Together with the fishermen, they came up with an elegant solution. Now, whenever a pregnant male is captured, he's placed inside a cage. Here, the protected male can safely give birth. The tiny newborn can slip away through the mesh out into the open sea. The fathers, trapped inside, are then collected. As the benefits of the project became clear, the villagers agreed to take a bold step: to set aside an area of the reef where fishing was banned altogether. This sanctuary will protect seahorses and all the other wildlife in its borders.

AMANDA VINCENT: So it's a complete sanctuary now. The sanctuary has only been going for about eight months now, I suppose it's been enforced. And what's exciting everybody is how quickly we're starting to see results. All the fishers are talking about how many more fishes there are in there, and the seahorses are certainly recovering rather quickly. When we walk around the village, it's a source of pride that comes up over and over again that they are making a difference. So now, what we're trying to do is track and see what's happening to the catches outside the reserve.

TONY KAHN: The villagers skilled in the art of spotting seahorses help the biologists monitor their population. There is evidence that not only are numbers booming inside the sanctuary, but there are more seahorses outside its borders. The young born here apparently drift to other sections of the reef. But the very success of the sanctuary introduced a new problem. Poachers. More and more fishermen from neighboring islands entered the sanctuary to take the rich pickings. The people of Handumon decided to put a stop to it, and with Amanda's help, they obtained a new boat dedicated to patrolling the sanctuary. Each evening the boat heads out to protect the seahorses from poachers.

AMANDA VINCENT: There's nowhere else in this part of the Philippines where there's an enforced sanctuary the way that the villagers have chosen to enforce this one. And it stirred people up a lot. This village is now not allowing illegal fishing, they're patrolling all their waters, and their sanctuary, particularly carefully. So this has upset a lot of local people who just accepted that illegal fishing or rules against illegal fishing would never be enforced. They never have been before, why would you think they would be now?

TONY KAHN: But Amanda had an even more ambitious plan. Fish farming. Now the Handumon villagers are building an underwater corral for a whole seahorse colony. If it works, farming seahorses could one day replace fishing from the wild.

AMANDA VINCENT: These are the first pairs. Some of the fishers already promised that they'd give pairs to put in this corral. So this was the first pair that was brought in this morning, and you see, he's already pregnant, so it will be a good start.

TONY KAHN: Besides its conservation goal, seahorse farming could provide an economic base for the village. This corral will be big enough for dozens of breeding pairs. There's talk about one day collecting the young that are born here and raising them to adulthood in tanks on shore. But this will be difficult because the captive young need a constant supply of live food. Each day, they consume up to three thousand brine shrimp. The outlook for seahorse farming is uncertain. But there is reason to hope that the future for seahorse conservation will be secure.

AMANDA VINCENT: We decided that we really needed to ensure that when we leave as a team, which leave we will one day, there had to be something left behind. So we established a scholarship, a high school scholarship, whereby that person would spend one or two days a week with us as an apprentice in marine conservation. We've been really lucky in our first scholarship student. Milo has just been an exciting find. He was a seahorse fisher, so he has a very strong understanding of some of the problems of the seahorse fishery, but he also spreads a lot of our messages to other people.

TONY KAHN: Spreading the word has already paid big dividends. News of the Handumon project has reached neighboring villages, and they've started to change their fishing practices, seeing conservation as a way to build up dwindling seahorse populations.

AMANDA VINCENT: It's very exciting that obviously the villagers, themselves, are talking about this project in positive terms and spreading the ideas, because that's the way that we're going to expand the scope of the initiatives really, really quickly, is if the village decides it wants to tell other people about it. And that's obviously what's happening.

TONY KAHN: The people of this neighboring village have now set up their own wildlife sanctuary. It's solid evidence that the efforts of Amanda's team are paying off. While their motives may vary, the end goal of fishermen and conservationists may be the same.

AMANDA VINCENT: In general terms, there are two approaches to conservation. Quite a number of people feel it very important to protect the individuals of the species very closely by putting up fences or by putting trade bans on them. The other approach, I suppose, is just accepting that those animals cannot all be protected, not each and everyone of them, and instead you need to work towards ensuring that the population survive and just some individuals will be killed and will die. The latter approach, I think, is more sustainable, so we're working very hard to integrate what people need with what the animals, themselves, need and building for a future for both.

NESTOR BOTERO: We are collaborating in the project, and I am very happy that we are a part of it, because we believe that this project will increase the number of seahorses in the future. And these seahorses are very important to our families.

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