Amanda Vincent is a Canadian marine biologist and conservationist, and one of the world’s leading experts on seahorses and their relatives. She is a professor at the UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Vincent co-founded and directs Project Seahorse, an interdisciplinary and international organisation committed to conservation and sustainable use of the world’s coastal marine ecosystems.
- In 2 sentences, explain your work with the HWHF?
We are working with the HWHF to help support Biscayne National Park in Florida, using seahorses as powerful symbols of marine magic. Emilie Stump on our team is studying seahorse and pipefish ecology and then we will all help share her stories widely to excite people about the Park.
- Describe what your organization does best
Project Seahorse is a small and nimble team that gets things done. We are really good at finding leverage points where our thoughtful action can provoke big gains in conservation. We get people excited about seahorses and the ocean then enlist them in setting up protected areas, building new alliances, changing policy or controlling trade. We’ve won a fair few awards for making measurable change.
- What’s the best part of your day?
The very early hours when I can really think, before anybody needs me. Then my kids wake for their cuddle and the day gets even better.
- What are you currently working on?
One of our foci right now is on making sure that the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is effective for marine fishes, especially seahorses. We’re working on improving trade regulations, so exports don’t damage wild populations, and on reducing illegal sourcing. Marine protected areas are key management tools.
- When did you know you wanted to be a(n) marine conservationist ?
I’ve always had this huge love affair with the ocean – it’s a visceral thing – and I’ve always had a fierce drive to make the world a better place. At first I thought I was going to work in international politics then I discovered the wonders of biology. Conservation lets me combine both … and so much more !
- What piece of advice would you give someone looking to break into this field?
Wherever you see a problem, propose a solution. Show creativity, be willing to take risks, take advantage of unexpected opportunities, retain and build optimism. Oh, and do it your way. There is no formula.
- What do you read for fun?
I focus on the news, the history of our daily lives, and tales of adventure travel and wild places. One of my all-time favourite books would be The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin. Our best family reads recently have been A Pebble for your Pocket (Thich Nhat Hanh) and Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny (John Himmelman).
- Are you a Windows or Apple person?
Apple all the way, since before they had hard drives. I well remember feeding those floppy discs in and out of the Mac’s slot in a perpetual loop.
- What’s one thing you can’t work without?
My conservation buddies. I am so lucky to have the most wonderful network of friends who care just as much about the ocean and its health as I do. We don’t necessarily talk often but we are always there for each other. My teammates at Project Seahorse are the most central part of that community, of course.
- Who do you admire and why?
Gosh, let me start with three very different people. Elvira Bohol, a Filipina friend from a small and poor fishing community, who is filled with hopes that have to be tempered by reality but who still gives everything she can to help the ocean. Rachel Carson, who showed tremendous courage in her pioneering environmental work and was such a splendid communicator, too. Hugh Possingham, a hugely bright colleague in Australia, who advises government with great integrity and pokes comfortable professionals into action around the world.
- What’s the most interesting place you have ever been (for work)?
The subsistence fishing village of Handumon, on Jandayan Island off Bohol in the central Philippines. I’ve travelled widely and had many great adventures but nowhere else has interested me quite as much. I first visited Handumon in 1993 and over the following decades came to know the people and marine life of this village very well. Such familiarity means I really appreciate the challenges of reconciling fisheries and conservation in this area. If we can get it right there, we can do it anywhere. My daughter Andaya is named after this island.
- What’s the most interesting thing you have ever done?
Crumbs. Just one ? Let’s go for my most memorable early job. I worked on a contract sheep shearing team in the Australian outback. I was a rouseabout in perpetual motion, penning sheep, grabbing and flinging fleeces, and having lamb testicles chucked at me by the shearers. All in blazing heat, for months and months. Oddly, it gave me an enduring love of Australia.
- What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled for your work?
Living in western Canada, South Africa is about as far as we can go, short of Antarctica. I was most recently in Johannesburg in September 2016, working on regulating marine fish exports under CITES. I did manage two days in the bush with wildlife, but it wasn’t enough. So I’m entirely eager to return to South Africa … or go to Antarctica, if anybody’s offering ?
- What accomplishment are you most proud of?
We managed to get the first global export controls for any marine fishes, using a CITES mechanism that allows only sustainable trade. Our follow up work then led to the first global trade ban for any marine fish. We deployed a huge array of scientific, management and policy work to effect these changes. And are now working to get the banned trade re-opened in a well-regulated manner; that would be another first.
- What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
End bottom trawling. Massive nets are dragged along the ocean floor, grabbing most marine life and destroying marine habitats. Then most of what they catch is turned into chicken feed or fish feed. In some areas, there’s no target species any more. The target is life itself to be converted to death. We need many more marine protected areas that exclude trawls, immediately.
- What’s your favorite activity outside of work?
Natural history outings, hiking or travelling with my kids, ages 7 & 10. They are fabulously interested in everything, and are great companions. You just can’t faze them with spider hunts, 20 km mountain walks, or adventure packed travel.
- If you were on an island and could only bring three things – what would they be?
An island ? Hooray, that means ocean. My dive mask, lots of paper & pencils, and a charged iPhone for when I have worked it all out and want to tell the world about my ideas.
- How do you define success and how do you measure it?
Ultimately, professionally, I care about whether we have healthy fish populations. We’ve achieved that sometimes but it can take a while. So I measure success in the shorter-term by how much our actions and outputs actually influence other people to take action for the ocean. This could mean fishers, other ocean users, communities, managers, policy-makers and more. My metrics are whether they have reined in excessive fishing, ended a destructive practice, protected a seagrass bed … in short, helped the ocean.
- Who were the most important people to help you create success in your life and what did they do for/with you?
My ever adventurous parents who encouraged me to make own rules while being very respectful of other people’s needs. My PhD supervisor who sometimes made me cross at the time but planted really important intellectual seeds. Two of my most enduring buddies on Project Seahorse, Heather Koldewey and Sarah Foster, who have given unstinting (although, thankfully, not always uncritical) support.
- If you could do something as a career other than what you are doing now (no limits) what would it be?
I’d love to be an investigative journalist for a global news outlet. The right blend of mind and heart can, if armed with a big dollop of courage, influence so many people and provoke so much change. Two examples spring to mind: Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Martha Mendoza of The Associated Press. I so admire both, not least for their work on women’s issues and slavery in fisheries.
- What are your top 3 favorite movies of all time?
They’d all be happy ones. I dislike nasty or scary, getting quite enough of that in my professional life. Honestly, though, I don’t remember films that well. Mamma Mia and BBC’s Blue Planet from David Attenborough – properly a TV series, I suppose – would be my first picks. I really enjoyed Far from the Madding Crowd recently.
- What are you doing now that will make a positive difference for future generations?
All our work is directed at safeguarding masses of seahorses in healthy marine communities. If we save seahorses, we will have helped save the seas.
- What question did we not ask but should ask the next person?
How do you stay optimistic in today’s world ? My answer: Walk along a public beach, stop to explain marine life to your kids, and see how quickly other people – kids and grownups alike – stop to listen and query you. The excitement is there, waiting to be tapped.