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App Makes Seahorse Conservation Public Effort

A seahorse in coral. (Photo Credit: Guido Borgenon/GuyLian)

Anyone can lend a hand to scientists working on seahorse conservation, thanks to a new iPhone app. iSeahorse is a website and app that allows fishermen, divers and scientists to record seahorse sitings and lobby for protection of the species. Katelyn Dick, iSeahorse citizen science program assistant, gave Sea Technology an overview of the program and why citizen science is an important tool for researchers.

What is the status of the seahorse population?

Every year, millions of seahorses are caught and traded, dead and alive, all over the world. They are displayed in aquariums, used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine and turned into curios.

Based on our research, we know that seahorses are vulnerable to overfishing and habitat damage. However, seahorses are difficult to study in the wild because of their ability to blend, chameleon-like, into their surroundings, and their near-global geographical range. According to the IUCN Red List, nine seahorses species are vulnerable and one is endangered, but 28 other seahorse species are listed as data deficient.

What types of data do scientists hope to receive from the program?

Any and all seahorse sightings submitted to iSeahorse are incredibly useful to us. This information will help us to further seahorse conservation efforts and help us learn more about seahorse biology. As users enter the coordinates or location of their seahorse sightings, we gain data on the distributions of different seahorse species. Many species have much larger suspected ranges than what our current data show. Knowing the distribution of a species is crucial when implementing conservation programs. It is also hugely important in preventing habitat destruction and influencing policy change.

How will the public record sightings?

Seahorse sightings are recorded through either our website or our free iPhone app available from the App Store. In order to start submitting your seahorse sightings, all you need to do is register for an iSeahorse account. Then, via the website or app, select 'add observation,' enter your data and photos, and click 'submit.' Easy as that.

Who can participate? Is there any training involved?

Absolutely anyone can participate, from scientists to someone on a beach vacation who just happens to see a seahorse! There is no training involved, and use of the website and app are completely free. Seahorse experts from Project Seahorse actively review posted sightings to help correctly identify the species. We also have several ID guides available, which can be used to help identify the different species or just to learn more about seahorses in general.

How many users have been recruited so far?

As of the beginning of July 2014 we have 370 users registered, with a total of 443 observations posted. We are still working to recruit more users and hope to see a continued increase as news of iSeahorse continues to spread.

Why is it important for the public to get involved?

While species conservation is a pressing concern globally, there is a huge gap between science and society. Much scientific data is either unavailable to the general public, or communicated through scientific publications, which are cumbersome and loaded with jargon unfamiliar to most people. Getting the public involved in science directly, by allowing them to contribute to research efforts and see the raw data for themselves, is a way to bridge this gap. Making involvement in science easy and accessible can facilitate a growing engagement in society with species conservation. Websites like iSeahorse create communities where scientists and citizen scientists can communicate and work together towards a common goal.

How can citizen science help in conservation efforts?

Studying a species in the wild is challenging. It requires time, energy, funding and experts willing to conduct research. Seahorses present even more of a challenge as they have huge geographical ranges, are quite small and are masters of camouflage. Globally there are fewer than 15 scientists studying seahorses in the wild. Relying on data only gathered by seahorse experts leaves a huge deficit in our information about these beautiful and mysterious animals. This is where citizen scientists come in; observations made by members of the public can help bridge the gap in our knowledge, and help progress seahorse conservation efforts globally.

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