The imagery was bleak — a miles-long gash of devastation churning up every plant, animal and form of life in its path.
Dr. Amanda Vincent painted the picture, asking the audience assembled Tuesday at Franklin College to picture razor wire ripping up your favorite park, forest or greenspace.
Such an irresponsible action would never be tolerated on land, Vincent said. Yet it was being done every day on the ocean floor.
“There are hundreds of thousands of bottom trawlers doing exactly that to the ocean every day — taking out all of the sponges and the corals and the sea grasses, leaving devastation and taking every worm, every fish, every sea turtle, sharks that are bottom dwelling,” she said. “It’s insanity.”
Vincent has emerged as one of the world’s foremost advocates for marine life conservation. What started as research and a commitment to protecting seahorses has grown to focus on improving the conservation status of marine animals ranging from sharks to rays to eels. Her current focus is on bottom trawling, the incredibly destructive and wasteful fishing method involving scraping the bottom of the ocean.
Speaking before a crowd of about 50 people at Franklin College, Vincent shared her vision for ongoing conservation — how it began with the unique nature of the seahorse and grew into something much larger.
“It started with these funny little creatures. They still remain the guiding lodestar for everything we do, so we don’t end up regressing into a thousand tangents, and mostly because they’re just so splendid. But there are massive numbers of splendid things in our world, and we need to work together to try and find ways to secure a better future,” she said.
For her work, Vincent is the recipient of this year’s Indianapolis Prize, an award given to individuals who have made extraordinary contribution to wildlife conservation. She had previously been nominated in 2010 and 2016, but this is the first time she has won.
Vincent’s dedication to conservation made her a natural fit for the Indianapolis Prize.
“Dr. Amanda Vincent’s determination to protect our oceans and the species that inhabit (them) is nothing short of heroic,” said Dr. Rob Shumaker, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoological Society, which presents the Indianapolis Prize every other year. “Dr. Vincent brings a collaborative, culturally sensitive and solutions-focused approach to ocean conservation. She inspires people to action and drives positive outcomes for marine species. It’s our privilege to recognize and reward her for her immeasurable impact on ocean conservation and the future of seahorses around the world.”
The Indianapolis Prize has been awarded every two years since 2006 to giants in the world of conservation. The prize recognizes and rewards conservationists who have achieved major victories in advancing the sustainability of an animal species or group of species.
Winners receive an unrestricted $250,000 award, which goes back into the vital work they’ve been doing. Vincent will now be able to advocate for more attention on the oceans, she said.
“Through the perspective of seahorses, we have inspired many, many people globally to safeguard ocean life. The Indianapolis Prize now gives us an even bigger platform to invite and empower people to take meaningful conservation action,” Vincent said.
Vincent is a professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. She started studying seahorses underwater in 1986, the first biologist to ever do so. She was attracted by the animals’ strange biological functions — such as the males of the species being the ones that get pregnant, and the monogamy of some species.
She is credited with bringing attention to the 44 known species of seahorses. But through her research, she found that the animals face increasing threats from over-fishing, as seahorses are used for traditional medicines, aquarium displays and souvenirs.
In 1996, she co-founded Project Seahorse. The marine conservation organization is focuses on researching and implementing effective conservation interventions in fisheries, protected areas, trade and policy.
The group has helped create 35 marine protected areas — dedicated areas of the ocean where no fishing is allowed, and the populations of seahorses and other marine fishes thrive.
Vincent helped lead the charge to convince the conservation community to include seahorses on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “red list,” the authoritative guide on the status of biological diversity. In 2002, she was instrumental in persuading the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to include seahorses as a species which could only be traded sustainably and limited to legal exports.
As seahorses became the first marine animal on that list, it opened the door for other animals to soon join it, such as basker sharks and whale sharks, then later sawfish, hammerhead sharks and manta rays, among other species.
“Marine fish were now wildlife. That’s really splendid when you get that recognition, although it’s something we have to push constantly,” Vincent said.
Rather than ban all trade outright, she has worked to with local communities, industry groups, aquariums and governments around the world to develop sustainable approaches to seahorse trade. Her efforts have also helped curtail the illegal trade of the animals.
Her successes have made an impact. But Vincent’s most pressing challenge now is addressing bottom trawling. The fishing method involves ships dragging huge weighted open-ended nets along the bottom of the ocean, scooping up everything they can find.
A well-managed trawling operation will have a 15% target catch, and 85% stuff that it didn’t mean to get, Vincent said. Almost all of the biomass taken during trawling is then turned into food for fish farms or livestock feed.
“Now, they don’t even have a target. Many, many of the trawling fisheries in the world are so far along this path of insanity that they go out just to catch life, just to catch carbon. It doesn’t matter what it is — a worm is worth as much as a shark,” she said. “It’s all reduced to these piles of indiscriminate marine life.”
As the Indianapolis Prize winner, Vincent has been speaking at events throughout central Indiana, including the Indianapolis Prize Gala held on Sept. 25. Franklin College has hosted prize winners for presentations in the past, and three members of its board of trustees — Devin Anderson, Doug Tillman and Susan Williams — also serve on the board of the Indianapolis Zoo.
Franklin College President Kerry Prather attended the Indianapolis Prize Gala, and realized during the event how fitting Vincent’s message would be for the student body.
“She and her career reflect the very best of two central Franklin College values. First is her commitment to life-long learning, as evidenced by her continued efforts to positively impact the environment and our world,” Prather said. “And the second is that she has always learned by doing, reflective of the engaged learning philosophy which is the most distinctive aspect of the Franklin College student experience.”
Vincent used her experience to illustrate the need for scientists, and people as a whole, to look how interconnected the world is and to focus on more than just research.
Seahorses were the entryway into her conservation efforts, but the focus had to expand to include marine life as a whole, she said.
“I can guarantee you that if I spent my career doing biological research on seahorses, one I wouldn’t be standing here tonight, but more importantly, we would have made very little difference to the world,” she said. “Research is invaluable, and we do it all the time, but our job is to translate that research and share it with people who might be able to employ it, whether to fascinate children or to inform local council decisions on parkland or to guide foreign policy.”
Dr. Amanda Vincent
Current role: Director and co-founder of Project Seahorse; professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at The University of British Columbia
Focus: Seahorse conservation
Education: Bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Western Ontario; doctorate in zoology from the University of Cambridge
Awards: Winner of the 2021 Indianapolis Prize, which recognizes and rewards conservationists who have achieved major victories in advancing the sustainability of animal species or groups of species.