Amanda Vincent

“We Have No Choice But To Care”

This marine conservationist uses her talents to not only save seahorses, but also belt out Arrogant Worms tunes with her kids.


Amanda Vincent is a Professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, where she studies marine conservation. We asked her everything from what inspired her to become a researcher to what she is reading in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What inspired you to become a researcher?
I ended up in marine conservation because I loved the ocean and was appalled by what was happening to it. I always imagined I would work in a non-governmental organization until I realized I would have a lot more freedom in academia. The combination of research, applied scholarship, teaching, mentoring, and outreach in my job makes me happy.

What do you like most about your work?
Telling people that I work on male pregnancy! We use seahorses as flagship species for the ocean and they are pretty alluring. Also, I love our mix of research and policy activity, all of it global and all of it directed at finding solutions. I may start the day looking at biological data from Australia, be advising on international trade by lunch, and spend the afternoon absorbed with outreach to dive operators in Asia. Through all this, I get to work with great colleagues to help fantastic species and spaces.

What do you envision in the future of your field?
Marine conservation can only become more and more important. The ocean constitutes 99% of the world’s living space, provides a huge amount of our food security and regulates our climate in critical ways. We have no choice but to care. Reconciling human need and the conservation of spaces and species won’t be easy. But all countries have now committed to protecting 10% of the ocean, as a starting point.

How will your research make a difference in people’s lives?
Make them immeasurably better, I hope. My research and other scholarly activities are all directed at securing healthy oceans, especially in coastal waters. So my team is involved in work on sustainable fisheries, food security, ecologically-sound trade and good governance. It turns out that conservation is much more about helping people do the right thing than it is about science.

What advice would you give to young researchers?
Set priorities well. Classify all work as rocks, pebbles or sand. The rocks are the significant elements that will actually make a difference if you do them well. The pebbles are the bits and pieces that might be very useful or that it would be risky or unfair to ignore. The sand is that stuff that can easily flood your life, such as unsolicited emails or talkfest meetings.

Put the rocks in place, add some pebbles where you can, then let the sand fill any gaps. If you start with the sand, you will never have time or energy or resources for the big stuff. I plan each and every working day and only deal with emails when my conservation or academic priorities have been tackled.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 
Professionally, it is providing the research and policy advice that convinced a United Nations Convention to implement the first global export controls for marine fishes, starting with the quirky seahorses. Now 182 countries must limit exports for seahorses to sustainable levels that do not damage wild populations. Failure to do has resulted in export bans for three countries, again the first for any marine fish. Our pioneering trade controls on seahorses helped create similar export regulations for sharks, manta rays, humphead wrasse and other marine fishes. It’s great fun to be part of developing a new tool for marine conservation.

What do you read?
At the moment, I’m reading A Pebble for your Pocket by Thich Nhat Hanh with my 10-year-old daughter. It is “mindful stories for children and grown-ups” in simple vignettes. I may finally be grasping the essence of Buddhism and how to transform anger (in theory, at least). The corollary is that every time I ask my daughter to decide which household chore she would like to do, she closes her eyes with a blissful smirky grin and declares that “I am living in the moment”.

What natural talent would you like to be gifted with?
An ability to make people feel immediately valued and eager to contribute, while still being able to mobilize people to get things done effectively.

What’s on your iPod/CD collection/turntable?
Arrogant Worms. My kids and I do mean versions of “I Am Cow” and “Canada’s Really Big”. We belt them out at any and all times, whether fun or inopportune.

If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be and why? 
Rachel Carson, because she loved the ocean as much as I, and made a huge difference to natural world. I so admire her gumption and brains, and would love to brainstorm on how best to tackle some of today’s thorny environmental issues.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be? 
The list is endless. Ideally an opinion-forming (I hope) investigative journalist like Nicholas Kristof or Martha Mendoza. Or an environmental lawyer, the type who pushes the government to implement laws? Or perhaps a guide for wilderness trips? This is a question I have asked many people. Interestingly, many more women than men have a list of ideas and options in reserve.

What do you like to do for fun?
Get outdoors. It can be hiking or biking or watching my kids play soccer. But best of all is to be thrashing around in the ocean, of course. Playing in the surf near Tofino, on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, is pretty magical but so is just fossicking around in a tide pool, finding animals under the algae.

Do you have a favourite motto/words to live by?
There’s the one that my kids hear all the time: “That’s a problem. What’s the solution?”  This question really matters to me. The world is full of complainers. I want my children – and my students – to be people who propose and find solutions. Which leads to my other favourite mantra: “There’s no such thing as perfect action (or advice). The choice is imperfect action or none at all”. Researchers are far too determined to withhold advice until they have perfect knowledge, thus rendering themselves irrelevant for meeting societal needs. We need to take our courage in both hands, express any caveats, and offer up some options for action.

Aside from things for your survival, what item would you most want to have with you on a deserted island? 
An island means an ocean! So I’d want a dive mask, a fishing rod, and an iPad with solar charger. That way I could have huge fun, eat some fish, write about things I saw and thought … and call for help when I wanted to get off. Not too soon, though.

Want to learn more about Prof. Vincent’s research? Check out her Orange Chair Interview on seahorses and marine conservation.