Year in Review: Seahorses 2012
As the new year looms, I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on the news and research about seahorses and their relatives over the past year. Much has happened, and as interest in these strange fish continues to grow, we can expect many more exciting developments on the horizon. There is more to report than I could possibly include in one article, but here are some of the highlights.
Ebay EU Bans Seahorses
A big one this year that affected many of people in both good and bad ways was ebay banning the sale of seahorses from their European site. The motive behind it was to stop the illegal sale of seahorses, championed by the Seahorse Trust. However, it also ended up putting an end to legal sales of captive bred seahorses, which in it’s own way hampers conservation efforts by putting a burden on the small breeder. And it unfortunately does nothing for the seahorses being sold on any of the non-eu sites, which many sellers will still send to the EU. For instance, Ebay has repeatedly ignored complaints about the Dwarf Seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae, being sold and shipped to customers in the EU illegally. You can read more about the ban at Pet Business World.
A little Seahorse in danger?
Speaking of Hippocampus zosterae, the US government is considering a petition to put this 1 inch Florida seahorse on the endangered species list. The petition is the work of the Center for Biological Diversity, and blame the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as the motive for protecting them. They point out that H. zosterae has a very limited range and is vulnerable to manmade and natural disasters, while habitat destruction and pollution is leaving them with less seagrass, which H. zosterae calls home.
Several pet advocacy groups have come out against this petition, citing lack of hard data and disputing the conclusions of the Center for Bioligical Diversity, including one conflating the decline of seahorses collected with decreased numbers. The conclusion they draw is likely incorrect as captive bred seahorses are now much prefered by aquarists to wild caught seahorses. A smaller demand, opponents argue, is a more likely cause for fewer wild ones being collected; not a decrease in population.
Additionally, the dwarf seahorse is already protected both by Florida’s own laws as well as CITES rules on international seahorse trade. And the listing of H. zosterae will likely not have much practical impact; the endangered manatee requires seagrass to graze and little has been done to stop the declining seagrass habitat they need to survive.
Critics question the motives of the Centers for Biological Diversity; they do not seem to be acting in concert with the seahorse conservation groups. Critics also cite publicity stunts such as the recent action to get clownfish banned from being collected for the pet trade. The Center For Biological Diversity’s argument is that clownfish are vulnerable thanks to the children’s movie “Finding Nemo” and their popularity in the pet trade will decimate wild populations. However, the majority of clownfish in the pet trade are bred in captivity, and people prefer these captive bred clownfish both because of their superior health and the array of color strains not found in wild clownfish.
The National Marine Fisheries Service took comments submitted by July 03, 2012, and will review the petition, comments, and any relevant studies before making a decision in 2013. If they do place Dwarf Seahorse on the endangered species list, it will be the first time for an animal that is actively being kept in the pet trade, so there is no blueprint for how it will be handled. Will pet owners be forced to give up their seahorses? To whom? Or will they be grandfathered in, and if so, how will any offspring be handled?
Read more here [pdf].
In other news, the ban on anchoring in Studland Bay (UK) was lifted. The ban was put in place because it was thought that anchoring destroyed the seagrass beds that seahorses relied on. The ban was championed by the Seahorse Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust to protect the breeding habitat of Hippocampus hippocampus and Hippocampus guttulatus. The ban was lifted because there was “no consistent evidence of boat anchoring impacting the seagrass habitat”. BBC
Countdown to Extinction?
Making headlines this summer was Kealan Doyle of Seahorse Aquariums (previously Seahorse Ireland) with his documentary Seahorse Man and the claim that seahorses will be extinct in 10 years if the rate of harvesting isn’t slowed down. His estimates of the numbers harvested are far higher than those previously put forth by the conservation group Project Seahorse. The estimate is based on undercover detective work in Asia, seeing how many dried seahorse some wholesalers have stored, and extrapolating out how many must be harvested to account for all the wholesalers like the ones he visited. He launched the website Save Our Seahorses to raise awareness about the seahorses’ impending doom. If his estimates are correct, we need to make some serious changes to our policy on seahorses. So far, he is the only person to suggest the problem is that dire. Daily Mail
The Earliest Pygmies
Scientist found the fossilized remains of the earliest known pygmy pipehorse. The fossil was found in Slovina, and appears to be from the Middle Miocene (approximately 11million to 15million years ago). The fossilized pipehorse is approximately 1 inch long. Pygmy pipehorses are thought to be the evolutionary step between pipefish and seahorses. They look more like seahorses and have prehensile tails that can hitch, but remain mostly horizontal like their pipefish cousins.
The newly discovered species was named Hippotropiscis frenki, and is thought to have lived amoung seagrasses and macroalgae. The fossil was discovered by the same team that discovered the earliest known seahorse fossil in 2009. National Geographic
Is it Yeti? No, its H. algiricus!
Project Seahorse released the first ever video of Hippocampus algiricus in the wild. H. algiricus, the West African Seahorse is a little studied seahorse, so the video is something of a big deal. Photos do however exist of it in the wild, but this is the first video captured. Conditions where H. algiricus lives are not particularly well suited for diving due to rough water and poor visibility, making even incidental information about them in the wild scarce. Project Seahorse is currently researching the species, specifically trying to understand the trade of H. algiricus and how it might be impacting populations. Not much is known about this species as it was the first study of its kind, intended to shed light on it’s life history and exactly how vulnerable to overfishing it may be. What the study did discover is that they are not being monitored as they are supposed to be according to CITES rules, but trade in them continues anyway.
True Love After All
Seahorses are often represented as monogamous and mating for life. There have been a number of studies in recent years that disprove this with several species. However one species, Hippocampus whitei, appears to remain faithful over multiple breeding seasons.
This study also lead to documenting the oldest known wild seahorse, Grandma, a female about 5.5 years old. In captivity some species have been reported to live over 10 years, but the nature of this study was the first of it’s kind to track specific seahorses over multiple years in such a way to show seahorses live longer in the wild than previously expected.
Tigers On The Prowl
My personal favorite seahorse, Hippocampus comes, aka the Tiger Tail Seahorse is more readily available to aquarists in the US. This is both good and bad. The bad is tank raised seahorses in Asia are becoming more common and one of the species we’ve been seeing more of is H. comes. Unfortunately they’re often shipped much too small and aren’t faring well unless the aquarist has quite a bit of seahorse experience, and even then, success with them is pretty hit or miss.
The good news is that US breeders now can offer true captive bred seahorses. Tooting my own horn, but I’ve been working with this species for the past 3 years and finally had them breed late 2011, and had them available for sale since spring of 2012. Dan Underwood of the seahorse keeper’s favorite Seahorse Source has also been able to offer Tiger Tail Seahorses for sale. There are other breeders in the US working with this species in hopes of making healthy, captive bred animals available.
Jim Welsh, a fellow breeder who successfully raised the Blue-Stripe Pipefish Doryrhamphus excisus is taking on a new challenge, the rarely seen Red-Stripe Pipefish Dunkerocampus baldwini. Endemic to Hawaii, it’s uncommon to find in the aquarium trade. Jim acquired a small number with the intent of setting up a breeding program to bring them into captivity. He had them hand collected to minimize stress. While he’s only had them a few weeks, he’s had two pairs producing eggs. With any luck, we’ll have another captive bred pipefish available to aquarists in 2013. Good luck Jim! MBI Site Thread
A Weedy Winner
National Geographic-La Mer Oceans 2012 Photo Contest winner was a weedy seadragon. Photographer Richard Wylie is an amateur photographer had only been shooting for a year and half before winning the contest. He beat out several professional photographers for the $27,000 prize. An amazing accomplishment and an amazing photo! The Coffs Coast Advocate
Every year there are always big cases of seahorses being smuggled illegally and this year is no different. Their ever-growing use in China is growing demand, making smuggling profitable. Seahorse can be be fished legally in many places, but the price on their heads make them a tempting target. Fishers from around the world illegally poach seahorse from protected waters. This year there were two major incidences of smuggling made the news, though many more go unreported.
In India, officials have been struggling with illegal poaching in their Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve. 200 cases of smuggling have been reported, and it’s estimated 13,000 kilogrammes of sea cucumbers and seahorses had been smuggled out of the marine reserve over a 16 month time period. Seahorses are smuggled to the nearby Sri Lanka where they fetch high prices. Once in Sri Lanka, because of lax laws there, they become legal goods, leaving Indian officials little ability to pursue any action.
Officials protecting the reserve are hopelessly out-manned in their attempts to stop poaching. A total of 70 employees with 9 boats are assigned to protect and area of 10,500 square feet. They are no match for the up to 25,000 boats illegally fish the reserve every day.
The Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere reserve is home to the rare Hippocampus borboniensis, along with Hippcampus kuda and Hippocampus trimaculatus. Not much is know about the life history of H. borboniensis, and if this exploitation continues unabated, we may never. Smugglers Devastate Reserve
In Peru, 16,000 seahorses were seized in August of this year. They were thought to be valued at $250,000 on the black market. Seahorse fishing is banned in Peru, but it’s thought that the high prices drive the illegal activity. In 2011, one half tonne of seahorses were thought to have been illegally fished in Peru, and 20 tonnes globally. Which makes you wonder just how much smuggling isn’t being caught by authorities. BBC
Battered Aquarium Struggles through Hurricane
Earlier in the year the New York Aquarium announced the birth of Potbelly Seahorses. Everything was going swimmingly until the superstorm Sandy devastated New York. 18 staffers hunkered down during the storm to fight to keep the animals alive. The New York still struggles to rebuild after the storm. You can help by donating at their website.
Lyndsay Aylesworth is a researcher with Project Seahorse. In 2012, she was set to study seahorse populations in the wild, to understand how they differ in areas with and without fishing, as well as understanding more about seahorses in their native habitat. She wanted to hire a research assistant, but didn’t have the budget. So she turned Rocket Hub, and used crowdfunding to raise the money she needed for an assistant. She managed to get 112% of her goal, the additional money going to equipment for her research. Rocket Hub Project
A Rare Occurrence: Seadragons Born
Public aquariums and researchers are working hard to raise various syngnathids in captivity, and this year we’ve seen a number of places with breeding and rearing successes. SeaWorld Orlando announced the birth of Weedy Seadragons Phyllopteryx taeniolatus this past July. They’re one of only 6 facilities in the world that have successfully bred Weedy Seadragons. Advanced Aquarist
Seadragon Breeding Effort Gets A Boost
As mentioned above, Weedy Seadragons have only been bred 6 times in the world. Leafy Seadragons, Phycodurus eques has never been bred successfully in captivity. There have been matings, but the eggs failed to hatch or the male released the eggs before they came to term. Well, in an effort to improve chances of breeding these amazing creatures, the Birch Aquarium received a $300,000 grant to put towards seadragon breeding efforts. The grant was a gift from the Lowe Family Foundation, and will go towards a pilot breeding program along with research to understand their mating behavior in the wild. Press Release
What’s next for the seahorse family? It’s tough to say. We haven’t had a new seahorse species described in a couple years, but there seems to be more researchers with boots on the ground (fins in the water?) this past year, so maybe we’ll see some new ones. And there are a lot of efforts going into understanding populations and the effects of fishing, so we may see better regulated control of seahorse fishing to keep them from being over exploited. We may see the Dwarf Seahorse protected as an endangered species. Will Ebay in the US follow suit on banning all seahorse sales? And will we finally have the first Leafy Seadragons born in captivity? It’s an exciting year ahead for seahorses and their relatives.