I Found A Seahorse, What Now?
So you’ve found a seahorse, and you want to keep it. Or maybe you stumbled across one washed ashore, and are unsure what to do next. This question comes up from time to time. It’s not frequent, but it does happen enough that I wanted to provide some guidance.
The best thing to do is to release the seahorse back where you found it, if at all possible. The sooner you can do this, the better off the seahorse will be. This is especially true for those found washed up on the beach, as can happen from time to time due to seahorse’s poor swimming abilities.
If there is a lot of turbulent water and you fear that they might be washed ashore again, placing it in a container of seawater and carrying it to a calm or sheltered area is going to be ideal. Another possibility is finding a pier where the water is deeper. Even if the water there is turbulent, this should be safe. By releasing in deeper water, you are looking to avoid waves tossing the seahorse against the sea floor. Once released, seahorse can then sort out finding it’s way to safety.
Do be on the lookout for areas where fish are fed or seagulls are lurking – seagulls are clever, curious and opportunistic and may pose a threat to a released seahorse. Releasing directly in the water, preferably below the surface is ideal. But do what you can with your own safety in mind and always remember, nature is red in tooth and claw.
Can I Keep It?
This is not a simple question and there is no simple answer. You’ll need to research the laws of your country and state before even considering the possibility of keeping it. In the US, laws regarding catching wild seahorses varies from state to state. In the UK and Australia, this is illegal, full stop. In the US, Florida is probably the most popular place for seahorses and humans to cross paths. At the time of this writing, to keep seahorses in Florida you need a fishing license and you need to follow the special rules set aside for collecting marine ornamentals which has additional restrictions for seahorses. (myfwc.com – Florida Regulations)
You will then need to consider you’re comfortable with the ethics of keeping a wild seahorse. There are moral and conservation-based dilemmas when taking seahorses from the wild. This is true with any animal, but seahorses offer some additional concerns. Their populations are in decline in some parts of the world. And there are better alternatives; seahorses that have been bred and raised in captivity. Those seahorses are more suitable to life in an aquarium.
Contrary to popular belief, most seahorse species are not endangered. They do face the same threats most sealife faces from overfishing, habitat destruction and climate change, but only one South-African species is categorized as endangered. Their trade is regulated internationally via CITES, which often causes confusion over their conservation status.
There is also significant emotional investment from people who are opposed to seahorses being removed from the wild. Because of their charismatic appearance, people tend to feel very strongly about not keeping wild seahorses. Whether you agree or not, you may get significant pushback from people who feel very strongly against removing seahorses from the wild.
A much bigger question is: do you really want to keep it? Assuming that legally it is okay for you to keep the seahorse, a much more pressing question is do you want to put the time, money, and energy into keeping it. Seahorses require a lot of dedication and care to keep, and the equipment required to do so is expensive. I recommend reading 10 Things You Should Know Before Keeping Seahorses As Pets as a quick overview. Seahorses are not like most other fish; their care is more labor-intense and requires more sacrifices from their owners. It’s not uncommon for a specialized aquarium set up to meet the needs of seahorses to have an initial setup cost of over $1000.
Even if you’re leaning towards ‘yes’ to keeping the seahorse, the next question is do you want to keep a wild seahorse. Wild seahorses are frequently host to numerous parasites, are not accustomed to life in captivity, making them prone to illnesses due to the stress of captivity. They often require live foods which you must collect regularly, or purchase at a significant expense. You will need a prolonged quarantine period and use medication to deworm them. This can be a daunting task, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the work involved.
If you really want seahorses in your life, a much better option is captive bred seahorses. They’re born in aquariums and adapted to life there, are less likely to suffer from stress related illnesses, and eat frozen food that can be purchased from most pet or aquarium specialty stores. And you’re not removing one from the wild, with all the ethical concerns that has.
If you still decide that you want to keep the seahorse you found, you are going to be playing catch-up. This is doubly true if you’ve never kept fish before. You will need a cycled aquarium, or be doing a lot of water changes in one aquarium while cycling a second one. Take a look at So You Want To Set Up A Seahorse Tank. Local fish stores can help with the aquarium basics, but keep in mind most are not intimately familiar with seahorses, and many aquarists find that they are given wrong information about seahorse specific care. They can be great resources on the basics of setting up your aquarium.
The Absolute Basics For Complete Novices
Before you get wrapped up in the specifics of what you need to keep seahorses successful in the long term, it’s important that you know the very basics of keeping fish. For those that have never kept fish before, you may not know some of the most basic requirements for keeping a seahorse alive in the short term.
Keeping seahorses (or any fish) in a bucket of seawater will only work for a short period of time. This is because seahorse respire and still water does not adequately allow for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. What this means practically is that if kept only in a bucket (or even aquarium) of water, they can suffocate over time. This can be hours or days. Nighttime for a number of reasons is a particularly vulnerable time due to the change in co2 and o2 creation. You will need some sort of pump to move water. An air pump is the easiest and can be obtained not only at pet stores, but at bait shops and even big box stores with fishing supplies.
If you are transporting using a bag, you have some rules to follow. Never put any fish in a bag of water with no air. It sounds counter intuitive, I know. But water needs the air in the bag to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. I’ve seen people do this and the fish suffocate over a short trip from home to a fish store when aquarists are unaware of this requirement. There should always be at least half air and half water. (A large bag with â…”s air and â…“ water is best).
Second on that list of concerns is the buildup of ammonia. Fish excrete ammonia when breathing – in the wild, this would be removed by bacteria and plants. This is how you do it in a cycled aquarium, too, but a bucket or new aquarium would take time to get there first. In the short term, this means that dangerous ammonia can build up quickly. It depends on the volume of water and number and size of seahorses. It can build up to dangerous levels overnight in a small bucket, or take a week in a larger aquarium.
There are long term strategies for dealing with the buildup of ammonia, but if you find yourself in a situation with a seahorse you have decided to keep and have not set up and cycled an aquarium in advance, you will need to replace 100% of the water on a daily basis.
Seahorses cannot survive in fresh water, so you will need to either bring water from the ocean, or purchase artificial seawater. You can purchase just the salt and mix yourself, or purchase pre-mixed seawater. If mixing yourself, you must use salt created for that purpose. Table salt and rock salt do not have the necessary minerals.
I’ve Already Brought It Home And I Don’t Want to Keep It
This gets trickier. The problem is that reintroducing a wild fish that has been in captivity runs the risk of introducing pathogens into the wild. This is especially true if you already have an aquarium at home and have placed the seahorse with non-native fish.
If you have only had it in captivity for a short while, and have had it in natural seawater, then you can release it as near to where you found it as possible.
If you’ve had it for longer periods of time, or have placed it in your aquarium that contains non-native fish, contact your local wildlife authorities, and ask for their guidance. Even if in a country or municipality that does not allow for the collection of seahorses, most are interested in doing what is best for the seahorse rather than worrying about accidental take.
Often times there are local public aquariums and zoos that can help out and may even be able to take the seahorse into their custody if there is a concern over releasing and causing harm to the local wildlife.
Keeping wild seahorses does have it’s place in the hobby, but it’s generally reserved for dedicated breeders who are looking to expand the genetic diversity of their breeding animals.and experienced aquarists who understand the difficulties expected with wild seahorses, and have planned accordingly. Only you can decide what is right for you, but my best recommendation is releasing it back into the wild and use any inspiration to guide you towards a setup that houses seahorses bred and raised in captivity.
Releasing seahorses into the wild from captivity comes with a number of problems. Not the least of which might be releasing an exotic species into the wild (seahorse species can be really hard to differentiate and are often incorrectly identified). There is the aforementioned risk of releasing pathogens that could harm wild populations. Project Seahorse has a detailed guide about captive release programs which highlights many of the dangers of seahorses that have spent time in captivity.