How Ocean Rider Is Fighting to Save Seahorses, and Why That Might Be A Terrible Idea

By: | Date: 07/05/2014 | No Comments |
Seahorse In hand

Seahorse release programs are questionable. Photo by Otávio Nogueira

Ocean Rider, as part of their Seahorse Hawaii Foundation efforts, announced late last year that it was going to be reintroducing seahorses back into the wild in a few locations. On the surface, this sounds like a great step towards conservation. Reintroduction programs are very popular with the public, and who wouldn’t want seahorses reestablished in the wild?

Unfortunately, these types of reintroduction programs have limited success,  and can actually do more harm than good. It is true that seahorses are at risk from overfishing. But they haven’t disappeared from the wild, making programs to reestablish them moot.

Reintroduction programs are generally only beneficial in places that a species has been wiped out completely, and only when the conditions that caused their decline are reversed. Seahorses are still found all over the world, no single species lost from it’s native range. Nor are any critically endangered, for that matter.

The sad truth is that the Seahorse Hawaii Foundation’s reintroduction program is ill-advised  and unnecessary, and potentially harmful.

Captive Breeding and Return To the Wild

Successful breeding and release programs have been highly publicized and are well loved because of those successes. They have worked in some specific instances where species were completely decimated in their natural habitat.

What many don’t realize is that these programs were extremely expensive and many more failed. Notable exceptions have been remembered; failures left off the front pages. We naturally gravitate towards the positive success stories, but it gives us an unbalanced perception of how these programs actually work.

Because of the number of failures, reintroduction programs have lost favor with conservationists in all but the most dire circumstances. They have to be both time and financially costly if there is any hope for the program to be successful. They require careful planning along side a reversal of the conditions that cause the loss of the reintroduced species in the first place.

Reintroduction programs alone don’t address the core issue of why a species disappears from the wild, such as over-hunting, overfishing, or habitat destruction. Without addressing those problems, reintroduction programs fail.

Disease

There are many problems with reintroduction programs beyond planning issues above. Disease is a big problem in captive breeding programs. Captive bred animals frequently harbor pathogens their wild counterparts would never come in contact with. Of particular concern to seahorses is Mycobacterium, a disease causing bacteria common in captive seahorse populations that tends to occur in higher concentrations and can be more virulent. Introducing wild populations to captive-raised seahorses increases the risk of disease transmission.

As a poignant example of how devastating this can be, almost these exact circumstances happened in a captive breeding program for frogs. In 2008, a paper was published about a deadly disease that was introduced into endangered wild frog populations from a mishandled reintroduction program. The disease, a fungus, was responsible for killing off entire populations of frogs and in some cases driving them to extinction.

While it’s not clear if the same could happen to seahorses, it is clear that uncontrolled and poorly controlled captive breeding programs can lead to substantial and sometimes irreversible losses.

Bad Genes

Genetics is also a big problem, and there are two core issues. The first is one of inbreeding and population drift that causes a reduction in genetic material available. Reintroduction programs have to carefully plan from the very beginning to keep any offspring from losing genetic diversity. Tacking on a reintroduction program after a decade plus of captive breeding is bound to have repercussions that can’t be undone. Certain genes have already been irrevocably lost.

The second issue is flooding the gene pool with a large number of related animals. Even if the released seahorses come from genetically untainted stock, releasing a large number of seahorses form a limited gene pool can have the unintended side effects of artificially limiting the genetic variation of seahorses in the wild. In nature, only a small number of seahorses born survive to go on to breed themselves. So you have many seahorses producing offspring and only a few of each brood will survive, ensuring a diverse set collection of genes in the population.

In captivity, advances in aquaculturing means large numbers from a single pair can survive. If many seahorses are released from a single or limited group of pairs, their genes can quickly become the dominant genes in a population, and many genes will be lost. This leaves less diversity overall in the population. Genetic diversity is the key to adaptation and survival when there are major changes to a species environment, be it geography, climate, pathogens or the slow match of time in creating a new species.

Owner and spokesperson Carol Cozzi Schmarr has indicated on numerous occasions that even their broodstock seahorses are no longer harvested from the wild. This would make any animals coming from their farm to be from a limited gene pool, poor choices for returning to the ocean.

A reintroduction program that planned on breeding their own animals would have to manage genetic variety from the very beginning. In essence, Ocean Rider would have to start their breeding program over with new seahorses collected from the wild. And that still leaves the problem of:

Captive Bred Failure

Reintroduction programs using captive bred animals have had the highest failure rates. Most successful programs come from relocating wild animals from an area with a more stable population, rather than breeding in captivity and releasing. It might sound obvious, but wild animals have already learned to cope with the dangers of being in the wild.

Those programs that rely on captive breeding face a long, hard road. Frequently these programs outright fail, and those that are successful require significant training for survival in the wild. Whooping Cranes are a great example of a successful captive breeding effort. But it had numerous false starts, and required a high level of involvement to train whooping cranes to be whooping cranes, including teaching the birds to behave like wild birds and teaching them migration routes using ultralight gliders. The whooping crane reintroduction projects have been ongoing for nearly 40 years and have managed to establish around 400 birds back into the wild, not all self-sustaining populations yet.

One additional genetic side affect is the unintentional selection of animals that are fit for captivity, not the wild. Just by the nature of breeding in captivity, animals that thrive in an artificial environment do best, and those traits are often ones that conflict with traits that would be beneficial to life in the wild. Once returned to the wild, they are unable to adapt to the changing conditions.

Obfuscated Effort

For $2500, the Seahorse Hawaii Foundation lets you adopt a pair of seahorses to be released into the wild. They do not go into detail on how this program is to be managed, or why they think the program is necessary beyond vague assertions that they need to be “reestablished”. There is no evidence that they are missing or require reintroduction into the proposed areas. The “Adopt A Seahorse” program gives no specifics on what exactly that their programme intends to do or why. Their website gives no indication of if any populations studies have been determined to decide where seahorses should be released. There is no mention of any studies or surveys done to determine the viability of their program.

Three locations are indicated, Hawaii, Fiji and Tonga. But they do not indicate why those locations were chosen, or what concrete goals they are hoping to achieve with the releases. Not one of the three locations are devoid of seahorses, making it difficult to know what positive benefit a reintroduction program would have.

Lack Of Studies

I touch on it above, but one giant piece of the puzzle is the lack of any indication that Ocean Rider has studied seahorses in the wild. Not only does there appear to be no population studies done to determine that there needs to be seahorses released into the wild, but indeed they don’t seem to have studied any aspects of seahorse life in the ocean.

There are no studies or indication of studies regarding whether they even need to release seahorses, what the numbers are and what problems the seahorses face. While there are numerous studies regarding threats to seahorses, they need local studies to determine the viability of their programs, and there do not appear to be any.

And without studies tracking the behavior of the species they intend to release, there really isn’t going to be a way to track those seahorses. They make promises to do so, but it’s an impossible task without first knowing how those seahorses might be expected to behave, such as their range, movement over time, predation risks and seasonal movements.

The Wrong Seahorses?

Most surprising of all is that their page on the release program predominantly features the species Hippocampus erectus, which is not native to any of the three release locations. I would like to believe that was an oversight on their website team’s part and not that they are releasing non-native seahorses to different parts of the world.

Wrong Seahorses

This shows 3 pictures of Hippocampus erectus, not native to any of the locations mentioned above it. Only H. fisheri in the third picture is geographically correct for Hawaii. Screen Captures from SeahorseHawaii.org

At least that’s what I would hope. However this recent interview with The Animalist suggests otherwise.

Owner Carol Cozzi-Schmarr indicates they have “so many of them, we’re releasing them back into the wild.” Ocean Rider’s primary seahorses are H. erectus, not a species native to the release places in question. Ocean Rider, like many other breeders, has bred H. erectus en masse and it is their primary “bread and butter” seahorse.

Not only that, but they claimed they’ve domesticated them and haven’t recently taken any from the wild, further suggesting an extremely limited genetic pool. As mentioned earlier, low genetic diversity in captive bred animals is problematic in release programs.

I’d love to give them the benefit of the doubt about what species they’re releasing but even if it’s the right species. . .

Or The Right Seahorses?

Of the seahorses Ocean Rider publicly list they have, only one species is native to Hawaii (more on that in a moment.). This species, Hippocampus fisheri, comes from deep water, and rises with plankton at night to hunt. This is the most logical choice of seahorse in their breeding program they’d be releasing in Hawaii.

And it’s logistically tricky. The Seahorse Hawaii Foundation claims they’ll be monitoring the seahorses released in Hawaii. They say:

“Their behaviour [sic] and movement will be monitored and tracked by a group of Seahorse Ambassadors to include adults and children from the local reef where the seahorses will be living.”

H. fisheri’s behavior makes it close to impossible to monitor. There is very little know about this species in the wild, but we know they make large migrations at night. And we don’t know if they’re site faithful, turning the idea they can be monitored on its head.

There are no studies showing H. fisheri populations are in danger. Or any Hawaiian seahorse, for that matter. There haven’t been any studies done to show there is a need for reintroduction, and it’s highly unlikely they would be as Hawaii isn’t a primary exporter of seahorses.

Endangered species?

Ocean Rider misleadingly claims all seahorses are endangered. This just isn’t true. Their trade is regulated by a voluntary treaty. And most seahorse species are protected based on the assumption they are overfished, but most have been officially classified as “Data Deficient”  or vulnerable. And while that doesn’t sound particularly great, it is a significant distinction from the classification “endangered” and needs to be treated differently.

It’s also important to remember that most ocean fisheries have seen dramatic declines and are overfished, not just seahorses.  The answer isn’t releasing a few dozen or hundreds back into the wild, it’s protecting what is there, and regulating the trade to manage fish stocks responsibly.

Seahorses do face a number of threats; overfishing, by-catch, climate change, habitat loss to name a few. But when we’re seeing 25 million harvested a year, releasing a handful of seahorses in places there are already seahorses doesn’t begin to address the problem. Real conservation efforts are concerned about overfishing, and how best to sustainably fish, about limiting by-catch reducing habitat loss or  restoring destroyed habitat.

Searching For Answers

When I first heard about the Ocean Rider/Seahorse Hawaii Foundation’s release program, I delayed writing this article because there is a conspicuous lack of factual information available, as well as a lack of details about the Seahorse Hawaii Foundation. I struggled with the need to speculate in the absence of concrete information. But the foundation and Ocean Rider have not made important details publicly available on their website, and have not responded to my requests to find answers to these questions. A charity and conservation group should not be hiding their activities.

In truth, I also debated writing this because many of my readers are customers and fans of Ocean Rider. I was torn over possibly alienating my audience. But I feel it’s important for someone to bring these questionable practices to light. Seahorse conservation is too important to be occurring haphazardly behind closed doors.

So after much reflection, I decided informing the public was more important and so I charged ahead writing this article with the information is available. And to ask these questions publicly, since direct inquiries to the Seahorse Hawaii Foundation have been ignored. My most recent inquiry to the Seahorse Hawaii Foundation over two month ago in regards to their seahorse release program remains unanswered. An earlier inquiry about the nature of their foundation and it’s ties to the for-profit Ocean Rider also remains unanswered.

My most recent inquiry:

April 29,2014

“Greetings,
I was reading about your seahorse release program. Can you provide some technical detail about the program? I’m curious to know what species you are releasing. I’m also curious how the location was selected for release and what sort of populations studies were done to determine suitable sites. My understand is that most conservation groups are moving away from releasing captive bred animals, so I’m curious as to how your plan came about and any other details you can give.”

The earlier inquiry was asking about the exact relationship between the Hawaii Seahorse Foundation and the for-profit Ocean Rider. It failed to receive an answer as well.

Seahorse Hawaii Foundation: The Secretive Charity

It’s not just their release program that is missing information, the entire charity is surrounded by a conspicuous lack of detail. It is connected to the for-profit Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, but they don’t give any indication of how they are connected, or what the donations will be used for. The information about their foundation and goals is vague at best.

The goal stated on seahorsehawaii.org claims their mission is “Conservation, Education, Research & Propagation.” Yet they’ve never released a paper on any topic regarding seahorses. They go so far as to claim that information is proprietary. From first hand reports by visitors to their farm, they’re rather secretive about the workings of both the farm and the charity. A direct quote from their page on Conservation:

“Ocean Rider does NOT disclose its breeding technology, grow-out technology, or species names of their famous sea horses for proprietary reasons.”

This statement on their page about conservation blows my mind. A conservation group that refuses to share the information they collect is the antithesis to the goals of science and research. It flies in the face of conservation efforts. This is a damning statement that exposes how little they are actually concerned with saving seahorses.

Ocean Riders' notes about proprietary breeding operation

Directly from Ocean Rider’s Conservation Page

This not the actions of a conservation group, it’s the actions of a company looking to hoard information for profit.

Meanwhile, Ocean Rider has a history of taking information from others and using it to their advantage. Knowledge gathering is a one way transaction with Ocean Rider. And it’s a dead end.

Bad Charity, Wasted Donations

The Seahorse Hawaii Foundation is too small to have been researched by many of the bigger charity review companies, which is a shame. But their sister company Ocean Rider has a D through the Better Business Bureau.

What little public information that is available indicates the charity arm files a 990-N, meaning they take in less than $50,000 a year. That’s all we know because it’s required by law to publish. Seahorse Hawaii Foundation doesn’t disclose any of their financial information, operating costs, or what precentage of the money collected goes back into the foundations stated goals. This is a pretty big red flag for charitable organizations. Every charity guide advises that you should only donate to charities that have a level of transparency that allows it’s donors to ensure the money they are donating is being used responsibly.

Guidestar has limited details, which is essentially the information that is publicly available by law.

Alternative Charities

If you are looking for alternatives ways to help seahorses, I strongly recommend Project Seahorse. They are involved in seahorse research, conservation and work with aquariums and zoos. Donating to your local zoo or public aquarium is another option, and even those not working directly with seahorses share the knowledge and experience, and in many cases, formal research that benefits other institutes.

Seagrass conservation and restoration programs around the world are also great conservation efforts that have a direct impact on seahorses. Many also have programs where volunteers can help with these programs.

Mote Marine Lab out of Florida does a lot of work with seahorses. The California Academy of Sciences has programs that explore seahorses in the wild, and are working with ghost pipefish, one of the unusual relatives of seahorses. Rising Tides Conservation Fund is a group dedicated to research on raising marine fish. The Florida Institute of Technology is teaching the next generation of conservationists and researchers and has a program dedicated to researching breeding marine fish with a strong focus on seahorses.

These are just a few of the organizations that work towards conservation and expanding our knowledge of seahorses. All share information about the work they do and publicly disclose how funds are used, as well as share information learned.

Releasing Seahorses Is A Bad Idea

There is no evidence that programs like this work, and there are numerous risks that a release program could worsen the conservation status of seahorses. Numerous captive breeding and reintroduction programs have shown to fail. Ocean Rider’s decision to release seahorses through their Seahorse Hawaii Foundation is a misguided one at best, one that we, the public should not only not support, but should actively discouraged. Conservation programs shouldn’t be based on dumping excess animals into the wild. Ocean Rider should know better.

This article has been corrected: A previous version misspelled mycobacterium and indicated that it was not found in wild populations. The corrected version acknowledges the disease can occur in wild populations but is more severe in captive populations and more likely to be transmitted to wild seahorses.

References

Genetic Drift. In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 2, 2014, from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_drift

Into The Wild. In International Crane Foundation Retrieved July 2nd, 2014, from https://www.savingcranes.org/into-the-wild.html

Releasing Captive Reptiles and Amphibians. In Herp Care Collection Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://www.anapsid.org/release.html

Rebecca Grey-Ross , Colleen T. Downs * & Kevin Kirkman (2009). Reintroduction Failure of Captive-Bred Oribi (Ourebia ourebi) In South African Journal of Wildlife Research Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3957/056.039.0104

GRIFFITHS, R. A. and PAVAJEAU, L. (2008), Captive Breeding, Reintroduction, and the Conservation of Amphibians. Conservation Biology, 22: 852-861. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00967.x

J.D. Allan. CAPTIVE BREEDING & SPECIES REINTRODUCTIONS, in CONSERVING BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Retrieved July 2, 2014 from http://www-personal.umich.edu/~dallan/nre220/outline23.htm

Guidelines for Reintroduction of Animals Born or Held in Captivity. In Association of Zoos & Aquariums Retrieved July 3, 2014, from https://www.aza.org/reintroduction/

Captive Breeding Introduced Infectious Disease To Mallorcan Amphibians (2008). In Science Daily Retrieved July 3rd, 2014, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080922122427.htm

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