With their horse-like head, stunning colors, and wrap-around tails, it is easy to be intrigued by seahorses.
It’s not only their striking appearance that makes them unique – unlike most fish, they are monogamous throughout the mating season, and courtship continues through gestation. Interestingly, it is the male, not the female, who carries the eggs until they hatch into fully-formed seahorses. They are delicate creatures that can become quickly exhausted in tumultuous waters and are very sensitive to temperature change. As a syngnathidae - a fish with a fused jaw, no stomach or teeth – the seahorse must constantly graze on small organisms on the ocean floor.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed seahorses under Appendix II – a species that is or might become threatened by international trade. This requires that “exporting parties be restricted to levels that are not detrimental to either the species’ survival, or to the role within the ecosystem in which they occur.”
Similarly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put seahorses on their Red List of Threatened Species. According to IUCN, traditional medicine practitioners have used seahorses as an ingredient for the past 600 years to treat a range of illnesses including, asthma, arteriosclerosis, skin ailments, and heart disease.
According to website statistics from the Mote Marine Aquarium, “more than 25 million seahorses are consumed annually, causing concern that wild populations are becoming depleted and even endangered” through non-sustainable fishing practices. Fortunately, there are powerful initiatives working to protect these delicate creatures and their environment from over-exploitation.
In order to call attention to the need for seahorse conservation, the Mote Aquarium created the Seahorse Conservation Laboratory. In raising the seahorses to be displayed in more than 40 aquariums, zoos, and science institutions around the country, Mote Aquarium substantially lessens the need to obtain animals from the wild. “Patrons of the aquarium can see the lab and babies from day one to adulthood,” explains Shawn Garner, the Lab Supervisor. “We try to educate the visitors and members of the community on how special these animals are, and what Mote Aquarium is doing to conserve their populations.”
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has also played an active role in seahorse husbandry and conservation since 1998 when it partnered with Project Seahorse – a conservation organization working to protect the species by focusing on conservation and sustainable use of coastal marine ecosystems. For the past five years, the Shedd Aquarium has hosted its annual “Husbandry, Management and Conservation of Syngnathids Symposium” in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Project Seahorse. The symposium aims to discuss and share ideas on seahorse-related topics such as conservation and sustainability, breeding and population management, nutrition, medical care, exhibit design and management, and legislation and trade.
Seahorses are a unique and fragile species with a long history of exploitation. I’m glad I had the opportunity to highlight a few examples of the on-going conservation efforts that are so important in protecting these beautiful fish and their habitat.