Pioneering biologist, Dr Amanda Vincent, explains how divers can play an important role in protecting these charismatic animals.

Project Seahorse, the marine conservation group I lead, has been pioneering seahorse research and conservation for many years. We were the first scientists to study seahorses in the wild, discovering, for example, that some species form long-term monogamous pairs. We were also the first to uncover the vast global trade in these animals. Even now, we’re amazed by how much there is still to learn about seahorses. We need your help to study and protect them!

An Urgent Need for Action

A big-belly seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis © Melissa Rushby/Guylian Seahorses of the World

A big-belly seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis © Melissa Rushby/Guylian Seahorses of the World

With their horse-like heads, monkey-like tails, kangaroo-like pouches, and chameleon-like eyes, seahorses are among the strangest and most iconic fish species in our oceans. While seahorses appear to be very different from other fishes in the sea, they are indeed fish. They belong to the same class as all other bony fish (Actinopterygii), such as salmon or tuna. If a seahorse is stretched out on its stomach, it’s easy to see that they really are fish.

Adult seahorses have few natural predators, thanks to their ability to change colour and grow skin filaments to blend in with their surroundings. Their bony plates and spines make them unappealing to most palates and their sedentary lifestyle camouflaged among seagrasses and other shallow coastal habitats makes them difficult to spot. Seahorses have been found in the stomachs of large, open-water fishes such as tuna and dorado, and they are sometimes eaten by crabs, but human beings are their greatest predators.

Over 1.2 billion people live within 100 kilometres of the sea, and 90 percent of all economic activity in our oceans takes place in coastal areas, including important seahorse habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, and estuaries. As a result, vast swathes of these often incredibly biodiverse ecosystems – from Asia to Africa, Europe to the Americas, Australia to the Pacific – are degraded or destroyed every year.

Overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices like trawling, pollution, coastal development, and climate change – all of these things threaten seahorses and countless other small marine animals.

Of the 48 recognised seahorse species, 12 are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “Vulnerable” or “Endangered” – including the tiger tail and common seahorses (Hippocampus comes and H. kuda), found in Southeast Asia. Most of the remaining 27 species are listed as “Data Deficient”, meaning that scientists simply do not have enough information about them to assess their conservation status.

These gaps in our knowledge speak both to how challenging seahorses can be to spot in the wild, thanks to their amazing camouflage abilities, and to the urgent need for more research and conservation action.

A beautiful yellow longsnout seahorse uses its tail to cling to a sponge © Joseph Belanger

A beautiful yellow longsnout seahorse uses its tail to cling to a sponge © Joseph Belanger

Why Protect Seahorses?

Seahorses must be preserved for ecological, biological, economic, and medical reasons. They are important predators within coastal marine habitats and removing them can mean disrupting their native ecosystems. Their extraordinary life history – mating pairs are monogamous in many species and the male becomes pregnant –provides us with an unusual opportunity to expand our understanding of reproductive ecology and may yet yield other important scientific discoveries.

Seahorse behaviour and ecology – the young depend on parental survival for much longer than most marine species – make them vulnerable to overfishing, as does their popularity as aquarium fishes and as essential ingredients in tonic foods and medicines. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is the largest direct market for seahorses, followed by the trade in live animals for display in aquariums. While seahorse fishing is generally a legitimate practice, such extraction can and must be kept at sustainable levels.

Ultimately, because of their charisma, their near-global range, and their vulnerability to overfishing and a wide range of pressing environmental issues, seahorses are flagship species for marine conservation. Action for seahorse conservation directly benefits other marine animals, particularly when it comes in the form of marine protected areas, community organisation, improved governance, and trade controls.

Amanda Vincent

Amanda Vincent has a PhD in marine biology from the University of Cambridge and was Darwin Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford from 1994 to 1996. She is considered the leading authority on seahorse biology and conservation, and in 2000 was named a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation. She also serves as lead scientific advisor and chair of the seahorse working group for CITES.

This article originally featured in Asian Diver The Big Blue Book