Rare breeds: saving seahorses

Over 100 Hippocampus Hystrix Seahorses, an endangered species native to the Arabian Gulf, are the latest scion of The Lost Chambers Aquarium at Atlantis, The Palm, giving new hope to marine conservationists intent on preserving this endangered symbol of the seas

An enormous hotel luxuriously themed on a mythical underwater city, glitzy A-list celebrities and Michelin-starred chefs: Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai is home to all manner of rare and interesting curiosities. Smaller in size but no less newsworthy, is the arrival of a herd of baby seahorses, progeny of the island’s conservation-minded aquarium. The 100 plus ‘thorny seahorses’ are being bred as part of a conservation effort that will soon see the creatures released into the Arabian Gulf to help repopulate the area.

The seahorse is named for its equine appearance but it is in fact a fish measuring between 1.5cm and 35cm and feeding on plankton and crustaceans. Each of the 47 species of the hippocampus genus found throughout the world is a poor swimmer but adept at hiding from predators among sea grasses and seaweed, in flooded mangrove forests or among corals.

Vulnerable species

Seahorses, a vital part of many marine eco-systems, have lived in the world’s oceans for millions of years but are now vulnerable to a number of threats. “There are a sweep of broad problems in the oceans including warming seas, increasingly acidic conditions, water pollution and habitat loss,” explains Helen Scales, marine biologist and author of Poseidon’s Steed, The Story of Seahorses From Myth to Reality. “In addition, they are caught accidentally and intentionally for the alternative medicines and curios trades.”

Drawing attention to the plight of the enigmatic and engaging creature, an exhibition, The Secret Lives of Seahorses, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, USA features more than 15 species of seahorses, sea dragons and pipefish. It highlights the fragile natural habitats in which seahorses and their relatives live. “Seahorses are wonderful ambassadors for ocean conservation because they live in the most endangered habitats in the world – coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove forests,” says Ava Ferguson, senior exhibit developer for The Secret Lives of Seahorses. “When you save a seahorse, you also save some of Earth’s most precious marine habitats.”

Running alongside the exhibit in Monterey is a breeding programme, which has experienced an unexpected baby boom this year: 60 longsnout, Pacific, tiger tail, cape, dwarf and potbelly seahorse. Achieving these pregnancies and births is a positive indication that Monterey has created an environment in which its seahorses are thriving.

As well as attempts such as the one in Dubai to repopulate the oceans, aquariums around the world are partaking in breeding initiatives to produce seahorses for conservation exhibits. “Seahorses are among the most popular marine creatures,” comments Oliver Buttling, group curator of Aquatics at the Oceanarium, Bournemouth, UK. “Being able to show these fascinating, fantastic animals to aquarium visitors is an effective means of highlighting the conservation issues that are faced by these and other marine life.”

Breeding programmes

The Lined Seahorse, a native to western Atlantic countries, is both vulnerable to habitat degradation and accidental capture by fishing. A captive breeding programme at the Oceanarium in Bournemouth aiming to counter this threat has seen success after eight rare male and female adults arrived in June this year.

Out in the wild, the UK-based Seahorse Trust has been working with Marine Conservation Cambodia to set up as a Community Fisheries Area (CFA) between the Cambodian islands of Koh Rong Samloem and Koh Rong, an area previously devastated by unregulated trawler fishing. Since the implementation of the protected area the seabed has started to recover and fish species are returning. The site, originally home to eight species of seahorse, was depleted by the devastation to two. The goal now is to use captive breeding programmes and reintroduce all eight species in combination with habitat restoration and increased preservation measures.

As an icon of marine life, the plight of the seahorse is inextricably linked with the destiny of oceans as a whole. “People have had a 1,000-year fascination with this little fish,” comments Helen Scales. “We can use them as an icon – they can be the poster child of marine conservation.”