Seahorses are one of the most endearing, mystical, and beloved marine animals. Their strange shapes, vastly different appearances, and unique locomotion have mystified humans for centuries. To this day, however, our base of knowledge surrounding these amazing creatures is still relatively limited and we are just now really beginning to understand the depths of their existence. We have partnered with Project Seahorse on the 4ocean Seahorse Bracelet to help shine a light on the issues surrounding seahorses and to move the needle forward on science and conservation for generations to come.
Photo: Single seahorse cruising over a reef.
Found throughout most of the world's oceans, seahorses are ambassadors for the ecosystems they inhabit and stand as flagship species for many marine ocean conservation issues that not only affect them but all the other species that surround them.
Unfortunately, the data we do have around seahorses does not paint the most positive outlook for their future. Currently, 42 seahorse species are included on the IUCN Red List; of those, 14 are listed as "vulnerable" or worse. And 17 are listed as "data deficient," which means we don't know enough about those species to determine their conservation status.
Photo: Leafy dragon seahorse has one of the most unique shapes in the world of fishes.
The threats seahorses face are many. Overfishing, destruction of habitat, bycatch, and ocean plastic pollution are all things that are having devastating impacts on many species of seahorses.
Seahorses have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine going back millennia and are believed to treat everything from asthma to ED. While there is no scientific evidence backed by clinical trials, this belief is fueling a demand that undoubtedly is harming the sustainability of wild populations. Hong Kong is the epicenter of the global seahorse trade but most of the actual seahorses themselves come from places like Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam –– all of which have export bans in place.
Photo: Tyler Stiem/Project Seahorse - Dried seahorses outside of a store in Hong Kong.
Photo: Seahorses in Traditional Chinese Medicine store.
A recent research study conducted in early 2019 by the University of British Columbia, in conjunction with Project Seahorse, states that up to 98% of seahorses found in the global trade came from countries that already have bans! So even though all species of seahorse are listed in CITES Appendix II and are supposed to be regulated sustainably to keep wild stocks from being depleted, this revelation has exposed the fact that neither imports or exports are being enforced under the trade bans. And that means seahorse populations are still facing immense and unregulated pressure on their populations. This is a tragic way for millions upon millions of seahorses to die each year.
Destruction of Habitat and Bycatch
Every year vast swaths of ocean seabed are destroyed by the harmful fishing practice of bottom trawling for shrimp and other species. Using this method, a boat or boats drag a large weighted net along the seafloor and seahorses are indiscriminately caught up in the nets as bycatch. Hundreds of pounds of bycatch, including seahorses, can be pulled up on a single trawl. For every kilogram of shrimp caught by trawlers, as much as 10 kilograms of other marine life are caught as bycatch. Even if the trade of seahorses was stopped, this fishing would still continue and either way, these seahorses would end up dying.
Photo L. Ayelsworth Project Seahorse: Typical bottom trawlers at port in Thailand.
Photo: Sarah Foster/Project Seahorse - Bycatch from a Mexican shrimp bottom trawler ship with dead seahorse in the middle.
Setting aside larger areas of ocean and greater enforcement of fishing exclusion zones are two things that could help with the fishing situation. Additionally, making sure that you don't eat shrimp that has been bottom trawled is the best way for you to make a difference for seahorses.
As we all know, ocean plastic pollution is becoming more and more of a problem. This is part of a growing trend especially in shallow seas surrounding human populations and cities where seahorses thrive. Plastic can suffocate the seafloor where seahorses live and push them out of their normal habitats. Unfortunately, they have sometimes even been seen clinging to this pollution as their home.
They can also mistake tiny microplastics for prey and ingest them accidentally causing internal damage to their fragile digestive systems. Seahorses sometimes only have milliseconds to suck up their prey and can eat as many as 3,000 crustaceans each day. Inevitably some of what they ingest is likely plastic.
Photo: Imagine if you were a seahorse and this was your home. You would move, too. Or worse yet, not survive.
At the end of the day, it is up to us to protect the habitats and ecosystems that these animals call home. The survival of seahorses depends on us and we must be determined to resolve their future. If not, we may lose many seahorse species forever.
Make sure to check out the 4ocean Seahorse Bracelet and get yours today! It pulls a pound of trash from the ocean and coastline and helps to raise awareness about the plight of seahorses around the world.