Saving seahorses is imperative

When I was young, India was flooded with comic books of Archie, Superman and War. The two central pages and the back advertised things for sale in America: party treats, Halloween costumes. The maximum space was given to advertising seahorses for aquaria. For one dollar you could get 6 sea horses who were “magical”. They would make you gasp with their tricks. Millions of seahorses lost their lives to these advertisements before people realized that the chances of seahorses surviving in a home aquarium were nil. 

From then to now, seahorses continue to be poached and killed in different ways, even though all 40 species are endangered and some close to extinction. India has 5, the Spiny, Great, Yellow, Hedgehog and Three Spot Seahorse. UK has two, but they have not been seen for the last two years and may be extinct.

The Seahorse is indeed magical in its uniqueness. Seahorses are fish with heads shaped like tiny horses. Their size varies from half an inch to 14 inches. They inhabit mainly tropical and temperate coastal waters, living in coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds and estuaries. 
Unlike most other fish, seahorses have an exo-skeleton. Their bodies are made up of hard, external, bony plates that are fused together with a fleshy covering. They do not have scales. They also have a neck and a snout that points down. They breathe through gills and have a swim bladder. They have a long, snake-like, tail. This allows them to grip onto sea-grasses and corals, preventing them from being washed away by strong currents. Seahorses live in shallow, weedy areas. In winter they move into deeper waters.

They are poor swimmers. They propel themselves by using a small fin on their back that flutters up to 35 times per second. Fins located near the back of the head are used for steering. They swim upright and avoid predators by mimicking the colour of nearby plants, and they can change colour very quickly. They eat small crustaceans, like shrimps. Since they have no teeth and no stomach, food passes through their digestive systems so quickly that they must eat almost constantly to stay alive. They can consume 3,000 or more brine shrimp per day. Their long, thin snouts probe into small nooks and, when they find it, they vacuum it up through their snouts which can expand if their prey is larger than the snout. Their eyes are as remarkable as the rest of them. They work independently. This means they can look forwards and backwards at the same time. This is particularly useful as they hunt for food by sight.

Seahorses pair for life. They meet daily to reinforce their pair bonding with an elaborate courtship display. As they approach each other, they change colour. The male circles around the female and the pair often spiral around an object with their tails linked together. Then the female goes back to her territory.

The male is the only male creature who can actually get pregnant. The female transfers her eggs to the male, which he self-fertilises in his pouch. The number of eggs can vary: from 50-150 for smaller species, to 1500 for larger species. The babies are born in 14 – 28 days in the pouch. Giving birth can be a long process, with contractions lasting up to 12 hours.

Baby seahorses are on their own as soon as they are born. They hatch after 45 days in the brood pouch. They float together in small groups, clinging to each other using their tails. They must find food and hide from predators as soon as they’re born. They spend the first two to three weeks of their lives drifting along in the plankton layer of the ocean. Less than one in a thousand will survive long enough to become an adult due to predators.

Will you ever see a seahorse? Probably not. They are expected to be gone in another 20 years. Eight species are severely endangered, and  the Cape Seahorse of South Africa will disappear in the next two years due to water pollution and development. India’s hedgehog seahorse and the flat faced seahorse are also expected to be gone in five years. Habitat degradation and destruction due to coastal development,  marine pollution, coral reef destruction, and land-based deforestation. Deforestation leads to increased siltation in surrounding marine waters, suffocating sea grass beds and killing coral reefs.

But none of the above is as bad as the commercial reasons that are killing them.

The first reason is the same for all wild animals across the world : the Chinese nonsensical native medicine (TCM). This takes 150 MILLION seahorses from the wild annually for “growth” and aphrodisiacs. Seahorses have high levels of collagen, which Chinese women use as a substitute for Botox .

The Curio Trade takes approximately ten million seahorses from the wild. Along with shells and starfish they are sold as souvenirs and jewellery after being left to die in the sun so that their dried bodies are intact. Dried seahorses range from 600 – 3000 dollars per kilo, almost the weight of gold. For instance, in UK alone, the Seahorse Trust says that seahorses, corals, pipefish baby sharks and crocodiles, brought in from Asia, are sold in hundreds of beach shops as mementoes – even though they are banned for sale in the UK. It is illegal to kill, take or disturb seahorses in British waters, so they are imported from abroad. The majority of seahorses, found for sale in the UK, come from the Far East and some are sold here for as little as a few pounds. The import and export of seahorses has been controlled under CITES, an international treaty that protects trading in wildlife, since 2004, but countries like Indonesia, Japan, Norway and South Korea chose to opt out of the trade rules set by CITES. Sites like ebay are selling seahorses openly – and illegally.

The aquarium trade takes an estimated ten million seahorses from the wild. Less than .01 % survive more than two weeks. The aquarium trade is exclusively driven by North America (thanks to generations growing up on Archie comics). In Maharashtra, seahorses are sold openly in  unlicensed aquarium shops.

The second big reason seahorses are dying out is because of the trawlers. They are a by-catch in the shrimp trawl and other fisheries off of Florida, Mexico, Central America, and South America.

In India, millions are being killed every day in Tamil Nadu alone. Tamil fishermen drop heavy nets from their trawlers that go deep into the ocean. Every living creature in the area is caught. Brought out of the water, they die. The fishermen choose what they want to sell and all the rest – the tiny fish, seahorses and sea cucumbers (both protected by  law) – are mashed and sold to the poultry industry to be fed to chickens, to the aquarium industry as pet food or to be made into oils. They are sold for next to nothing (Rs 2- Rs 4 per kg). This kind of bottom trawling is wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait by destroying the habitat as well. So we are destroying our waters, marine resources and all our species to feed chickens? Does this make sense?

The State fisheries department has no records of the trawlers, or what they catch. They have no record, or knowledge, about which species are caught, or even what species actually exist in the waters of Tamil Nadu.  This became obvious when researchers from the University of Columbia, Canada did an investigation.

No checks have ever been made on what the trawlers bring in, even though nothing is hidden. In Tuticorin and Rameshwaram, for instance, the researchers said that mounds of marine life, brought in by different vessels, is strewn all over the beaches.

Project Seahorse did an undercover investigation in India and found not just the illegal sale of the fishing “by-catch”, but that India is also illegally exporting seahorses by mislabelling them. Till 2000 the Marine Products Export Development Authority MPEDA was exporting 4 million seahorses a year. Then it became illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act. But the export is still going on from Chennai.  The Forest officials take no interest in marine wildlife and know nothing about wild sea species, even though the Act comes under them. Not a single raid has ever been conducted on illegal exporters of seahorses, even though they are well known.

Seahorses are an important part of the marine world, and saving them is an imperative. They serve as flagship species for a wide range of marine conservation issues. Are we going to sit back and let seahorses become the dinosaurs of our generation?

You can make a difference by:

1. Refusing to buy seahorse souvenirs and wild caught seahorses for aquarium. You should also report to me all shops that are selling these.

2. Promote re-aforestation along coastlines.

3. One of the more effective ways is to make those areas into wildlife reserves and allow the ecosystem to return to its natural state. Marine reserves are very important.

4. You need to help change by bring public pressure on the government. Current fishing practices and laws have to be changed. MPEDA and the Forest Departments must start patrolling.

5. Sea horse cultivation must take the place of taking them from the wild. Captive breeding projects are being done abroad, why not in India?

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
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*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*