There are around 54 species of seahorse found in shallow tropical and temperate waters around the globe. They range from a mere 0.6 to 14 inches in length and, unlike other fish, they are monogamous and mate for life. Rarer still, it’s the male who bears the young. When they reproduce, they can release thousands of fully formed, mini offspring into the ocean. (Yet sadly, less than one in a thousand will survive long enough to become an adult.)
In Britain, there are two breeds of seahorse – the spiny and the short-snouted. These two types are found from the Shetland Isles mainly down the west coast of the UK, and along the south.
Unfortunately, we have a distinct lack of scientific knowledge about these creatures – possibly because there is a lack of scientists studying wild seahorses. Project Seahorse estimate that there are fewer than 20 scientists studying wild populations globally.
And considering how very threatened these creatures are, the future looks bleak.
So how threatened are they? Get your mind around these stats:
- A horrifying 41 seahorse species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
- Of these 41 listed species, 12 are classed as ‘Vulnerable’ or worse.
- 20 others are classed as ‘Data Deficient’ so we just don’t know how bad the situation is.
So what are the main threats?
Overfishing, illegal fishing, habitat loss and human pressures are the core problems.
Trawling is probably the biggest single threat to seahorses as well as a number of other marine creatures. Trawlers drag up a huge area of seabed catching hundreds, if not thousands of fish in one go – while also destroying vital ocean habitats like coral and mangroves.
Seahorses are also one of the species that fall foul of ‘bycatch’ – this means fish or other marine species that are caught unintentionally while fishing for another species.
But the threats I really wanted to highlight here are completely driven by human greed and ignorance. Because you may not think it, but seahorses actually have something in common with tigers, lions, rhinos, pangolins and many other endangered animals on land.
Just like all those animals listed above, seahorses are currently in high demand as ingredients in ‘traditional’ (and unfounded) ‘medicines’, for display in aquariums and as curios.
This high demand, means that the number of seahorses caught each year far exceeds sustainable levels…
According to the Seahorse Trust, the Traditional Chinese Medicine trade takes in excess of up to 150 million seahorses a year from the wild.
Dried seahorses are used mainly as natural aphrodisiacs. But research has also discovered a worrying trend for seahorse pills in the belief that it will aid growth in children. And unfortunately for seahorses, they have been found to contain high levels of collagen; which is encouraging Chinese woman to use it as a substitute for Botox…
The ‘curio trade’ is another horrifying and devastating threat to the seahorse. Figures taken again from the Seahorse Trust show that this trade takes approximately one million seahorse from the wild (that we know of). Along with shells and starfish, they are deliberately taken from the sea and then left to die in the boiling sun.
Once dried, they are sold as souvenirs for tourists, encased in jewellery or simply stuffed in display cases – a sad reminder of what magnificent creatures they once were.
I’ve seen snippets of this horrific trade in various places online recently; most notably due to the campaign against Etsy, which successfully encouraged them to remove curio listings and ban them from the site.
The mainstream media even picked up the plight of the seahorse back in 2015 when the Mail Online covered the launch of the Seahorse Trust’s campaign to target the sale of dried animals as holiday keepsakes. They featured some horrific images of the seahorses but unfortunately, it takes images like this to shock people into realising just how dire the situation is. It’s actually illegal to sell dried seahorses in the UK but as with any wildlife trade, mistakes can slip through.
And now, things are deadly serious. Conservation charities estimate that we could lose seahorses completely within 25 to 30 years.
With such a staggering decline in population numbers, is there any good news?!
Well, yes actually. Some campaigns are working and conservation charities have made e-commerce sites sit up and listen. Ebay banned any listings of curios (covering seahorses, shells and other marine animals) on their sites in the UK, America, Europe and Australia.
And if, like me, you’re a fan of seahorse shaped chocolate as well as the real things, you’ll be pleased to know that Guylian are an official sponsor for Project Seahorse.
For every box of Belgian chocolates sold, donations are made to the conservation group. Guylian also spread the marine conservation message with targeted outreach activities, school education programs, conservation messages on their boxes and their website, and sponsorship of a photography competition where all photos are donated to Project Seahorse and used for scientific work to promote conservation. I knew they were my favourite chocolates for a reason…
Plus, groups like Project Seahorse and The Seahorse Trust are almost starting a crusade to help seahorses; training conservationists across the world, running education programmes, campaigning about national and international policy, as well as encouraging citizen science so that the small group of scientists focusing on seahorses have a whole army of passionate people behind them, keeping an eye on the gentle horses of our seas. Hopefully this good work will only continue.