Imagine a life floating in the ocean surrounded by plants to hide and feed in with others of your kind. Among them is your mate, your lifelong partner who, each dawn, you dance with in an intertwining courtship that has taken place in the ocean for thousands of years.
One day your friends vanish, snagged as bycatch in a shrimp trawler net. The seagrasses, coral reefs and mangrove stands where you once took shelter are disappearing. Without refuge, more of your friends are eaten by big fish, but they too begin to disappear as the food chain is slowly destroyed.
Finally, you are scooped away from your world only to find yourself stuck in a glass tank with nothing but dead frozen foods to eat. Disease grips your new aquarium mates. You die.
When this struggle of the oceanís seahorses came to the attention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), 166 nations signed Appendix II in 2002 to protect all 34 species of seahorses worldwide. In addition to destruction of habitats and the estimated 99 percent of sea life caught in shrimp nets that are not shrimp, the seahorse faced an uncertain future.
The treaty requires that any country dealing in seahorse trade must have government permits and take only older, grown seahorses. A handful of countries kept the power to ignore the regulations.
The protection was spearheaded by Project Seahorse, a team of marine scientists in Vancouver. According to Project Seahorse, 24 million seahorses were caught for use in traditional medicines. Hundreds of thousands more sold for aquarium trade. Others are allowed to die so they could be dried and sold as souvenirs.
The main importers for medicinal use are China and Singapore where the seahorse has been powdered and used like Viagara to treat impotence for hundreds of years. Trade for this rose from 45 to 75 metric tons each year between 1995 and 2001.
In the past five years, some species of seahorses have declined by 50 percent. Many fish species are declining, some have collapsed beyond repair, coral reefs are deteriorating because of bad fishing practices, mercury levels are rising, algae blooms are increasing and the list of threatened and endangered species grows longer each year.
The seahorse has been a crucial link in the biodiversity of all ocean life for millions of years. They keep brine shrimp and plankton populations in balance and in turn sustain crabs. Their rare breeding habits, as the male carries the eggs in a pouch, and their lifelong relationships have marveled humanity to this day.
Aquariums also bring a threat. Until recently all seahorses sold in pet stores were vigorously hunted from the wild because they are cheaper. But they donít live long in captivity. According to the MarineBio Conervation Society, several species of sea horse are bred in aquariums and are legal to purchase. They also stand a better chance of survival because theyíve been raised on the frozen foods and have never experienced the ocean freedom.
As policy makers are being informed of the challenges ocean life is facing, we all can take up our own responsibility.
Ways to Help
In their list of 100 Ways to Make a Difference†for our oceans, the MarineBio Conservation Society is advising people:
Not to buy live saltwater fish caught in the wild for your aquarium. The fishing methods, such as cyaniding and dynamiting, for the live fish trade are horribly degrading to the marine environment. Hundreds of thousands of young and rare tropical reef fish die every year in aquariums in the US alone.
If you must keep a saltwater tank, buy only†Marine Aquarium Council†certified fish to ensure your fish are sustainably caught or reared in captivity.†Ask to see a certificate to prove the fish are not seized from the wild. They state that wild caught seahorses continue to be found in pet stores and are typically less expensive than those that are aquarium-bred. They urge shoppers to choose the captive bred seahorses. Wild-caught seahorses could also carry a disease captive fish have no resistance toward.†
Activists protecting seahorses urge people to eat less shrimp and refuse to patronize stores that sell seahorses as souvenirs, in addition to avoiding products made of coral.
Sign Care2′s petition to California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asking him to protect the pacific seahorse by designating the San Diego bay as a Marine Protected Area.†
Sign a Care2 member petition to stop the curio trade, or selling seahorses for jewelry and souveniers.†
Sign a Care2 member petition telling BP to stop burning dwarf seahorses and use other cleanup methods.†