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Horse Forum - August 2002

by Neil Garrick-Maidment
from the August 2002 issue of Freshwater and Marine Aquarium magazine (FAMA)
Dear Neil,

I have been told that seahorses are very hard to find in the wild because they have all been taken for use as medicine. I would like to breed them so that I can release them back into the wild. It seems like this is the best way to help the seahorses. Why don’t we all get together and release captive bred seahorses into our local waters so we can help save the species?? This seems like a great idea to me. What do you think?

Thanks Barbara L

Hi Barbara, there are many reasons for the decline in Seahorses in the wild, the major one being the Traditional Medicine Trade where in excess of 30 million animals a year are used. There usage is for many things from a cure for sore throats, baldness and menstrual problems amongst others and as an aphrodisiac. There is a great deal of doubt whether they actually work and in Traditional Medicine terms they have only been used for a relatively short time (600 years). What is certain is that due to this trade and many others plus problems such as pollution, habitat loss etc they are in steep decline and in many areas now they are not to be found. There are 65 countries engaged in the collecting trade and this has got to be stopped or at least controlled. It is very admirable to want to breed Seahorses to help bolster the wild population but there are many problems to this. The main problem is classification or identifying exactly which species and sub species are which, there has been a lot of work done on classification by using DNA to catalogue the species but even those doing the work cannot agree on species. Quite often when your fish shop sells Seahorses they have been supplied from an importer who has collected them from the wild, often from many countries so you will get a number of similar looking Seahorses in the same tank but they have come from different countries. Even if you can ensure they come from the same country, species vary from area to area. So to cross breed two differing animals would mess up the local genetic signature. If this wasn’t bad enough we still do not understand wild population dynamics in the areas where Seahorses exist so by putting animals into an area without taking into account the structure of the local population could put the whole population at risk. An in-depth long-term study would be needed to understand a population and its structure, The Seahorse Trust has been running the British Seahorse Survey since 1994 and we are still a long way off from understanding our populations of Seahorses. Another major problem should you have overcome the above problems would be disease transfer to wild populations. We all keep various species together in our tanks and often they come from different parts of the world bringing with them various dormant diseases in the their bodies, by releasing them into the wild could bring a non native disease problem into your release area and wipe out your Seahorses and worst still a number of local species other than Seahorses. This all sounds doom and gloom but it is not we can all help the problem of taking Seahorses from the wild by buying captive bred animals and swap animals between aquarists. We can also help by education, by telling others about the problems facing Seahorses and the habitats they come from will help others to understand. We all have a positive role to play and by understanding all the issues we will make a difference.

Dear Neil,

I went to my local pet shop yesterday and rescued a wild caught seahorse that looks like he is going to die. I just can’t stand to see him die. I am going to go to all the pet stores near me and rescue their sick seahorses as well, so I really need some help in how to save them.

Thanks Traci D.

Hi Tracy sadly I hear this story so often and it is with the best intentions that people like yourselves will buy sick Seahorses from pet shops. This is a very difficult thing to say but if you didn’t buy them then the pet shop would be left with sick and dying animals, when they realized they couldn’t sell them they would be forced through economics to do something about it. They would make sure their stock was healthy and had a good chance of surviving. I know it is heartbreaking to see sick animals in pet shops and sometimes you feel helpless. There are many things you can do to help the situation, in most countries local law enforcers can be brought in to see to poorly run pet and fish shops and prosecute them. You could try talking to the shop owner and explain the situation (although by past experience this very seldom works). The worst thing although absolutely heartbreaking is to buy the sick animals, if you do this the pet shop owner has won, he/she has sold the Seahorse and made their money and they know that if they bring in more you will buy more. If nothing works and the shop owner does not do anything get everyone to boycott the shop and go to shops where the animals are well cared for and preferably where they sell captive bred animals. Support animal welfare charities with the money you would have spent on buying the Seahorses and get them to put pressure on the shop. This is a sad situation but by hitting the shop owners in their bank balance will bring about change.

Dear Carol,

I was in my local fish store the other day and I purchased a wild caught Kuda from Costa Rica. He won’t eat and I think he is going to die. I live near the coast in South Carolina and I want to release him back into the wild so that he will survive. Do you think he will be able to find his own food??

Thanks, Greg D.

Dear Greg,

Thanks for asking for some advice before releasing this poor seahorse into your local waters. There are several problems with this. The first is that purchasing a wild caught seahorse is never a good idea and should be avoided no matter how sick (or healthy) the wild caught seahorse looks in the display tank and no matter what the pet store steward tells you. The second is that releasing any wild caught animal once it has been kept in captivity is simply a big NO NO !! and should never be done for the reasons that Neil has explained so well in the previous questions.

We all know that wild Seahorse populations are highly threatened and disappearing rapidly from our bays, reefs and oceans. Because of this fact, it is now illegal to collect certain types or species of wild caught seahorses in certain parts of the world. This is where the problem lies. How does one really know what type of seahorse is in the box or in the display tank?? How does one know if it is a protected species or not? How does one know if the purchase of this seahorse is in fact legal?? Now, if ALL seahorses are protected it is really very simple. If the seahorse is not an authentic farm raised specimen (and I would check with the farm before buying it!!) it is simply illegal to sell or purchase the animal. Suddenly it is much less of a problem to stop the collection and trade of these wild protected specimens. It is now very simple for international enforcement officials to do their job. There is now no real reason to try and identify the type of seahorse that is the box, just determine if it is from a seahorse farm or not. Of course all legitimate farms that do not go to wild for collecting pregnant males or fry (i.e. the farm maintains a closed cycle farm) will have no problem acquiring the necessary paper work. If it is not from a farm you can’t trade it because it is illegal to transport ALL wild caught seahorses from everywhere!! It would also be very easy for you the hobbyist, as you would then know that if the seahorse is not an authentic farm raised seahorse and is being offered for sale in a pet shop you know NOT to buy it, as it would be an illegal transaction. You also know that the owner is illegally selling livestock and should be reported immediately to the authorities. You may choose to select another pet store with greater integrity that has chosen to be part of the solution and not part of the problem by not offering wild caught seahorses. After all, the truth is that less than .1 % of all wild-caught seahorse live past 3 months in captivity!! We will talk more about this very sad fact next month!

This reason why it is so ludicrous to list only a few species as illegal to collect and trade is this: Typically what the collector or wholesale buyer does in order to avoid regulations that they do not like is to simply change the name of the seahorse species listed on the import/export papers in order to by pass any regulations set up to prevent the movement through international borders of that particular species thereby tricking any authorities that may be actually checking the boxes into thinking that the species being transported is not one of those that is protected. The fact is that it is virtually impossible for even expert taxonomist (scientist that are typically trained with 8 years of higher education to identify species) without DNA testing or at least a peak at the offspring. This makes it very easy for collectors to simply lie about what they have collected. This also explains why there is so much confusion about what type of seahorse really is for sale in the pet store!!

Such is the case with H. Kuda. This species is simply not found anywhere near the shores of the Americas (North, Central or South) or the American Caribbean but it, as well as H. Erectus, is almost always the species listed on the import papers so as to avoid the scrutiny of any official that knows, for example that it is illegal, to collect and sell H. ingens which is the species found off the West Coast of Central and South America. H.ingens and is one of the most threatened species in the world!! What A surprise I am sure for you to realize what you have just purchased!!

The same is now true of H.redi. The collection of this rare and extremely beautiful seahorse is now illegal in many areas of Brazil. However, the exporters simply list the name of the seahorse as H.kuda or H. Erectus and avoid any and all officials that might be checking to see if these species are being collected and sold illegally.

It is likely that within the next year all species of seahorses will be protected by CITES. CITES stands for the Convention In Trade of Endangered Species. Anyone that keeps exotic reef critters should be familiar with this international regulation. Some good places to go find our more information about CITES is www.cites.org/ , www.traffic.org , www.fws.gov and www.iucn.org . The seahorse will be listed on Appendix II, where corals and giant clams are presently listed. We will be explaining how this all works in the next Horse Forum column.

Now that you know a little more about the seahorse you purchased with such good intentions I am sure that you wish you didn’t!! I am sure that the last thing you want to do is to release this wild caught seahorse from somewhere else into your local waters!! What a disaster that would be!! Anyways, for sure, he is too weak to find food and would die very quickly but not after spreading foreign diseases to other fish. The best recommendation I can make is stay clear of wild caught seahorses. After all your purchase simply encourages the pet shop owner to buy more which encourages the collector to take more off the reef, which I know you do not want to do.

Aloha, Carol

Hello Neil,

There is a pet store by my house that sells sea horses. I bought 2 of them and they allowed me to buy a 6 gallon tank to put them in. They did not inform me that I had to test the water for nitrate, ammonia, ect. They just sold them to me. Then I went in and bought 2 more and put them in the 6 gal. tank as well. Again, no instructions, of any sort. I found out from an expert that I was going to lose these beautiful creatures that I fell in love with the moment I saw them the day I bought the first 2. I now have them in a 55 gal. tank and I check the water everyday, the salt level ect. I know that sea horses are much more rare than they used to be, and that they need to be loved and cared for constantly. This pet store should not have the right to sell sea horses if they aren’t going to go to the lengths to do the right thing, not only for the sea horses, but for the people who buy them. What did they just want to make a sale, take my money??? It is not fair.

Is there anyone I can talk to that can maybe see for themselves how cruel these people are being. I will never go there again, but that is not enough. Can someone please help me and tell me what I can do?

Thank you, Julie M

Hi Julie, There are many fish shops like this one that are in it just for money and do not care about the long term health of the animals that they sell. There should be a minimum set of qualifications for all pet shop owners and a minimum set of standards they should apply in their shops. They should also be obliged to inform the customer of the animals needs and try and ascertain if the customer has the knowledge to keep those animals. But the customer also has an obligation to have enough knowledge to look after any animal that they buy. Prior to buying any animal they should research through other keepers, the Internet and discussion groups on the best needs for their particular animal. It is too easy just to blame the pet shops we all have an obligation to ensure whatever animals we buy that we know how to look after them. Once we understand our animals need then we can then go and buy them, this gives us a better understanding if the pet shop owner is not being very honest.

Neil

Dear Neil,

I would like to know how to tell if a seahorse is healthy. What should I look for? How do I treat them if they are sick? How can I be sure he will survive in my tank?? I really want to make sure they thrive in my tank.

Thanks, Jim S.

Hi Jim, One of the best ways of telling the health of a Seahorse is too look for a good weight and overall bright appearance. Too judge the weight of a Seahorse you must look at the skin between the body ridges. A Seahorse with a good weight will have its skin in this area either flush with the ridges or slightly bulging out; if the skin sinks in they have low body weight. The only exception to this is in female Seahorses where once they have passed over the eggs to the male they will sink in the abdomen area until new eggs are formed and stored their again. This can be quite quick or a couple of days. The overall bright appearance is obvious when you have looked at quite a few Seahorses, there whole manner is bright and they hold themselves well, not shrunken up in the corner of a tank. Often healthy Seahorses have small bright dots (mucus deposits) on their heads, these shine like little diamonds and are a good indicator. Be aware of a Seahorse that is constantly swimming, it is unsettled, stressed and more than likely hungry. Treatment of sick Seahorses will depend on the illness they have but if the Seahorse has been kept in a good quality water, a well designed tank that has lots of areas to retire too and many good sized holdfasts and good quality food with as often as possible live food for stimulation then it will remain healthy and should settle in the tank well. I have always found that by planting my tanks with lots of algae then they will feel settled and often be out on show because they are relaxed. I suppose the answer is a happy Seahorse is a healthy Seahorse.

Neil

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