Re:Guidance on keeping seahorses

Pete Giwojna

Dear Barbara:

The answer to your primary question (Are seahorses difficult to care for?) depends on whether you’re talking about wild-caught seahorses or captive-bred-and-raised seahorses. Delicate wild-caught seahorses are indeed challenging to keep and raise; they are best reserved for expert aquarists with the knowledge and resources to meet their demanding requirements. Hardy captive bred seahorses that are trained to eat frozen foods, on the other hand, are very much at home in the aquarium and are relatively easy to care for. More home hobbyists are able to breed and raise cultured seahorses such as Mustangs successfully than any other type of marine fishes.

Farm-praised seahorses have been born and bred for aquarium life for generation after generation. They are at home in the aquarium, accustomed to eating readily provided frozen foods as their staple diet, and used to living in close proximity to others of their kind. Wild-caught seahorses, on the other hand, are starting out with the deck stacked against them and find captive conditions very unnatural and highly stressful. They have been abruptly snatched from their natural environment, wrenched apart from their mates, starved while they make the rounds from collector to wholesaler to retailer to hobbyist, and exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way. They are accustomed to eating live foods and, with the patchy distribution typical of all Hippocampines, they rarely encounter seahorses other than their mates in the vastness of the sea. As a result, wild-caught seahorses typically have considerable difficulty adjusting to aquarium conditions, unnatural foods, and living in constant contact with other seahorses.

Consequently, when we eager hobbyists got our hands on the first farm-raised seahorses it quickly became evident that they were superior to their wild conspecifics as aquarium specimens in every respect. Vastly superior! In every way. In terms of their hardiness, ease of maintenance, disease resistance, longevity, adaptability, suitability for the captive environment, willingness to breed in the aquarium, genetic diversity, vigor, friendliness and sociability, coloration, and especially their feeding habits, they put wild seahorses to shame. No contest. Generations of selective breeding have transformed cultured seahorses into far different animals — a whole new breed — than wild seahorses. Compared to their wild-caught cousins, the captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are far more fun, much easier to keep and more convenient to care for, and generally more attractive specimens as well.

In short, the advantages of farm-raised, captive-bred seahorses over wild-caught specimens are many, obvious, and compelling. For starters, let’s examine their different feeding habits. Before captive-bred specimens were available, one of the seahorse keeper’s greatest challenges was providing wild-caught seahorses with a balanced, nutritious diet, stemming from their reliance on hard-to-provide live foods. Meeting their long-term needs was a difficult, expensive proposition. It required numerous live food cultures, rigorous field trips to collect live foods, and special training sessions to try to teach them to eat frozen foods, which often proved to be a prolonged, highly frustrating exercise in futility.

By comparison, feeding farm-raised seahorses is simplicity itself. Raised in captivity, all captive-bred seahorses are pre-trained to eat frozen Mysis shrimp as their staple diet. Frozen Mysis relicta have an extremely high protein content, and when fortified with special enrichment products rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, Vitamins C and A and essential minerals, it provides a highly nutritious diet that contains all of the crucial components necessary for the long-term health of the seahorse. In my opinion, the best of these enrichment products is a dry powder formulation (i.e., Vibrance) especially developed in Hawaii to provide a balanced diet for seahorses when used in conjunction with the protein-rich frozen Mysis. A nutritious diet of enriched, frozen Mysis relicta thus ensures long-term survivability, high health, high mating frequency and beautiful, vibrant colors in our pampered pets.

In fact, this is such a superb diet that it is strongly suggested that the aquarist "fast" his seahorses one day per week, and feeding live foods is totally unnecessary except as a monthly treat. Contrast a trip to your refrigerator twice a day to thaw frozen Mysis, and no feeding at all once a week, with the collecting expeditions, live food cultures, and painstaking training procedures required to sustain wild-caught seahorses and wean them onto frozen fodder, and you can see there is really no comparison (Giwojna, May 2002).

Breeding is another area where wild seahorses simply cannot compete with their captive-bred counterparts. In the olden days, greater seahorses removed from the wild rarely bred in captivity. There were a number of reasons for this ranging from traumatic capture techniques and mishandling by dealers to difficulty adjusting to a captive environment to the sort of feeding problems we’ve been discussing above. But one big factor was that in the aquarium they lacked the type of seasonal or cyclical environmental cues (falling water temperature, changes in day length, reduced salinity from monsoon rains, moon phases and high tides, etc.) they normally experience in the wild that regulate the breeding season. These environmental stimuli trigger the secretion of gonadotropin and other key hormones that prepare them for breeding and govern their reproductive activity. Without these environmental cues and the hormonally induced changes they trigger, many times they simply ceased to breed in captivity. Researchers dealt with such setbacks through wild procurement of gravid males. In other words, loaded or pregnant males removed from the wild provided the fry needed for rearing projects and laboratory study in those days.

Captive-bred seahorses normally experience no such difficulties in the boudoir. They are highly domesticated and very well adapted to the aquarium environment. They are not subject to the traumatic capture methods or mishandling and abuse en route to the hobbyist. Born and bred for captivity generation after generation, for them the aquarium is their natural habitat. As a result, for the most part, they have lost their dependence on seasonal cues and external stimuli when it comes to mating. Rather than external environmental cues, for farm-raised seahorses, which have been raised at far greater population densities than seahorses ever experience in the wild, it is the presence of other seahorses — potential mates — that appears to get their hormones flowing and triggers courtship. (Pheromones or sex hormones almost certainly play a role in this.) In other words, living amidst a group of potential partners at all times seems to be what turns on captive-bred seahorses, and breeding appears to be their number one mission in life. Compared to their wild conspecifics, farm-raised seahorses seem to court constantly, breed like bunnies, and change partners often.

But to me, the most striking difference between cultured seahorses and wild specimens has always been the increased hardiness of the former. Captive-bred seahorses simply enjoy a huge advantage over their wild-caught brethren in terms of their health, disease resistance, and conditioning, and that naturally translates to greater longevity in the aquarium. To understand why they are so much hardier and healthier, we must examine how cultured seahorses and seahorses captured from the wild are handled before they reach the hobbyist. It is largely a matter of stress. In a nutshell, captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are not stressed by aquarium life and are not abused en route to the aquarist, and that makes all the difference in the world in terms of their fitness and lifespan in captivity.

When you place an order for farm-raised seahorses, they are then delivered overnight directly to your door from Hawaii’s state-of-the art aquaculture facility, and thus reach the consumer well fed and in optimum condition. They arrive disease-free and relatively unstressed, at the peak of their health and coloration. This gives them a huge headstart over wild-caught seahorses, which are often beat up during capture (specimens taken in trawls, for example, often suffer considerable wear and tear during the collection process) and mishandled at various stops along the way to your local fish store (LFS). By the time they finally arrive at your local dealers, wild-caught seahorses may already have spent a long time in the collector’s holding tanks followed by an indefinite stay at a wholesaler and a high-risk respite at your local retailers, and have been exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Due to their need for live foods, they are very likely to have gone unfed during this entire period, and they may have become malnourished by the time they reach your neighborhood fish store (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). And because they were taken from coastal waters, wild seahorses are frequently infested with a variety of pests and parasites ranging from sea lice (Argulus sp.) to nematodes, parasitic copepods and hydroids. Upon arrival, they will need to be quarantined for a period of several weeks, since they may also be carrying disease pathogens such as fungus, Vibrio, or deadly Glugea (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Captive-raised, high-health seahorses pose no such problems.

The greater adaptability of captive-bred and reared seahorses is another big plus. Cultured seahorses have now achieved a high level of domestication. They are pre-adapted to aquarium conditions and pre-trained to eat easily provided frozen foods. Because they are raised at much greater population densities than seahorses experience in nature, captive-bred specimens are accustomed to living in close quarters and withstand crowding much better than wild-caught ‘horses. Consequently, farm-raised seahorses have little difficulty adjusting to life in a captive environment. By contrast, field studies show that, in the wild, seahorses have a distribution pattern that can best be described as patchy, meaning they are few and far between, and that a female typically enjoys a home territory of up to 100 square meters (Vincent and Sadler, 1995). It stands to reason that wild-caught seahorses may have a more difficult time acclimating to life in captivity than farm-raised ponies that are literally born and bred for life in the aquarium. And that means that wild-caught seahorses will be under more stress in captivity, at least initially (Giwojna, May 2002).

This was most evident when captive bred seahorses first became readily available around the turn of the century. In those days, it was customary for many hobbyists to maintain wild-caught and captive-bred specimens side-by-side in the same tank, since they already had wild seahorses and eagerly added farmed-raised ponies to their herds when they were first offered by breeders. Very often, when disease outbreaks occurred in such setups, the wild specimens were all lost while the captive-bred seahorses emerged unscathed, or if they developed symptoms, were able to fight off the affliction and recover none the worse for wear.

The bottom line is that captive bred and raised seahorses are simply hardier, more disease resistant, easier to maintain and longer lived in captivity than their wild-caught counterparts. They reach the hobbyist well fed, in peak condition, and already accustomed to aquarium life and frozen foods (Giwojna, May 2002). On the other hand, wild-caught seahorses typically arrive at your local fish store in poor shape, suffering from near starvation and the trauma of capture (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Mishandling combined with malnutrition stresses these animals and impairs their immune systems, making them prone to disease (Bull and Mitchell, 2002; Lidster 2003).

This means that wild seahorses often have a difficult time adjusting to aquarium conditions, don’t tolerate crowding as well, and will most certainly have problems adjusting to frozen fodder or any other easily provided foods. They will need live foods for an indefinite period while they struggle to make the transition to strange foods and the captive environment, and will be stressed out in the interim (Giwojna, May 2002).

In fact, the pet industry has coined a term for the plight of newly imported marine fishes like seahorses. They call it "Post Traumatic Shipping Disorder," and pet dealers consider PTSD to be the single greatest problem facing the ornamental fish industry. As they define it, PTSD refers to a broad range of complications suffered by marine fishes following traumatic capture, holding and/or transportation. The majority of cases are believed to be the result of digestive tract damage resulting from inadequate nourishment during a period of high (stress-induced) metabolic demand. And seahorses are right at the top of the dealers’ list of most often affected specimens because of their specialized feeding requirements (Lidster, 1999).

The point is that the hobbyist can spare himself a great deal of hardship and heartache, and eliminate many potential disease problems altogether right from the start, simply by opting for hardy captive-bred seahorses that thrive under aquarium conditions. Many of the afflictions that plagued seahorses in the Dark Ages of the hobby when wild specimens were the only choice are rarely if ever seen by hobbyists today who keep captive-bred seahorses. This includes nuisances like sea lice, parasitic copepods and many other ectoparasites, nematode infestations, the fungus infections that were once so common when wild seahorses collected late in the season and exposed to chilling, as well as deadly epidemics of Glugea that wiped out whole herds of wild horses in the past.

Therefore, the first rule of successful seahorse keeping is to avoid wild-caught seahorses like the plague. The hobbyist can prevent a number of disease problems simply by stocking his system with High Health captive-bred seahorses.

This brings us to the different prices your to local fish stores quoted you for seahorses, Barbara. The difference in cost is almost certainly due to the fact that the more expensive seahorses are captive bred and raised, whereas the relatively inexpensive seahorses are wild-caught animals recently removed from the ocean.

At first glance, the $20 fish may seem like too good of a deal to pass up, but I hope I’ve shown by now that there’s no such thing as a bargain when the seahorse involved is wild-caught. Believe me, Barbara, the added cost of captive bred specimens is well worth it in order to spare the unsuspecting hobbyist from the inevitable headaches (and heartaches) that come with acquiring a wild specimen that may not be in good condition to begin with and that is not conditioned for aquarium life. Certainly there are also conservation issues and ethical questions involved in purchasing a seahorse that was removed from the wild at a time when seahorses populations are in serious decline around the world, and starting out with superior farm-raised livestock is the best way to absolve oneself from that moral dilemma.

Fortunately, this is one of those happy situations when the best interests of seahorse conservation coincide nicely with the best interests of the seahorse keeper. No matter what you are looking for in a seahorse — ease of rearing, brilliant colors, exceptional size or an endearing lack of size — there are plenty of captive-bred specimens that meet your needs. There is no need to take a chance on wild-caught specimens.

Whether you prefer pint-sized Shetland Ponies or king-sized Clydesdales, whether you fancy a simple desktop tank, a sophisticated setup will all the latest equipment, or a full-fledged reef system, there are fantastic farm-raised seahorses that fit the bill. Whether you are looking for tropical treasures or running a coldwater tank for temperate species, whether you want to breed and raise these amazing animals or simply enjoy their exotic appearance and amusing antics, there is now a colorful, captive-bred creation that’s perfect for you.

In short, if you want to get your seahorses from the LFS and personally pick out your livestock, Barbara, avoid the store offering the wild $20 ponies and stick with the store that can provide you with the more expensive but vastly superior captive bred seahorses. Better yet, order your seahorses directly from the breeder in order to obtain the healthiest possible livestock. Seahorses from a High-Health aquaculture facility such as Ocean Rider are certified to be free of pathogens and parasites, and will thus reach you at the peak of health.

That’s not the case when seahorses are obtained from your LFS. When seahorses are kept at a retail outlet, they are typically held in aquaria that share a common filtration system with all the rest of the tanks in the store. This means that the seahorses may have been exposed to pathogens and/or parasites carried on fishes from all the corners of the globe while they were in the holding tanks at your LFS or the wholesaler be obtained them from, making them potential disease vectors for a wide range of health problems.

Every Ocean Rider seahorse comes with a comprehensive care sheet explaining in detail how to acclimate it to the aquarium and care for it thereafter. But when you purchase a wild seahorse from your LFS, the store staff often knows little about their specific needs and requirements, and it can be very difficult to even identify the type of seahorse you have just purchased. With farm-raised seahorses, you know exactly what you are getting, including the seahorse’s exact requirements and all the tricks to keeping them healthy and happy. Help is always available through online seahorse boards as well as directly from the breeder in the form of free tech support. Whereas the seahorse farmers specialize in seahorses and nothing else, seahorses are little but an afterthought at most pet shops, and once you bring home a seahorse from your LFS, you’re strictly on your own if problems arise.

Now that I’ve done my best answer your main question, Barbara, let me know if you think you’d like to try your hand at keeping seahorses. If you’re ready to take the plunge, I will be very happy to help you find the ones that best suit your needs, tastes and interests and to explain in detail how to set up a tank that meets all of your seahorses’ requirements.

Best wishes with all of your fishes, Barbara!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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