Re:What Seahorse can I get?

Pete Giwojna

Dear Akamu:

Ocean Rider does not sell their livestock within the state of Hawaii. This policy is a precaution to prevent the casual or intentional release of non-native seahorses in Hawaii waters, and is a necessary safeguard for conducting responsible aquaculture in a state that consist of a string of islands.

There are several environmental concerns associated with the release of non-native (exotic) seahorses in an area where there has never been a population of the species before, but the primary issues Project Seahorse lists in that regard are as follows:

Disease transmission: diseases may be transmitted from released syngnathids to wild syngnathids.

Genetic threats: released syngnathids may threaten the genetic diversity of wild populations.

Community disruptions: released syngnathids may disrupt the structure and function of marine communities.

Disease transmission

The risk of disease transmission is increased when non-native syngnathids are introduced into an area. Introduced syngnathids may bring with them new disease organisms against which local species may have little or no natural resistance. The potential for disease transmission from captive to wild populations has been highlighted in the salmon and prawn aquaculture industries in North America, Asia, Europe and elsewhere. Where these impacts have occurred, the effects on wild populations have been severe.

Genetic threats

The genetic diversity of wild populations could be threatened when captive-bred animals are released into the wild. Captive-bred animals are usually obtained from a very limited number of parent animals (founders). Their genetic diversity may, therefore, be quite low in comparison to that found in the wild. If large numbers of these animals are released into an area, there is a very real risk that they could swamp the genetic diversity of the recipient wild population, thus lowering its overall genetic diversity in the long term.

This is problematic as genetic diversity acts as a safeguard against randomly occurring events such as disease epidemics and environmental changes that may otherwise destroy entire local populations. Without this diversity, populations are far more vulnerable to such events. Risks are exacerbated if the released syngnathids are from a captive population that differs genetically from the wild population as this may also lead to fundamental alterations in the genetic structure of the wild population.

The artificial conditions associated with culturing may result in captive-bred fishes having different genetic traits from those in the wild. Thus, the released fishes may be genetically less adapted to conditions in the natural habitat. In the simplest case, the released animals die soon after release, with relatively few conservation consequences. If, however, these animals survive to breed with wild conspecifics, unsuitable genetic traits may be passed on to future generations. This could eventually lead to a reduction in the long-term viability of the wild population, as has occurred, for example, in trout.

Community disruptions

The risk of disruptions to marine communities is perhaps most pronounced when exotic species are introduced into an area. Such introductions may disrupt the structure and function of the local ecosystem, and lead to the extirpation (localised extinction) or extinction of native species. In most cases, the introduced species dies shortly after being released because of incompatibility with the new environment.

In numerous well-known cases, however, the introduced species thrives. The introduction of an exotic syngnathid species into the marine environment, therefore, could potentially lead to the establishment of a viable population that may compete with local species for food and habitat. This could potentially have severe detrimental impacts on the local species and community. Numerous examples of problems associated with the introduction of exotics into aquatic systems exist all over the world. Australia, for example, has a list of noxious introduced fishes, such as the ubiquitous tilapia, goldfish and carp, which are to be destroyed when caught.

Another example of this is of more interest to marine aquarists is that a breeding population of the exotic lionfish (Pterois sp.), which are native to the IndoPacific, has now reportedly become established in the coastal waters of Florida as a result of accidental (in the aftermath of hurricanes) or intentional releases of pet lionfish.

Due to such concerns, Ocean Rider does not sell any of their seahorses or pipefish within the state of Hawaii itself. It’s just one of the rules and regulations they must satisfy in order to maintain their status as a cutting-edge High-Health aquaculture facility. It is unfortunate that this deprives Hawaiian hobbyists from keeping Ocean Rider seahorses but it is a policy based on very valid concerns.

So that’s the bad news, Akamu. The good news is that fish stores and pet shops in Hawaii commonly carry seahorses other than Ocean Riders, and you can choose from these pet store ponies when you are ready to stock your seahorse setup.

When selecting seahorses from your local fish store, Akamu, it’s best to avoid any and all wildcaught seahorses like the plague! They are much more delicate, disease-prone, difficult to feed, and short-lived in captivity, and should therefore be passed over immediately.

You will want to look for seahorses that are captive-bred-and-raised, rather than seahorses that have been collected from the wild or pen raised overseas. In particular, be sure to avoid the Hippocampus kelloggi seahorses that are being imported from Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the H. kelloggi have proven to be less than hardy, to say the least, and no one has been having any success keeping them in the aquarium. Stay away from H. kelloggi seahorses, even if they are offered at bargain prices!

Once you have eliminated any wild-caught seahorses and H. kelloggi seahorses from your list of prospects, and found a likely candidate at one of your local pet stores that has been bred and raised in captivity, Akamu, be sure to give the ponies a close examination to make sure they are healthy before you bring them home. Here are the warning signs and symptoms to check for when you’re giving a seahorse at your local fish store (LFS) a visual inspection, as outlined in the "Sygnathid Husbandry Manual for Public Aquariums, 2005 Manual":

<Open quote>
Physical Examination — Visual Assessment

When performing an initial physical exam, the posture and buoyancy of the seahorse should be closely scrutinized. A seahorse bobbing at the surface is abnormally and positively buoyant. Buoyant animals will often struggle to maneuver deeper into the water column. They should be evaluated for air entrapment problems such as air in the brood pouch (males) or hyperinflated swim bladders. If the tail is extended outward caudodorsally or ‘scorpion-style,’ examine the subcutis of the tail for gas bubbles (subcutaneous emphysema). Subcutaneous emphysema of tail segment also appears to be a condition restricted to males.

Just as abnormal is a seahorse that is lying horizontally at the tank bottom for extended time periods. This may be an indication of generalized weakness or it may indicate negative buoyancy associated with swim bladder disease or fluid accumulation in the brood pouch or the coelomic cavity.

Evaluate the seahorse’s feeding response. Seahorses normally forage almost constantly during daylight hours. An individual that consistently refuses appropriately sized live food is behaving very abnormally and should receive nutritional support to meet its caloric needs.

The rate and pattern of breathing should also be evaluated. Rapid breathing and ‘coughing’
(expulsion of water in a forceful manner through the opercular opening or the mouth) suggest gill disease [or gill parasites].

The entire body surface including the fins should be examined for hemorrhagic regions,
erosions, ulcerations, excessive body mucus, unusual spots, lumps or bumps as well as the presence of subcutaneous gas bubbles. Evaluate both eyes for evidence of periorbital edema, exophthalmia, and any testicular or corneal opacities. Since seahorses are visual predators, maintaining normal vision is absolutely essential to successful foraging. The tube snout is also very important to normal feeding activity. It is utilized like a pipette to literally suck prey out of the water column.

Evaluate the tube snout for evidence of edema, erosions, and successful protraction/retraction of the small, anterior, drawbridge-like segment of the lower jaw. Close evaluation of the tail tip for erosive/necrotic lesions should also be performed.

Finally, the anal region should be closely evaluated for redness, swelling, or tissue prolapse. For closer evaluation it may require getting the seahorse in hand. If this is the case, wear non-powdered latex gloves to prevent injury to the integument of the animal.
<Close quote>

If the seahorse passes this visual examination, and is eating well and behaving normally, with none of the red flags or warning signs discussed above, only then should you consider taking him home. That’s a quick checklist you can use to determine if the seahorses at your LFS appear to be healthy or not before you make a purchase.

Best of luck finding the perfect ponies for your needs and interests, Akamu!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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