Seahorse - Here to Stay?

In my earliest memory of visiting an aquarium, the creatures that first caught my eye were seahorses. These animals with the head of a horse, pouch of a kangaroo, and tail of a monkey provided me with the first clue that a completely different world truly existed below the sea. Seahorses have a mythical quality_one can almost imagine them sharing the sea with mermaids. But these animals are real and play an important role in the marine ecosystem. Despite the fact that research on seahorses only began in the last decade, it is clear that in the past several years various threats have caused the fate of seahorses to grow increasingly dim.

The 32 species of seahorses are vertebrate fish that range in size from six-twelve inches. The Caribbean species, Hippocampus reidi, is one of the more thin and larger of species, known to turn fluorescent colors. These animals prefer coastal waters, especially areas with sea grass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves, where they camouflage themselves to blend into their environment. These areas are ideal for these tiny creatures to find protection for reproduction.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating facts about seahorses is that they are monogamous (one partner for life), which is both good and bad for the animal. Some believe that long-term pair bonds enable seahorses to become efficient and effective baby-making teams. On the other hand, each pair only produces around 1,000 young per year, very low by fish reproductive standards, making it very challenging for populations to recover from such threats as over-fishing. The reproductive process, itself, is also unique. The female makes 200-600 eggs and deposits them in the males brood pouch where fertilization and transfer of nutrients takes place. After three-six weeks, the male gives birth leaving the babies to fend for themselves. The survival of these babies is unlikely; on average two of the thousands of young a pair produces will reach maturity. As for adults, the odds are not much better.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
The natural predators that adult seahorses face are tuna, crabs, and rays. When storms hit the sea many seahorses die because they lose hold of whatever rock or coral they have wrapped their tail around. Generally, though, it is the activity of humans, such as habitat destruction and overexploitation, that most notably impacts seahorse populations. The habitats that seahorses choose to live in, particularly coral reefs, happen to be among the most threatened in the world. With the increase in pollution and the over development of coastal areas, seahorses face an uphill battle. Fishing of seahorses is also becoming an increasing threat. Due to shrinking marine resources around the world, some fishermen are forced to take all the fish they catch. Increasingly, there is a market for seahorses_at least 47 nations around the world are involved in buying and selling seahorses. For the past 500 years, Asian cultures have been using seahorses for medicinal purposes, supposedly curing impotency, asthma and arteriosclerosis. Testimonials on the medicinal benefits of seahorses are convincing, but pharmacological testing is only now beginning.

Whether or not seahorses are proven to have curative qualities, it is still important to seek out a sustainable balance. Belize has yet to tap into the medicinal market so this has not become a threat to the seahorses here. However, increased pollution and coastal development continue to pose a threat to the critical habitats of these creatures. If we are going to make a lasting change in the way we treat the environment and the creatures that inhabit it, there is no better time to do it than now.

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