By Tse-Lynn Loh
The wind blew steadily, whipping up whitecaps in the distance as our little long-tail boat made its way out of Panwa Bay, at the southeastern corner of Phuket, Thailand. My co-worker, Lindsay, already wore her dive gear, and our research assistants, Tum and Arm, hunkered down at the back with stoic expressions. We were about to get soaked.
Our boatman skillfully negotiated his way through the roiling waves as we left the bay, but we couldn’t escape the constant spray and waves that broke over the bow of the boat. Wiping saltwater from my eyes for the umpteenth time, I thought: I hope we see a seahorse today.
As part of my postdoctoral research position at the Shedd Aquarium, in collaboration with Project Seahorse, I’m searching this vast part of Southeast Asia for tiny seahorses (genus Hippocampus). My goals: to find out where seahorses live and what marine environments they prefer, how many species exist, whether seahorse populations here are under threat, and promote their conservation.
Species at Risk
Why are seahorses species of concern? According to the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), seahorses are heavily traded on the global market, with millions of animals exported globally every year. Dried seahorses for traditional medicine comprise the bulk of the trade, but animals are also sold for curios and live in the aquarium trade. Bottom trawling is the biggest contributor of seahorses in trade: the incidental harvest of seahorses, or bycatch, accounts for up to 95% of dried seahorses. Given what we know about seahorse biology—they have low rates of reproduction and tend to mate for life—wild seahorse populations can easily be overexploited. Seahorses also live in important marine habitats that are among the most heavily impacted by human activities, such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and estuaries. More....