Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Four years ago, on September 22, the Philippine Daily Inquirer carried a news report about rare species of seahorses in the Philippines that had not been seen before in the country’s seas.
Divers reportedly captured on camera two rare species of seahorse. The news item said: “The photographs of a weedy pygmy seahorse (known in the science world as Hippocampus pontohi) and Severn’s pygmy seahorse (H. severnsi) were submitted to the iSeahorse website (www.iseahorse.org), which gathers sightings from the public, and have been verified by the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Project Seahorse as the first records of these species in the Philippines.”
The two rare species brought “a total of 11 species of seahorse known to inhabit Philippine waters.” The report added: “Conservationists hope that news of this discovery will encourage other members of the public to keep their eyes for these chameleon-like fish when they are out snorkeling or diving in coastal waters.”
“The exciting discovery of these seahorses in new waters demonstrates the important role citizen scientists can play in conservation,” said Chai Apale, iSeahorse Philippines coordinator for Project Seahorse. “Seahorses are found all over the country, but we need the support and participation of the citizen scientists to help us map out the exact locations of these threatened fishes.”
Although they are not considered endangered yet, seahorses abound in the Philippine waters. The coastal community of Handumon in Getafe, Bohol, for instance, was once upon a time a haven for seahorses. In fact, there used to be seahorse-watching activities.
But when fishermen learned there was a ready market for the strange-looking fish, they harvested them as if there was no tomorrow.
“I’ve been fishing seahorses for 18 years,” a local fisherman told People and the Planet. “They are very important for my family because I use (the money I get for my catch) to buy food and medicine.”
It was in this area where Canadian marine biologist, Dr. Amanda Vincent, established a community-based resource management project in 1995. It later became a full-fledged non-government organization named Project Seahorse Foundation (PSF).
“I hate the way the fishermen just hang the seahorses out to dry, stringing them up and leaving them to flop in the sun,” Dr. Vincent, one of the world’s leading experts on seahorses, was quoted as saying.
Today, the seahorse-rich waters of Handumon are devoid of the marine creatures that used to abound. According to PSF’s Angie Nellas, they could still easily spot a seahorse within a few-meter radius of the marine protected area. This was between the late ‘90s and in early 2000. These days, it takes about an hour or so to find just even one seahorse.
“Sa una daghan seahorses makuha all over Bohol but opportunistic man ang mga tawo when they discovered the market,” Nellas told Freeman’s Liv G. Campo. Buyers pay from P50 to P70 per seahorse or a whooping P14,000 per kilo.
Dr. Vincent, a Canadian assistant professor in Conservation Biology at McGill University, became interested with seahorses during a three-year-period in a laboratory she built herself in Cambridge. She started to look at the global demand for seahorses after plunging into the Philippine waters and other parts of the world.
She soon sensed trouble. She found out that some seahorse populations have declined by 15-50%, depending on the species. She believed that the global trade in seahorses, involving around 38 countries, is largely to blame.
“The threats are great to seahorses around the world,” said Dr. Vincent, adding that dredging, dumping, polluting, silting, and clearing of coastal waters do additional damage by destroying seahorse habitat.
According to Vicky Viray-Mendoza, executive editor of Maritime Review Magazine, there are 54 species worldwide of seahorses, of which 14 species can be found in Southeast Asian waters. About ten species are known to inhabit the country’s waters.
The Project Seahorse identified the ten known species as follows: H. barbouri (Barbour’s seahorse), H. bargibanti (Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse), H. comes (Tigertail seahorse), H. denise (Denise’s pygmy seahorse), H. histrix (Thorny seahorse), H. kelloggi (Kellogg’s seahorse), H. kuda (Yellow seahorse), H. pontohi (Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse), H. spinosissimus (Hedgehog seahorse), and H. trimaculatus (Three-spot seahorse).
Countries that trade in seahorses include Australia, Belize, Brazil, China, Dubai, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United States, and Vietnam.
Seahorses have been used in Chinese medicine for at least 400 years. They are used to treat asthma, arteriosclerosis, incontinence, impotence, kidney disorders, skin ailments, and thyroid disorders.
The seahorse, whose genus Hippocampus (hippo means “horse” and kampos “sea monster”), is placed in the family Syngnathidae. It swims weakly, propelled mainly by the rapid motion of its dorsal fin. Its food is primarily of minute planktonic crustaceans, which are ingested into a small mouth at the end of a long tube-like snout by rapid intake of water.
The seahorse characteristic that many find fascinating is the reversed sex roles. The male has a kangaroo-like pouch on its ventral side in which the eggs are deposited by the female and held until they hatch. The eggs are fertilized as they enter the pouch, hatching after approximately ten days.
“Like chameleons, seahorses can change color to match their surroundings, going from drab to psychedelic in a matter of moments, and they can even grow skin filaments to better mimic algae or coral,” Natalie Angier wrote in New York Times.
Unfortunately, the seahorse is a poor swimmer. “It swims upright, not horizontally like regular fish,” Viray-Mendoza wrote. “The seahorse propels itself by using its dorsal fin. The pectoral fins, located on either side of its head, are used for maneuvering and steering. The top speed of a seahorse is 0.5 mph (2,640 ft/hour).”
Seahorses have been swimming the seas for an estimated 40 million years. They are pictured on Greek vases, for they were thought to be the offspring of the stallions that carried the god Poseidon’s chariot across the waves.
The Roman naturalist Pliny wrote that ashes of seahorse could cure baldness, impotence, and rashes.
It wasn’t in the 18th century that scientists realized seahorses are actually fish, though highly modified ones. Unlike most fish, they wear their bones on the outside as exoskeletal armor that offers considerable protection against predation.
As fish, seahorses are very romantic. Once they have chosen a partner, they have eyes for no other. “In a world where infidelity is almost universal, seahorses pair up and seem to be unerringly faithful to their mates, reaffirming their bond each day through elaborate courtship rituals,” Angier wrote.
Scientific studies have shown seahorses having no problem of breeding, but only one in a thousand will reach maturity. Of those, tens of millions are captured and processed annually for medicines or as an aphrodisiac.
On its website, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) reported: “Since the mid-1990s, the number of seahorses in trade (domestic and international) has substantially increased, with estimates ranging from 24.5 million to more than 150 million now consumed annually by some 80 countries.”
Trade is not the only threat to seahorses, as their ocean habitat is some of the most endangered in the world.
“The seahorse is mainly found in shallow tropical and temperate waters throughout the world, and lives in sheltered areas such as seagrass beds, estuaries, coral reefs, or mangroves,” Viray-Mendoza wrote.
“Worldwide, over the past few decades an estimated half of all mangrove habitats have been destroyed; nearly 60 percent of coral reef habitat has disappeared, become degraded and/or fallen under imminent threat; and some 1,400 square miles of seagrass habitat has been lost,” AWI reported.
“Such degradation – caused by coastal development, pollution, dredging, climate change, and destructive fishing practices that include the use of trawls, dynamite and poisons – are just some of the threats to the places seahorses call home,” AWI added.