By Kately Nikiforuk
December’s featured observation, posted by iSeahorse user John Sear, is of a species that’s been pretty newsworthy as of late. So, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Well, you’ll actually get them both at once - White’s seahorse (Hippocampus whitei) is now recognized as an Endangered species, according to a 2017 IUCN Red List assessment. While it is obviously not a good thing for a species to be Endangered, their new status can be seen as a step in the right direction. Recognition of their declining population could provide a necessary push to implement more conservation strategies.
White’s seahorses are only found in certain parts of coastal Australia, often in regions heavily frequented by humans. It is suspected that across the species’ range, declines of 50-70% have occurred in the past three generations, with some regions of their range experiencing a 90% decline within 6 years. They are particularly at risk to habitat loss as they display strong site fidelity, meaning that once they settle down, they don’t stray very far. The furthest recorded distance travelled by a White’s seahorse is only 70 metres, and some individuals are known to have clung to the same holdfast, such as a sponge, for over a year!
Dr. David Harasti, a National Seahorse Expert, has been studying H. whitei for more than a decade. Last year Harasti and his colleagues at Sydney University and Fisheries began installing “Seahorse Hotels” around the Pipeline and Seahorse Gardens dive sites in Nelson Bay, Australia. The "hotels" are fashioned from old crabbing traps, and are being placed where the White’s seahorse population has declined because of habitat loss. In the past, this species has been observed holding onto man-made structures like fishing nets, so hopefully this artificial habitat will promote recovery. Harasti has asked scuba divers to send in pics of any seahorse hotel guests they find, as long as they take care not to disturb the plant growth on the nets.
On the topic of seahorse photography - we are happy to report that, despite the fact that they are Endangered, there have been many H. whitei sightings posted to iSeahorse and iNaturalist. Perhaps citizen scientists are making an effort to learn more about them in light of their new Red List status?
Prior to being listed as Endangered in 2017, White’s seahorse was Data Deficient. This emphasizes the importance of conducting research - now that awareness is spreading about the plight of the White’s seahorse, action can be taken. There are currently two Endangered seahorse species (Hippocampus capensis and Hippocampus whitei), but considering that 17 of the recognized Hippocampus species are Data Deficient, that number could certainly change.