Seahorse Aquaculture

Project Seahorse supports environmentally and socially responsible syngnathid aquaculture. Syngnathid aquaculture has received much attention recently both as a potentially lucrative commercial venture and as a tool in the conservation of wild populations. From a conservation perspective, cultured syngnathids could serve to reduce the current exploitation rates of wild syngnathids and to meet any future increases in global demand.

However, syngnathid aquaculture needs to be approached cautiously as it could also damage the marine environment and harm wild syngnathid populations. Three main issues that need to be addressed before commercial syngnathid culturing could begin to be genuinely useful in syngnathid conservation are (1) economic viability, (2) environmental impacts and (3) conservation value.

Project Seahorse regards the assessment of economic viability through pilot studies and the mitigation of environmental impacts as mandatory to any aquaculture operation. We also strongly encourage all syngnathid aquaculture ventures to ensure that their operations benefit the conservation of wild syngnathids.

Economic viability

The economic viability of syngnathid culturing has yet to be demonstrated conclusively as most past attempts have ended in failure and existing ventures are relatively new. To date, the term "syngnathid culturing" has most commonly referred only to wild-caught pregnant males giving birth in captivity or to syngnathids mating in captivity, with subsequent births. Both are relatively easy. The difficulty comes in rearing large portions of the brood to market size, which usually takes many months to a year. Syngnathid culturing will only be economically viable when sufficiently large numbers of young can reared through to market size in a cost-effective manner. Moreover, the acceptability and price of cultured syngnathids in the appropriate marketplace need to be ascertained beforehand.

Improving the economic viability of syngnathid aquaculture has proven technically challenging because of problems with diet and disease. Syngnathids are predatory and many species will essentially only eat live prey, which adds considerably to the cost and complexity of any culturing effort. In addition, scrupulous hygiene and good water quality are required to prevent these fishes from succumbing to a wide array of parasitic, fungal and bacterial ailments. Despite numerous claims of successful breeding and rearing in some species, there is a distinct lack of rigorous scientific publications to substantiate these claims. Research on syngnathid husbandry and culturing is of limited value to conservation efforts unless the general findings are published or otherwise made available for use in the conservation of wild syngnathids.

Given the economic uncertainties in syngnathid culturing, small-scale studies using minimal numbers of animals should be carried out prior to the initiation of any large-scale culturing efforts. These studies should ensure the following:

  • the reproductive biology of the particular species has been thoroughly investigated;
  • reliable breeding and culturing techniques have been developed;
  • the operation can repeatedly rear a sufficiently high percentage of young to market size at viable cost;
  • cultured syngnathids will be acceptable in the trade at economically viable prices.

Environmental impacts

Any aquaculture activity that removes animals from the sea, either as broodstock or for fish food, and discharges effluent into the sea will have an impact on the marine environment. Aquaculture has had numerous well-documented detrimental effects on the environment over the past few decades. Potential damage to the marine environment needs to be assessed and mitigation programs implemented before syngnathid culturing is initiated, as any activity that further degrades the marine environment is unlikely to be in the interest of wild syngnathid populations. Syngnathid aquaculture ventures need to demonstrate the following:

  • source populations are sufficiently well-understood that broodstock can be removed without damaging them;
  • the culturing operation will only remove the minimum number of wild animals required to maintain the long-term genetic health of its captive-bred broodstock;
  • any long-term capture of wild food for the syngnathids does not negatively affect the local marine ecosystem;
  • effluent discharged from the facility will not be detrimental to the local marine environment;
  • the risk of escape of captive-bred syngnathids into the marine ecosystem, where they could cause disease, behavioural and genetic problems, is minimized.

Conservation value

One fallacy in syngnathid aquaculture is the belief that the availability of cultured syngnathids will automatically reduce the exploitation of wild syngnathid populations. Whether syngnathid culturing reduces the exploitation of wild syngnathid populations or not will partly depend on its effects on subsistence fishing communities in source countries. Syngnathid fishers are commonly so poor that they cannot stop catching syngnathids unless they earn money in other ways.

One outcome of syngnathid culturing in countries that do not traditionally exploit syngnathids might be reduced prices for syngnathids in source countries. This would either (a) force fishers to catch more syngnathids in order to meet their basic needs or (b) move them from one diminished resource to another, creating new conservation problems. Aquaculture is likely to be of greatest conservation value where it facilitates syngnathid fishers becoming syngnathid farmers, thereby directly reducing pressure on wild syngnathid populations.

Syngnathid aquaculture ventures should respect international conventions such as the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [www.biodiv.org].

One of the key elements of the CBD is the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from the exploitation of genetic (biological) resources between countries that commercialise these resources (generally developed countries) and the source countries (generally developing countries). Unless fishing communities derive equitable benefit from their biological resources (e.g. syngnathids), there will be no reason for them to protect and manage these resources in a sustainable manner.

The result may be an increase in environmentally destructive activities such as coral mining and mangrove clearance. Any culturing of syngnathid species in non-source countries should, therefore, actively seek to ensure that fishing communities within the source countries benefit equitably from these endeavors. While contributions to syngnathid conservation may take many forms, the equitable sharing of benefits with source communities must be given priority in any conservation-oriented aquaculture venture.

Syngnathid aquaculture ventures need to recognise the special responsibilities inherent in working with threatened species. Conventional business strategies such as price competition and the development of new markets need to be tempered by a clear understanding of the local and global impacts of such strategies on wild syngnathid populations. Strategies that lead to a decrease in the price of syngnathids and/or an increase in the volume traded could potentially cause increased exploitation of wild syngnathids. Such strategies should be avoided.

Syngnathid aquaculture ventures should ensure that,

  • the international impact on subsistence fishers (and thus wild syngnathids) has been addressed
  • international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity are respected, and
  • the culturing operation will not promote new trade - or increase existing trade - in wild syngnathids.

Conclusion

The majority of syngnathid aquaculture ventures have yet to prove environmentally and economically viable in the long term. Moreover, despite numerous claims to the contrary, their conservation benefits are often highly questionable. Aquaculture ventures that only ensure that their operation is economically and environmentally sound are essentially purely commercial enterprises that do little to assist global efforts to protect wild syngnathids. In contrast, ventures that also address the global conservation impacts of their activities could potentially have significant conservation benefits. Project Seahorse strongly encourages syngnathid aquaculture ventures to address all three issues, thereby helping to conserve wild syngnathid populations.

We are willing to assist syngnathid aquaculture ventures in addressing global syngnathid conservation issues, where necessary.