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    Where are all the seahorses?

    Though no hard data exists, some think the exotic creature is in a state of decline.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 26, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
    This red seahorse shows how the tiny creature got its name. The head is shaped like that of a real horse. This seahorse lives in the Florida Aquarium's Bays and Beaches habitat. Wild seahorses live among seagrass beds.
    The seahorse, one of the most magical creatures in and around Tampa Bay, has dwindled over the past 50 years but hardly anybody's noticed.

    "We used to catch a lot of seahorses out there," said James Kelley, a 67-year-old who grew up on Tampa Bay and spent years catching shrimp off the coast. "There was people who caught them and sold them and dried them for jewelry, I think. I don't think you hardly see them anymore."

    The seahorse is the stuff of childhood dreams, a strange fish with a head like a colt, a kangaroo pouch on its belly and a tail that will readily curl around an outstretched finger.

    The demise of the seahorse is a familiar Florida tale. Like many other creatures, seahorses depend on wild and fragile habitats among seagrass beds and mangrove roots, places that have disappeared under dredges and sea walls. They also get caught in large fishing nets.

    In other parts of the world, seahorses are caught and sold for Chinese herbal remedies to treat everything from impotence to asthma and heart disease.

    "I don't believe we've had much of a market in Florida for seahorses, but we've managed to decimate them anyway," said George Burgess, 51, coordinator of museum operations for the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

    As a boy growing up in New York, Burgess got a National Geographic book called The Wondrous World of Fishes.

    "They had people snorkeling in this crystal-clear water in the seagrass beds, pulling up little seahorses. I said: Man, I've got to go to Florida."

    Today, most people are more likely to see a cement seahorse on a suburban lawn than they are to see one in the wild.

    In Florida, there is little official information about the seahorse's decline. In the 1950s, scientist Victor Springer was co-author of a broad ecological survey of fish in and around Tampa Bay.

    "Commercial fishermen are known to take thousands (of seahorses) in a single work day and sell them for $15 to $25 per thousand," Springer wrote then.

    They hauled seahorses onto docks at Tarpon Springs and sold them, dried, as souvenirs.

    By comparison, in the past 10 years, fishermen got 75 to 400 seahorses per trip, said Ken Haddad, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

    Officially, the agency can't say for certain that the species is declining, because the population hasn't shown a trend over the past 10 years -- the time period that the state typically measures.

    "It's one of those species that falls through the cracks, like thousands of other species in our Florida marine environment," Haddad said.

    E'Layne Koenigsberg, 48, remembers scooping up seahorses in her cupped hands as a child growing up at St. Pete Beach.

    "It was like a miniature aquarium," said Koenigsberg, who now lives in Tallahassee.

    Seahorses still swim at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The exhibit is among the most popular there, said Alex Slater, the biologist who oversees it.

    "I know people who, 40 years ago, used to see seahorses hanging near their docks off Clearwater," Slater said. "They were quite common back then."

    Seahorses are unusual because the female deposits her eggs in the male's pouch, and the male gets pregnant and bears live young. The tiny seahorses are often gobbled up by other species.

    In Canada, a group of researchers formed Project Seahorse to raise awareness about the species' plight.

    "It's a conservation flagship species," said Sarah Foster, a biologist with the group in Vancouver, British Columbia. "It's very much a global issue."

    For some reason, though, there's been little public outcry about the dwindling numbers of seahorses.

    "The big mammals" -- such as panthers and manatees -- "are more charismatic, and they generally draw more attention than some of the little critters like seahorses," said Burgess, of the Florida Museum of Natural History. "Because they are under water, they tend to get forgotten about unless they are some species that's of economic value. Seahorses don't take a hook and line and put up a great fight. They don't get put on our dinner table. It's out of sight, out of mind."

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