Why Research Seahorses?
Seahorses are a fascinating and unique group of bony fishes loved by divers and marine enthusiasts. There are 48 different species of seahorses around the globe which range from less than 1 cm tall to about 35 cm tall and come in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and styles. Seahorses are physically quite different from most other fish, and also display very different behaviors and life-cycles.
In addition to being unique, seahorses are also quite fragile and sensitive to environmental changes. Recently, seahorse populations have been on the decline around the planet due both to habitat destruction and over-fishing. This has led to the group being added to the CITES Convention on International Trade under Appendix II, meaning that their trade needs to be evaluated and assessed for sustainability. Thailand is actually one of the world’s top exporters of seahorses, sending out about 5 million individuals per year, mostly to Taiwan and China. There they are sold as food, medicine, and novelty items or souvenirs.
What are we doing to monitor seahorses?
Our efforts to research local seahorse populations began in April of 2013. Seahorses have always been quite rare around Koh Tao, but after seeing only one individual in 6 months we began asking if maybe their populations where declining. At about the same time we were introduced to the iSeahorse.org group and all of the great work they are doing there, including their online global database for seahorse sightings.
We began to develop our own local survey techniques for the seahorses, that would accommodate our team of trained conservation divers. Since then we have conducted many seahorse surveys, some random, or roving diver surveys, and the others a long a transect line. At the end of the article you can see the photos from our two most recent findings.
Although we have not found any seahorses during our actual seahorse surveys, this is still good data for us to collect. Based on this research we can conclude that seahorses are quite rare, and that possibly their fishing or trade of seahorses around our area should not be allowed, as it cannot possibly be sustainable.We have also found many interesting and rare species of fish and invertebrates on these ‘muck dives,‘ making them a favorite activity for our team, and also contributing to our other invertebrate research projects.
We have however found seahorses at other times, either during fun dives or even walking on the beach. From these occurrences we can collect data on the species that we have around our island. We can also look at the catch from trawlers and get an idea about what species are in the region (the trawlers will show us the seahorses, but generally not tell us where they were caught).
What can you do to get involved?
In addition to conducting research, we have also begun a seahorse awareness and training program, alongside the iSeahorse.org group, which you can read all about in our most recent seahorse article.
Although our seahorses research is a budding project in our program, it is something that we are trying to move forward quickly. The threats faced by seahorses are the same as many other reef organisms (habitat destruction, over-use, over-fishing, climate change, etc.) and seahorses are an important indicator species for tracking the trends in reef health and biodiversity. Students in our program can also receive the Seahorse Ecology and Monitoring Certification card for recognition of their learning and involvement, 200 baht of which goes to support iSeahorse.org. Project Seahorse is also working on a distinctive specialty from PADI, which we will also be excited to offer.
Our two most recent sightings: