The world's four dozen or so species of seahorse have had a rough time of the last few decades, as coastal development, international trade and commercial fishing took their toll.
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Poll: Should dwarf seahorses receive federal endangered species protection?
An environmental group says the dwarf seahorse has declined because of the BP oil spill, the aquarium trade and demand for traditional Chinese medical ingredients.
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VIDEO: Watch a Pygmy seahorse stalk its prey.
"Why should we protect them? Seahorses are incredibly cute, for starters," said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the center, based in Tucson, Ariz. "I think people are just naturally drawn to them. They're a symbol of clean oceans and beaches and vacations and happy times with family.''
The National Marine Fisheries Service is reviewing the 68-page petition and expects to make a preliminary decision by the end of the year, said Bob Hoffman, a fishery biologist with the agency. He said seahorses are caught primarily in Florida and Texas for aquariums, souvenirs and Chinese medicine, but said it was too soon to say whether they could qualify as endangered.
Even among the varied and bizarre inhabitants of coastal reefs and seagrass, seahorses stand out. They engage in elaborate courtship rituals involving aquatic acrobatics that result in males and females pairing up for the entire breeding season. Males, not females, carry the developing eggs, until the young hatch and develop sufficiently to swim on their own.
Opinions differ on whether seahorses have experienced a decline in South Florida.
"The dwarf seahorse is not endangered," said Ken Kull, a Big Pine Key commercial fisherman who calls himself the "Seahorse King" of the Keys and sells them for $2.50 or so to aquarium fish wholesalers. "One day I'll get 50, another day 250. If you need 100 dwarf seahorses, give me a week and I'll go and get them."
The state has seen a sharp drop in commercial seahorse catches from 64,009 in 2001 to 17,637 last year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Biologist Martha Bademan said it's unclear whether this reflects decreased demand, a shrinking seahorse population or some other factor.
The state will be conducting a review of its entire aquarium fishery next year, including seahorses, she said.
Jamie Green, a bait shrimp fisherman who works from Biscayne Bay to Marathon, said he has seen a drop in the seahorses he hauls up in his nets.
He catches live seahorses the larger lined species, not dwarfs - as a sideline to his shrimp business, selling them for $5 to the aquarium trade, and charging a little more for the "pregnant males" he delivers to a seahorse breeder.
"There are not as many as there used to be," he said. "I don't know the reason. I remember some nights off Marathon we'd get 100 a night. Now it's closer to 20."
An algae bloom that lingered around the Upper Keys may have been responsible, he said.
Of Florida's three seahorse species, only the dwarf has any fishing limits. Last year Florida imposed a commercial catch limit of 400 per day, but the petition says that's not enough.
Seahorse products can be found in the Asian markets scattered around the strip malls of State Road 7 in Tamarac. At Hong Kong Market, five-inch dried seahorses sell for $6.50. At Han's Acupuncture & Herbs Center, where framed seahorses were mounted on the wall, owner Brian Han sold bottles of Hyma Bushen, or seahorse pills, for kidney health. But despite the seahorse image on the label, he said this particular product contained no seahorse.
"They are important, but right now we try to protect the environment," he said. "We can substitute."
The seahorse's admirable family values, particularly for a fish, make them especially vulnerable to fishing, said Curry, of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"They're monogamous at least for the breeding season, and if one gets kidnapped by a human the other isn't going to breed," she said.
Species: About four dozen, ranging in size from about an inch to more than a foot.
Habitat: Coastal mangroves, sea grass, reefs
Behavior: Generally form monogamous pairs for breeding season. After courtship involving swimming together, the female transfers hundreds of eggs to a pounch on the male, who fertilizes the eggs and carries them until they hatch. Ambush predators that use their camouflaged appearance to seize small marine creatures.
Threats: Habitat loss, aquarium trade, curio business, traditional Chinese medicine
Conservation status: Nine listed as threatened and one endangered by World Conservation Union. Trade controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. One proposed for endangered status in the United States.
Sources: Project Seahorse, Florida Museum of Natural History, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission