Where do the Seahorses roam?

Photo by Georgette Douwma / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The seahorse is a very fascinating marine fish, usually ranging in size from half an inch to 8 inches. A species from New Zealand waters can grow to as long as 14 inches while the pygmy seahorse hiding among seafans can only be observed with the aid of a magnifying lens.

It swims in a vertical position, has a body composed of an external skeleton arranged in rings and wrapped by a skin instead of scales.  The skin can change colors or even texture giving it the exceptional ability to blend with its surroundings. Its head resembles that of a horse hence its name. The eyes can move independently of the other, allowing the seahorse to spot its tiny prey and at the same time watch out for would be predators. Instead of a tail or caudal fin like other fishes it has a prehensile tail that it can use to hang on to branching corals, seagrass, seaweed and other small things it can curl on.  It is a slow swimmer but unlike most fishes, the seahorse can easily maneuver up, down, forward, backwards or swim in a spiral motion.

Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti) Photo by Steve Childs

Distinct from other fishes, it has a curved neck and a long snout that sucks very tiny shrimps and planktons. The seahorse are monogamous which is uncommon among fishes and they have been observed to display courtship dances until they mate but what makes it so extraordinary is that, the males get pregnant and give birth to 100 – 1,000 fully developed seahorse fry!

In 30 years of scuba diving throughout the Philippine archipelago, I have seen a seahorse only once. Thus when some of the fishermen we were training to become Reef Ranger snorkeling guides confidently claimed that they have seahorses in the seagrass beds, we decided to have one of our in-water training sessions in their mangrove reserve.

Photo by Louie Mencias
Photo by Louie Mencias

The training activity called for role playing wherein the participants had to take turns in guiding small groups snorkeling and showing them interesting marine life. The prospect of seeing seahorses excited the training staff while the local fisherfolks undergoing the training were eager to show us the seahorses.

After a brief boat ride from the town we reached an islet. It was a small mangrove forest with a few sandy mounds and a small lagoon surrounded by placid, shallow water with extensive seagrasss cover. The class was divided into four groups that went snorkeling in different sites around the islet with the intention and challenge of finding seahorses. As the various teams swam away from their boats, all the participants and training staff focused their attention on the leaves of the seagrass and submerged roots of the mangroves. Soon one of the teams excitedly called out to announce the sighting of a seahorse. And then the other team also spotted several seahorses in their location. The place really had seahorse even in as shallow as 3 ft. and everyone was able to see them. We were ecstatic because they can practically guarantee seeing seahorses in their mangrove reserve when you go snorkeling!

Photo by Louie F. Mencias

Seahorses are vulnerable to extinction due to overharvesting, habitat destruction and marine pollution. They are primarily collected for its use in traditional Chinese medicine where it is claimed to treat a wide variety of ailments from fever, respiratory disorder, lethargy, induction of labor, impotency, etc. It is estimated that as much as 150 million dried seahorses a year are being consumed this way. Uncontrolled development along the coastal areas lead to the destruction of seagrass and mangroves ecosystems. Earth moving activities due to real estate development and mining result to sedimentation which smother seagrass beds. Sad to say some beach resort development included removal of seagrass in the shallow areas so that their beach will be more suited for wading and swimming. The use of pesticides in the farmlands and herbicides from golf courses lead to much destruction of ecosystems and the death of seahorses and many other marine organisms. Mining operations upland result to sediment pollution from mine tailings that are carried down the river and continuously dumped into the estuaries and coastal areas. On the other hand black sand mining that had been happening in many places of the country, has caused widespread coastal erosion and siltation. Electric generation plants and industries that make use of seawater for cooling cause thermal pollution that can affect growth and settlement of marine plants and bottom dwelling animals.

The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists the seahorse (Hippocampus spp.) in Appendix II and thus its capture or collection is prohibited by the Philippine Fisheries code (RA 8550) with a penalty of 12-20 years imprisonment and / or a fine of Php120,000.00 for violators. However, in many coastal areas throughout our archipelago, the seahorse is harvested by fishermen as long as there are fish traders that are willing to buy dried seahorses.

In Zambales, dried seahorses are bought by some traders for only P10.00 per piece. Some of the local fishermen who used to harvest them claim that seahorses used to be common but that they were getting fewer and fewer.

When snorkeling guides were trained and community-based tourism was established, the host community realized that the seahorse was one of their town’s unique wildlife attractions. Although the natural population had dwindled, the seahorses are still there.

In time, they started getting visitors who went snorkeling and saw the seahorses. These same visitors told their friends about their seahorse encounters and through social media, word got around. The snorkeling guides and their community realized that as long as the seahorse are in their mangrove reserve, they have an unusual wildlife attraction that they can show to their guests. They also learned that through ecotourism, they can derive economic benefit without having to take the seahorse from its habitat. The local snorkeling guides requested the other fisherfolks in the area to stop capturing the seahorse whose value when alive and roaming in the wild, is so much more than when it is dead and dried.  Eventually the local community understood that they also had to take care of the seagrass and the mangroves too because if those ecosystems are destroyed, the seahorse will also disappear.

Photo by Louie F. Mencias

The mangrove islet, the seagrass meadows along with the seahorse and the corals reefs with its giant clams in the fish sanctuary are the outstanding tourism resources that sets the town of Masinloc apart from the other beach destinations in the region. Ecotourism provided an incentive for aquatic wildlife protection and conservation of habitats. As long as the ecosystems thrive so will the marine organisms in it, and as long as the community continue to be stewards of their coastal resources that give them food and livelihood, we will always have seagrass meadows for the seahorse to roam.  

My grandson, Gabriel is only 2 weeks old and I have hope that many years from now when he has grown and old enough to explore our islands, he will still find a place where he can snorkel with the seahorses.