A herd of five translucent yellow and pink seahorses lit with blueish light against a blurry background of rocks and aquarium plants
Photo: David Clode / Unsplash
Fellows in the News

Healy Hamilton was featured in the April 2022 National Geographic magazine article The Weird Wonder of Seahorses by Jennifer S. Holland. The following is a summary of the original story, which can be found here for National Geographic subscribers.

The story describes these fantastic animals as well as the knowledge gaps and threats they face. Unfortunately, dramatic seahorse population decline appears widespread. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species includes all species of seahorses, listing many as data deficient. This large knowledge gap is particularly problematic for a fish that's so exploited.

Seahorse declines are thought to be largely due to unregulated fishing, and partly because they live in very vulnerable marine habitats. Commercial fishing operations harvest at least 76 million seahorses annually, with some 80 countries involved in trading them. Captured as bycatch, seahorses are sold for use as traditional medicines, trinkets, and live fish in the aquarium trade. 

"Fishermen used to throw them back," notes Healy Hamilton, chief scientists of NatureServe and a Switzer Fellow, "but now in many places you'll see a [buyer] on the dock just waiting to take them." Hamilton and Holland visited a warehouse of confiscated fish, where there were hundreds, maybe thousands of dried seahorses, "representing just a year's worth of what was stopped at a single port," Hamilton said. 

In 2020, the Portuguese government created two small marine protected areas to act as seahorse sanctuaries. While this is good news, improved fisheries management on a wider scale with severe limits and bans on trawling is necessary to maintain seahorse populations. Regulations in 2004 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) were intended to move global trade toward sustainability. The live trade is now relying more on captive breeding, but most trade in dried seahorses went underground instead. If CITES rules could be implemented as intended, it could allow for a sustainable legal trade to the benefit of conservation, traders and users alike. 

Action is necessary, because "there is absolutely no way seahorses can sustain today's level of exploitation," Hamilton said from her perch overlooking the warehouse shelves. "And people need to know: We are headed toward a world bereft of too many of these extraordinary fishes."

Read the full story here.

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