Research begins into saving Australia’s seahorses

Transcript from the ABC Radio Program PM

MARK COLVIN: In some parts of Australia aquaculture firms are growing seahorses for sale. Elsewhere there’s increasing worry about the fate of the creatures in the wild.

Pressures on the world’s seahorse population range from net fishing to the use of dried seahorse in Asian traditional medicine and as an alleged aphrodisiac.

The seahorse population around Tasmania has dropped by 75 per cent since 2001, and researchers are also worried about fluctuations in the population off NSW.

But today scientists from both States are launching a new project to investigate whether marine protected areas could successfully protect the creatures.

Annie Guest reports from Hobart.

ANNIE GUEST: From this intriguing excavation-like sound of a seahorse eating, to their demand in China as an aphrodisiac and traditional medicine, to their use by writers as a mythical figure, seahorses have long fascinated humans.

They’re loyal to their habitat and their partner, but it’s the male seahorse that undergoes pregnancy and gives birth. He only moves about one square metre throughout the reproductive season while the female stays close by throughout.

Now Tasmanian and New South Wales researchers are teaming up to investigate whether designated marine protected areas can prevent these extraordinary traits being lost to history.

The University of Tasmania’s Doctor Keith Martin-Smith says the island state has lost 75 per cent of its seahorses in three years.

KEITH MARTIN-SMITH: Marine protected areas have been advocated for general marine conservation and it’s something we’re very concerned to promote. However, we don’t actually know what effect they have on seahorse populations so the research that we’re going to commence is actually going to look at seahorse populations specifically and their response to marine protected areas.

ANNIE GUEST: And what will be involved in your research?

KEITH MARTIN-SMITH: We’re going to be following seahorses, individually marked seahorses, inside and outside a marine protected area. We’ll be seeing how far they travel, how many of them there are, how quickly they grow, all of those kinds of basic seahorse biology questions.

ANNIE GUEST: And which MPAs will you focus on?

KEITH MARTIN-SMITH: Well this will primarily focus on the Fly Point Aquatic Reserve which is at Port Stephens.

ANNIE GUEST: In New South Wales?


ANNIE GUEST: And if indeed your project does show a link between marine protected areas and protecting seahorses it will then be really up to governments to regulate for MPAs and seahorse populations, something that you can’t ensure.

KEITH MARTIN-SMITH: Well MPAs are put into place for a number of different reasons, but we will be feeding the results of this information through scientific channels, to the authorities that set up marine protected areas.

ANNIE GUEST: Scientists from the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries will collaborate on the four-year project.

The DPI’s Conservation Manager, David Harasti, says three species of the creature are only found in New South Wales.

DAVID HARASTI: It’s pretty unique, particularly two of the species are very, very small. One of the ones found on Lord Howe Island is a little seahorse that is only about two centimetres tall. Then the one found around Sydney, the Pygmy Pipehorse (sic), is another one that’s only two centimetres tall.

ANNIE GUEST: What are the biggest pressures on seahorses in New South Wales and Tasmania and indeed elsewhere in Australia?

DAVID HARASTI: One of the main concerns is over collecting for aquarium trade and traditional medicine and then we think other problems could be habitat degradation of the marine environment and also declining water quality.

So some of the new research that we’re going to be commencing next year is going to have a look at what is actually impacting on seahorse populations.

ANNIE GUEST: Some sceptics could say how do you justify pouring thousands and millions of dollars into saving an animal that’s as long as your finger?

DAVID HARASTI: Well it’s all about conservation of the marine environment. Seahorses are a very unique species, they’re an icon species and if we can save the seahorses we’re actually contributing towards saving the marine environment and the habitats that they live in.

MARK COLVIN: David Harasti from the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, ending Annie Guest’s report from Hobart.