Keeping seahorses and pipefishes in aquaria

Project Seahorse recognizes that a sustainable trade in syngnathids for the public aquarium market has a role to play in the conservation of seahorses and pipefishes (syngnathids). All consumers of syngnathids need to be mindful of the considerable pressures being placed on wild populations through habitat change, incidental capture in non-selective fishing gear, and direct fishing. Extraction of fishes for ornamental display applies a direct pressure on many syngnathid populations, and we encourage the aquarium community to minimize its impacts and engage in conservation efforts. The potential benefits of the aquarium trade are many and varied:

  • giving a tangible value to wild syngnathid populations should help heighten local willingness to protect and manage them appropriately;
  • a well-managed target fishery for the aquarium trade may be preferable to fishers undertaking more destructive means of obtaining an income, such as mining coral reefs or dynamite fishing;
  • syngnathids held in zoos and aquariums may provide a safety net against population declines or local extinctions (see Project Seahorse position statements on Releases and Hybridization);
  • holding and displaying syngnathids can heighten awareness of marine conservation issues and engage public support;
  • holding syngnathids in an aquarium environment provides the opportunity to study and improve our knowledge of their biology.

The following aspects of the aquarium trade currently cause concern with regard to conservation efforts:

  • the over-exploitation of certain populations of syngnathids for the aquarium trade;
  • the high mortalities both within the trade and at the end-user facilities that fuel the need for increased collection of syngnathids;
  • the low price paid to fishers relative to the end value that forces them to over-exploit syngnathid populations;
  • the lack of information regarding the origins and taxonomy of traded syngnathids hamper collective breeding programs;
  • the independent breeding ventures without any real conservation focus that divert resources from collective breeding programs;
  • releases of syngnathids from captive populations with associated disease and competition issues that may negatively impact wild populations (see Project Seahorse position statement on Releases).

We are also concerned with the welfare of fishes kept under poor conditions, but as this is not a conservation issue per se, it will not be addressed in this document.

Syngnathids in zoos and aquaria

Exhibition of syngnathids provides the opportunity to convey educational messages regarding marine conservation to the public. In order to ensure that the growing conservation interest in this consumer group is supported by action, we recommend that institutions consider the following points when establishing an exhibit using syngnathids:

  • identify all species that you hold based on best available knowledge of the status of wild populations;
  • display and disseminate conservation messages highlighting threats to wild syngnathid populations;
  • integrate the aims of the exhibit with those of the relevant regional species management or conservation-breeding programs;
  • use formal and standard record-keeping techniques and offer information to assist with collation of biological data;
  • allocate resources to syngnathid research as a key component of the exhibit development;
  • increase tangible conservation benefits for the species through involvement with field projects.

Project Seahorse recommends that any breeding of syngnathid species be undertaken in a carefully managed way with population control and distribution conducted in accordance with the relevant coordinated management or breeding program. Until recently, work with syngnathids in public zoos and aquaria focused on increasing breeding and rearing success. Subsequent distribution of captive-reared stock has occurred despite uncertainties regarding taxonomy (see Project Seahorse position statement on Hybridization) and the long-term effects of captive breeding, e.g., fecundity, health and genetic viability (see Project Seahorse position statement on Releases). Most syngnathid populations currently held in zoos and aquaria should not be considered suitable for a managed breeding program, though they may be appropriate for display, education and some research purposes.

Project Seahorse encourages zoos and aquaria to focus energy on improving dialogue with the trade and increasing awareness of conservation and welfare issues. We support efforts by organizations such as the Marine Aquarium Council to regulate and improve conditions in the trade in marine fishes.

Syngnathids in the amateur hobby trade

Project Seahorse recommends that breeding of syngnathids only be undertaken by those with the necessary time and resources to contribute their efforts to collaborative management or breeding programs. We recognize the existence of a legitimate trade in syngnathids for the hobbyist market and that many amateur aquarists are holding syngnathids with the intention of contributing to conservation. However, simply purchasing and holding syngnathids provides little if any conservation support and may be adding to the pressure on wild populations. Successfully maintaining syngnathids in an aquarium environment depends upon a high investment in time and financial resources. The need for live food cultures, frequent feeding and tank maintenance, combined with a high susceptibility to a range of bacterial and parasitic infections make seahorses generally unsuitable for all but the most committed hobbyist.

Certain strains of captive-bred seahorse appear to be better adapted to the aquarium environment, possibly as a result of selective breeding and management. These strains may be more suitable to the home hobbyists with limited resources who wish to hold syngnathids. A number of commercial and public-funded institutions have been distributing captive-reared syngnathids within the public aquarium and hobbyist communities, claiming to be assisting conservation by reducing the need for the collection of wild fish.

It remains questionable whether this practice currently offers any real long-term conservation benefit, given the complex inter-dependence between source fishing communities and the aquarium trade (see Project Seahorse position statement on Aquaculture). We recommend that anyone considering acquiring seahorses ensure that they come from a sustainable source if wild-caught (, or from a source actively contributing to syngnathid conservation if captive-bred.