Few marine taxa have been comprehensively assessed for their conservation status, despite heavy pressures from fishing, habitat degradation and climate change. Here we report on the first global assessment of extinction risk for 300 species of syngnathiform fishes known as of 2017, using the IUCN Red List criteria. This order of bony teleosts is dominated … Read more Global extinction risk for seahorses, pipefishes and their near relatives (Syngnathiformes)
Seahorse relatives are affected by the same threats and will benefit from the same solutions as seahorses.
Ending bottom trawling and protecting their habitats from human pressures will help save these phenomenal fishes.
As with seahorses, degradation and loss of habitats are the largest threats for pipefish species at greatest risk of extinction. These are primarily endemic species living in freshwater or estuarine habitats that are being damaged by land use practices. For seadragons, too, habitat loss may be a particular concern given their strong site fidelity, dependence on particular habitats and low reproductive output.1
Non-selective and destructive fisheries probably pose the biggest overall threat to pipefishes and pipehorses, but are much more difficult to assess given their breadth of impact. It may well We know little about such extraction for most species but substantial numbers of the large Solegnathus pipehorses are caught in bottom trawls in the Queensland East Coast Trawl Fishery of Australia. During one 18-month period (1999-2000), 1459 kg of dried pipehorses (Solegnathus hardwickii and Solegnathus dunckeri combined) were exported, for a total of about 54,037 pipehorses.2
A handful of pipefish species is commonly seen for sale in dried form as traditional Chinese medicine, but it seems that most are caught incidentally. The large Solegnathus pipehorses are valued and expensive in traditional Chinese medicine but most other pipefish and pipehorse species in the same markets are sold very cheaply. It may well be that, as with seahorses, traditional Chinese medicine is absorbing the pipefish and pipehorse bycatch rather than driving the extraction.
Some of the more colourful pipefish species are targeted for the live aquarium trade, caught by hand or using minimal technology. Seadragons are highly valued for public aquarium display and are primarily sourced from small regulated culture operations in Australia, which generally rear the young of male seadragons that were caught while bearing embryos.
At the global level, about one-third of pipefish species are considered Data Deficient, too little known for their status to be assessed. The pipefishes that are known to be most threatened are all freshwater or estuarine and are endemic to one country. The most threatened pipefish species is the Critically Endangered Syngnathus watermeyeri, endemic to only two or three estuaries in South Africa. Many of the other threatened pipefish species are in one freshwater genus: of the 24 species of Microphis, one is Endangered, one is Vulnerable, one is Near Threatened and seven are Data Deficient (of which at least some are likely to be threatened). About half of the pipehorses, seadragons and ghost pipefish species are judged to be Data Deficient (so may or may not be threatened) while the rest are considered Least Concern.
In 2020, we found a total of 49 national assessments for 34 pipefish species and two pipehorses across 13 countries. One-third of all assessments indicated conservation concern at the national level while a further 53% were Data Deficient.
The same conservation solutions that benefit seahorses are likely to be highly effective for most syngnathid species, with the added twist that some pipefishes are fully freshwater with extremely small ranges. The fisheries management and protection for estuaries that seahorses so badly need would also be of enormous value for pipefishes and pipehorses, which are generally sympatric with seahorses. An end to bottom trawling and other non-selective fishing practices would reduce high levels of incidental capture. The full array of seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs, and seaweed habitats needs to be protected and, if necessary, restored where possible. Better coastal and riparian management would reduce land based run-off and eutrophication of estuaries, lagoons, lakes and rivers.
In 2000, CITES considered the possibility of regulating exports of pipefishes under Appendix II; such a designation would have required all CITES member countries to limit exports to sustainable levels and to ensure that specimens were legally sourced. No formal proposal was brought and the idea was referred to a Syngnathid Working Group, chaired by Project Seahorse. That Working Group concluded that an Appendix II proposal was suitable for seahorses but was not appropriate for other syngnathids at the time. Such an idea could, however, be revisited even where international trade was only one of the pressures on the species.
- Sanchez-Camara, J., D.J. Booth and X. Turon. 2005. Reproductive cycle and growth of Phyllopteryx taeniolatus. Journal of Fish Biology 67(1):133-148. / Sanchez-Camara, J., D.J. Booth, J. Murdoch, D. Watts and X. Turon. 2006. Density, habitat use and behaviour of the weedy seadragon Phyllopteryx taeniolatus (Teleostei : Syngnathidae) around Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Marine and Freshwater Research 57(7):737-745.
- Connolly, R.M., E.R. Cronin and B.E. Thomas. 2001. Trawl bycatch of syngnathids in Queensland: catch rates, distribution and population biology of Solegnathus pipehorses (seadragons). Gold Coast, Qld. School of Environmental and Applied Sciences, Griffith University.