Another questionable petition from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has just been filed under the Endangered Species Act.
From the CBD website.
“The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a petition seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the dwarf seahorse, a one-inch long seahorse that lives in seagrass beds in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean. The seahorse is threatened with extinction due to pollution from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, decline of seagrass throughout its range and commercial collection.
“Our country’s tiniest seahorse is just one of the many victims of ongoing pollution from the Gulf oil spill disaster,” said Tierra Curry, conservation biologist at the Center and author of the petition. “The dwarf seahorse now needs Endangered Species Act protection to have a fighting chance of survival.”
The dwarf seahorse was declining even before the BP oil spill contaminated much of its remaining range. Oil pollution and dispersants used to break up oil are toxic to both seahorses and the seagrasses they need to survive.
“Oil spills like the one nearly a year ago in the Gulf of Mexico exact a long and terrible toll on marine life, especially species like the dwarf seahorse that have already been struggling to survive,” Curry said. “These kinds of catastrophic spills will continue to be a threat as long as our country continues to push for more and more offshore drilling.”
Since 1950 the state of Florida has lost more than half its seagrasses, with loss in some areas exceeding 90 percent. Seagrass loss has also been dramatic in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and the Bahamas. Because the dwarf seahorse is a habitat specialist, loss of seagrass equates directly to seahorse population declines.
In addition to oil pollution, the seahorse’s seagrass habitat is threatened by declining water quality, damage from boat propellers and shrimp trawlers, and global climate change.”
Click here to see the petition in full, CBDDwarfSeahorsePetition
It should be remembered that this is the organisation that filed a scientific petition to protect the 83 most vulnerable corals within U.S. waters without sufficient science to back up their claims
Although the dwarf seahorse is undoubtedly at risk from the loss of its sea grass habitat as a result of coastal population pressure, with its accompanying dredging and pollution, there is little or no published data about population trends or total numbers of mature animals for this species. While it also seems plausible that the Gulf oil spill will have had a detrimental effect on this species, this has not yet been reported in scientific literature
To me it seems that the CBD may be grandstanding, using a charismatic species with no science to back up its claims. A quick search through the literature produced very little information on the endangered status of
IUCN Red List
The IUCN Red List classes the species as: Data Deficient. Saying, “There is very little available information about its extent of occurrence or its area of occupancy. There have been no quantitative analyses examining the probability of extinction of this species. As a result, we have insufficient data to properly assess the species against any of the IUCN criteria, and propose a listing of data deficient (DD).
Geographic Range is the Gulf of Mexico (Florida Keys and Texas) and the Bahamas with an unknown population and no information on population trends
Habitat and Ecology: This species is found in shallow sea grass flats, especially in association with Zostera and other sea grass, and is found in floating vegetation
This species may be particularly susceptible to decline. The information on habitat suggests they inhabit shallow sea grass beds that are susceptible to human degradation, as well as making them susceptible to being caught as by catch.
Hippocampus zosterae are one of the more popular seahorses in the aquarium trade (Vincent 1996, Wood 2001). Florida has a small directed trawl fishery in shallow grass beds off the west coast for H. zosterae where they are landed in a live bait trawl fishery. In this fishery alone, tens of thousands of H. zosterae are collected each year for the aquarium trade (Vincent and Perry, in prep.). Hippocampus zosterae occupies the 2nd rank of the top 10 fishes exported from Florida for the aquarium trade (Wood 2001).
The American Fisheries Society (AFS) lists the United States populations of H. zosterae as Threatened due to habitat degradation (Musick et al. 2000). While this status may apply on a national level, we did not find information that would justify such a listing for the species as a whole.
Conservation Actions: The entire genus Hippocampus was listed in Appendix II of CITES in November 2002. Implementation of this listing began May 2004. Full monitoring of the trade is underway in the United States, however this is dependent on traders’ declarations. Seahorses are listed under Title 68 (Rules of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) of the Florida Administrative Codes. The targeted fishery for the aquarium trade in Florida is monitored and regulations are in place, such as a limitation on the number of commercial harvesters, however the non-selective exploitation is not monitored in any state. The take of seahorses for the aquarium trade is prohibited in the USVI and Puerto Rico. Stock assessments are needed in order to evaluate the sustainability of the fishery and establish appropriate management guidelines. Further research on this species biology, ecology, habitat, abundance and distribution is needed.
Information from Fish Base regarding the species status describes the species as having ‘Medium Resilience’ with a minimum population doubling time 1.4 – 4.4 years (tm=0.4; tmax=1; assuming Fec=100 (approx. 3 generations/year)) and rates the species vulnerability as being moderate (37 of 100)
A repeated theme regarding dwarf seahorses is that further research is required, as an example, here is some information on one of the few research projects that I’ve been able to find on the species, which emphasises how little is known.
University of Tampa Assistant Professor Heather Masonjones is mapping seahorse populations in Tampa Bay, along with their stretched-out relatives, the pipefish. The research is sponsored by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which is interested in the status of seahorses as a barometer of the overall health of the bay.
Asking the question, “Why don’t we know more about these fascinating fishes living in the Tampa Bay Estuary?” The simple answer is that no one has taken the time to study them in detail.
The dwarf seahorse inhabits coastal ecosystems such as the shallow grass beds, salt marshes and mangroves of Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys. Measuring only one to two inches from the top of their heads to the tips of their tails, these animals are more like the “ponies” of the seahorse family compared to their giant 12-inch-long relatives found in the Pacific.
Although the dwarf seahorse is small in stature, Masonjones has a hunch that these tiny wonders may serve a much bigger purpose, believing them to be indicators of the health of the ecosystem, because they specifically inhabit stable ecosystems.
Because seahorses depend on the bay’s fragile sea grass communities, the value of studying their populations is two-fold. Since 1950, sea grass habitat in Tampa Bay has dramatically declined, although improving water quality has led to substantial sea grass gains in recent years. Mapping seahorse populations may help scientists identify environmental factors associated with their presence and in turn, determine what habitat is healthy or not so healthy.
“We don’t have a good idea of the status of their populations in Tampa Bay,” said Dr. Ilze Berzins, Florida Aquarium’s vice president of biological operations. “We don’t know how many there are or understand the many ways their habitat may influence them. We don’t know if conditions are improving or worsening.”
Because they are charismatic organisms, Masonjones believes they are an ideal “poster child” to rally support for protecting sea grasses. “Other studies have been done over the years looking at either habitats, such as sea grasses, or seahorse numbers, but there hasn’t been extensive work looking at the combination of both issues, seahorses and habitat”
Surveying seahorse populations is a time-consuming process that involves combing sea grass beds with large rectangular nets, all specimens collected are recorded, not just the seahorses, as it’s important to count everything to determine the biodiversity of an area. To help the project along 40 volunteers from the University of Tampa, the Florida Aquarium and the general public have been assisted in the ‘seahorse round-ups.’ The location of capture and species of each animal is recorded, taking special note of any seahorses or pipefish. Dwarf seahorses are marked with a very small latex paint dot, which helps track who lives where, photographed, then released to their original location,
For each survey site, the research team records temperature, salinity, water flow and pH, identifies the type and condition of sea grass, and collects sediment samples that may reveal whether contaminants play a part in survival rates.
One mystery yet to be solved is the whereabouts of young dwarf seahorses as they are rarely collected with the researchers finding perhaps just one in every seven nets.
Considering the work involved in the Tampa research project, I find it difficult to understand what CBD are basing their petition on. Consider the length of coastline of the Gulf, the US portion of the Gulf coastline spans 1,680 miles (2,700 km), whilst the Mexican portion of the Gulf coastline spans 1,394 miles (2,243 km), a total of 3074 miles (4943 km), it is hard to conceive of the size of project required to definitively quantify both population and population trend of a small cryptic species that only grows to 2 –3 cms.
Further articles in connection with the Centre for Biological Diversity:
US May Ban 66 Stony Coral Species.
Possible ban on collecting clownfishes.
The Beginning of the End for Stony Corals in the Reef Aquarium Hobby.