Seahorses are marine fishes in the genus Hippocampus (which comes from the Ancient Greek hippos meaning “horse” and kampos meaning “sea monster”). There are thought to be around 50 species of seahorses worldwide (Wikipedia currently lists 54) and new species continue to be found. Their ability to change colour and shape to blend in with their environment makes identification of individual species challenging. Advances in genetic research are helping to clarify some of the differences between closely related species, and has led to the ‘pygmy seahorses’ being recognised as a separate ‘ancient’ clade.
Seahorses range in size from less than an inch to the foot long Hippocampus abdominalis, or Big-bellied Seahorse, which lives in the waters off Southern Australia and New Zealand. Not just tropical animals, seahorses can be found in the colder waters off Argentina, Eastern Canada, and the UK (image right Short-snouted Seahorse, one of the two native UK species).
All species of seahorse are now fully protected by law. 48 species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 26 of which are considered ‘Data Deficient’. On 15 May 2004 seahorses became the first commercially valuable marine genus to be protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), because of the threats of overfishing and unsustainable trade.
Threats to seahorses (from The Seahorse Trust).
Marine habitats worldwide are threatened by pollution, climate change, and unsustainable resource use. As well as facing habitat loss and habitat degradation, seahorses are threatened by direct exploitation:
- The traditional Chinese Medicine Trade is estimated to take in excess of up to 150 million seahorses a year from the wild, and these are used for all types of medicine. Many are now ground up and used in pill form, making it more difficult to trace the source and species used.
- The pet trade takes an estimated one million seahorses from the wild and It is thought that less than 1,000 survive more than six weeks, very often suffering a slow and possibly painful death.
- The Curio Trade takes approximately one million seahorses from the wild. Along with shells and starfish, they are deliberately taken from the sea and left to die in the sun. They are then sold as souvenirs, a sad and sorrowful reminder of once beautiful creatures.
Let’s help protect Seahorses
Two species of seahorse occur around the British coastline: the Spiny Seahorse Hippocampus guttulatus and the Short-snouted Seahorse Hippocampus hippocampus.
Spiny Seahorse (left), photo © John Newman. Short-snouted Seahorse (right), photo © The Seahorse Trust.
Used with permission.
- Both UK species are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), and offences that apply to these species are listed in Section 9 of the WCA 1981 (as amended).
- Divers require a licence if they are diving with the intention of carrying out an activity that is likely to disturb seahorses (such as photography, filming or surveys).
- Photographing seahorses underwater using a flash was previously allowed under licence, but licences have not been issued since 2010 as the ‘shock’ of a camera flash can kill seahorses.
Additionally, Natural England advise that wild seahorses should not be handled as they are extremely fragile and easily stressed.
- it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly harm or disturb any seahorse
- they are protected against killing, injuring or taking; possession or control
- it is an offence to cause damage to or destruction of their places of shelter
- it is an offence to cause disturbance while seahorses are occupying places of shelter
- it is an offence to sell, possess or transport for the purpose of sale, or advertise to buy or sell seahorses (whole or in part) without a CITES licence.
Clearly most crimes involving live, wild seahorses will take place under water out of sight to most of us, but where we may be able to help specifically is if live seahorses are taken out of the water and are perhaps being shown to children or other observers. This would constitute intentional or reckless harm or disturbance.
No-one will be expecting you to identify the seahorse species involved, but remember that both UK species are protected anyway so that doesn’t necessarily matter.
- It is particularly important to record locations accurately. Apps that provide GPS data are available for most smartphones.
- Take any photos that may be relevant – but do not risk committing a crime by disturbing the seahorses yourself.
- If you do see someone committing a crime – and if it is safe to do so – take as many photographs as you can. Recording the offender’s face is important of course, but their clothing, the bags they’re carrying, the equipment they’re using are all important too.
Do NOT try to get too close – taking some long-distance images is better than having a camera smashed or being attacked and hurt.
If you think a crime is taking place that involves seahorses call your local Wildlife Crime Officer or police force on 999 if the crime is taking place or on 101 if the event is over.
Also please contact The Seahorse Trust immediately on 01404 822373 so they can give you expert advice on what to do.
The Curio trade:
Many of us may have seen dried seahorses for sale in seaside shops.
While this may seem fairly harmless, the curio trade causes the death and destruction of millions of animals every year. It has far reaching consequences on seahorse populations worldwide, and is cruel, indiscriminate, and – as importantly – illegal.
Please do not support this trade by buying dead animals, and please remember that all seahorses are protected by law and may not be sold – alive or dead, whole or in parts – without a CITES licence.
We are very grateful to The Seahorse Trust for their help in the production of this page.
The Seahorse Trust was founded in 1999 by Neil Garrick Maidment as an umbrella organisation to preserve and conserve the natural world, using Seahorses as their flagship species.
The Seahorse Trust has researched and studied seahorses from around the world for many years, adding greatly to our knowledge of seahorses. The ethos of the trust is to ‘work in partnership with nature’ and they do this by working in partnership with other conservation and environmental organisations.