New Regulations lower harvest limits for Hippocampus zosterae in Florida waters
By Tami Weiss
Special to CORAL Magazine
Once the target of rapacious curio trade collectors, the Dwarf Seahorse of Florida’s coastal shallow waters (Hippocampus zosterae) has experienced relatively light harvesting pressure in recent years. Nonetheless, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is set to give final approval in 2016 to new regulations that would tighten protection for the tiny syngnathid that is found in South Florida, the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, and the Bahamas.
The proposed regulations would:
- Establish an annual commercial quota of 25,000 individual Dwarf Seahorses and provide for closure of the recreational and commercial seasons when the quota is projected to be met;
- Reduce the current daily commercial trip limit from 400 to 200 Dwarf Seahorses per person or per vessel (whichever is less);
- Reduce the current recreational bag limit of 5 of each species of seahorse (within the aggregate bag limit of 20 organisms for all marine species) to a total of 5 seahorses per person per day; and
- Establish an allowable harvest area running from Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa, on the Gulf Coast around the peninsula to Jupiter Inlet, north of West Palm Beach, on the Atlantic, and prohibit Dwarf Seahorse harvest year-round north of this allowable harvest area.
The consensus among those involved with the trade in Hippocampus zosterae appears to be that Florida’s wildlife commissioners are reacting appropriately to a call for more protection of the species while ensuring that the interests of collectors, livestock suppliers, and aquarists are taken into account.
“The worst days of the seahorse trade were prior to 2009, when curio dealers were buying and killing these animals by the thousands and tens of thousands,” says Jeffrey Turner, president of the Florida Marine Life Association. “From 2009 on, the daily collection limit of 400 seahorses per boat per day has been working, but the state has tried to react appropriately to pressure to have [Dwarf Seahorses] added to the Endangered Species List.
It has worked before in Florida: the tightening of daily quotas in 2009 saw commercial landings of Dwarf Seahorses drop by more than half, from about 44,000 a year from 1990 to 2009 to an average of 17,000 a year from 2010 to 2014.
Says Turner, who is also entrepreneurial head of Boyd Enterprises, Reef Aquaria Design, and Jellyfish Art, “Commercial seahorse collectors are not opposing these regulations now, because we feel it is important to preserve a sustainable legal harvest of Hippocampus zosterae rather than have an outright ban imposed.”
Endangered Species Act petition prompts new regulations
In 2011, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the United States government to add Dwarf Seahorses to the list of organisms protected by US law under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The population status and risk of Hippocampus zosterae is subject to evaluation by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but Florida’s FWC chose to move on its own using a combination of state fishery records, sampling data, a handful of academic papers on Hippocampus zosterae, and interviews with collectors.
While the new regulations were created by the FWC, they were crafted in cooperation with NOAA, who will ultimately be responsible for deciding whether or not to list the Dwarf Seahorse under the ESA. The Florida regulators say that more restrictive rules and quotas were considered, but they believe the new set of protections are appropriate in view of evidence of a robust population in Florida’s southern waters. (Behind the scenes, most observers believe that the real threat to the Dwarf Seahorse comes from loss of its seagrass habitats, not from collection for the aquarium trade.)
A final meeting on the regulations is scheduled for February 2016. Should the regulations go forward as expected, they come into force shortly thereafter. The public can comment on these regulations during that time and at the meeting itself. http://mygovhelp.info/FLFWC/_cs/site.aspx or http://myfwc.com/contact/fwc-staff/senior-staff/
Finally, as a seahorse breeder myself, I am cautiously optimistic that lowering the quotas on wild collection might end Hippocampus zosterae’s run as an inexpensive “beginner” seahorse, and that it could alter the market for the species in a way that encourages captive-breeding programs to emerge. The international trade in seahorses is regulated by CITES and has been in place since 2004, which has generally spurred captive breeding of seahorses and raised prices. However, the Dwarf Seahorse, being native to the US, is not governed by international CITES regulations and commands such a low price that US-based captive breeding efforts are non-viable.
Over the years, many breeders have attempted to set up hatcheries to breed and sell Dwarf Seahorses, yet most fold up within a short period of time. A few breeders still raise them, but it’s a labor of love compared to rearing more valuable Hippocampus species. Prices for captive-bred Dwarf Seahorses in the US end up being far lower than they are in other countries.
In the UK, where the only Dwarf Seahorses available are captive-bred, they are currently available from breeders for around £75 ($113). It’s unlikely that we’ll see prices go that high in the US anytime soon, but limiting the catch may help. Breeding then becomes viable and can take more pressure off the wild population.
Henry Feddern, a veteran marine-life collector based in Key Largo, has provided Florida marine organisms to zoos, science laboratories, and the aquarium trade for decades. He believes the new regulations make sense.
“I don’t collect dwarf seahorses myself,” he says, “but from what I have heard from seahorse fishermen and from the [Florida Fish and Wildlife] Commission discussions, I feel that the Commission’s decisions are fair for the fishermen and extremely conservative for the resource. The combination of an annual limit, a daily limit, the limited number of fishermen catching Dwarf Seahorses, and the fact that the fishery is demand-driven will ensure that overfishing will not occur, nor will it ever get close.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Regulations: http://myfwc.com/media/3343909/9-sm-dwarfseahorse.pdf
FusedJaw: An ongoing discussion of Dwarf Seahorse conservation and these regulatory changes can be found at http://fusedjaw.com/dwarf-seahorse-hippocampus-zosterae-conservation.