Category Archives: News

Help save The Seahorse Trust from extinction

The Seahorse Trust has just weeks to go before it could close down forever. They are a fantastic charity and Neil Garrick-Maidment is one of the hardest working people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to.

They are running a Crowdfunder campaign which ends November 18th to give them a much deserved chance of survival. Please pledge what you can and share the link with as many people as possible. You can make a donation to help save The Seahorse Trust by clicking here.

Let’s get as many people involved as possible by using the hashtag #SaveTheSeahorseTrust on Twitter.

Studland seahorses fight for survival

It is a little known fact that seahorses are indigenous to the British Isles. There are in fact two species currently inhabiting the coast of the islands, the Spiny and Short-snouted seahorse. But a recent study has indicated a dramatic decline in number of the tiny creatures. But why should we be worried? We spoke to Neil Garrick-Maidment, Managing Director of The Seahorse Trust, to find out.

Spiny seahorses are native to UK waters and were first found at Studland in 2004. Image via Neil Garrick-Maidment

Studland Bay, Dorset has the highest concentration of seahorses found along the coasts of Britain and is currently the only existing natural breeding site for seahorses in the UK. This offers marine-biologists, divers and conservationists the perfect opportunity to research and observe them in their native habitat. But as of late, findings have not been positive. The number of Spiny seahorses discovered in the area has declined significantly, indicating Britain’s shores are currently in bad condition. The Seahorse Trust, Britain’s only seahorse charity consisting of around 500 volunteers, found only 11 Spiny seahorses at Studland Bay by the end of 2011. This was an unusually low number, as previous years have seen up to 40 seahorses in the area at one time. But what is the reason for the sudden deterioration?

Executive director, Neil Garrick-Maidment said, ‘seahorses are one of those iconic species that actually, if they’re not there, something is seriously wrong with the environment. They are a good indicator species to show what’s actually going on.’

‘I think it’s a culmination of a slow build up in temperature and a lack of plankton in the food cycle which has kept numbers down.’

The way in which divers are able to calculate the number of seahorses at Studland is thanks to a unique tagging project set up by The Seahorse Trust. In order for volunteers to understand and learn to recognise individuals, as well as monitor what’s going on below sea level, seahorses have tiny tags placed around their neck. Seahorses above the length of 13cm, from the top of head to the tail, are given a tag, which provides an exact GPS location allowing the trust to monitor the seahorse whilst in shallow waters. Identifying individual creatures allows the trust to see who is partnering who, where they are moving to and whether specific pairs stay faithful. As well as tagging they use a photographic identification programme in which profile shots are taken in order to compare changes in an individual.

It's the male seahorse who gets pregnant and gives birth. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Seahorses were first discovered at Studland Bay in 2004 by scuba diver and Marine Awareness Officer for Dorset Wildlife TrustJulie Hatcher. She said, ‘I heard not many were found this year, but there could be lots of reasons for that. I’m sure that, just like on land, a hard winter like we had last year could have a big impact on local populations. ’

During early spring seahorses migrate up from deeper water to shallow water for more sunlight, more habitat to live in and consequently more food. In the winter of 2010 going into 2011 there was a particularly long, prolonged period of coldness. With a lack of bright, sunny days there was nothing to promote a stable plankton cycle and in turn there was a lack of food for the seahorses to eat.

Neil said, ‘plankton are a building block of life. Without plankton you don’t get the shrimp feeding on the plankton and then the seahorse feeding on the shrimp.’

Seahorses are a vital food source for many fish, including tuna. If seahorse numbers are declining, so is this food source. Although tiny, seahorses still play an important role in the make-up of the marine life cycle. But lack of plankton may not be the sole reason this number has dwindled.

The natural habitat for Spiny seahorses is sea grass meadows, as it allows them to be close to the surface of the water and receive more sunlight. The UK has o.o1% of the world’s sea grass and as Neil explained, ‘it is disappearing at an alarming rate.’ Large sea grass beds exist along many of Britain’s coastlines but they are under major threat due to over fertilization of farms plus development and general run off from the land.

But, in Studland’s case the main issue is caused by the sheer amount of boats docking at the site. In any one day during the summer period, Studland Bay can encounter up to 350 boats. As it is the only sheltered refuge available between Weymouth and the Solent, Studland is a prime spot to dock, but the constant mooring of boats and dropping of anchors damages the seahorses’ natural habitat.

Listen below to hear Neil describe the extent of the boats’ damage:

‘[Studland] looks like a marine car park. If you have that quantity of boats using such a sensitive site then you run into problems’, said Neil. In the past, The Seahorse Trust have been accused of not wanting boats to moor at Studland but in fact they aim to find a compromise. Neil has put the suggestion of environmentally friendly moorings forward to the government. ‘These moorings would in one foul swoop stop all the problems that are occurring at Studland, so this is what The [Seahorse] Trust has been pushing forward from day one.’ They screw into the seabed and rise and fall with the tide without damaging vegetation. They are used in other parts of the world such as France and Florida but are known to be expensive.

Andrew Purkis, Chairman of Studland Parish council and member of the Seahorse Committee disagrees that it is the boats which are a problem. He said, ‘it’s only since [The Seahorse Trust] have been diving down interfering with their habitat and actually tagging seahorses that they’ve decided to go somewhere else. All the Studland residents want to do is leave things as they are, there’s nothing wrong with the way Studland operates and what we are fighting is unnecessary regulations on how we use our bay.’

‘Everyman and his dog comes down in the summer trying to find them. Whereas they lived quietly before, now they are being poked and prodded by every Tom, Dick and Harry.’

Tags are placed around a seahorses neck in order to identify them individually. Image via Neil Garrick-Maidment

But along with the seahorses’ survival being threatened, the future of The Seahorse Trust is in conflict. ‘The sad problem with all charitable trusts is we are all under threat because of this economic climate’, Neil explained. In order to continue they have come up with different ways to keep going. Recently the charity has started to branch their studies further into Europe and have set up a seahorse eco-tourism project in Malta. ‘It’s important to understand seahorses across their whole geographic range. The two British species also occupy the Mediterranean and Black Sea so we are going to be starting up this new project.’

Run by two volunteers, the project will start with the collection of historic data of the island and will continue to focus on specific diving sites. This will allow The Seahorse Trust to locate where the population are and then ultimately tag them in the same way as they are doing in the British Isles. Neil said, ‘[The Seahorse Trust] are hoping to work with diving associations and Malta University. I grew up in Malta so I’m going back to my roots, where I first had an interest in marine life.’ The project will allow students to learn how to survey and tag seahorses in order to build up database of the Maltese herd, mirroring the work already occurring in the British Isles. If the project is a success The Seahorse Trust are looking to expand their research into further countries.

Click here for a map showing the main Spiny seahorse sites around the British Isles.

Seahorse found washed-up at Dorset nature reserve

An unusual discovery has been made at Purbeck’s Arne Nature Reserve. What was originally thought to be a small toy was found to be the remains of a real seahorse. Short-snouted and Spiny seahorse  are known to be inhabitants of Poole Harbour and the surrounding areas, but it isn’t often they appear on the shores of Shipstall Beach. A short-snouted seahorse, the less common of the two species relative to the British Isles, was spotted by a walker before being passed onto RSPB volunteer and wildlife enthusiast, Graham Tarrant.

The short-snouted seahorse had only minor damage to it's snout and it's skin had started to degrade. Image via Graham Tarrant

His son and fiancé, both marine biologists, were visiting for Christmas and suggested doing something with the seahorse rather than bury it. The inital plan to contact the Dorset Wildlife Trust, for which Graham is a member of, failed as they had closed for Christmas. It was then that Neil Garrick-Maidment of The Seahorse Trust was contacted.

“Polly, my future daughter-in-law emailed Neil to find out what we could do with it. There was a great debate whether to freeze it or pickle it”, Graham said. “I still remember from my A Level in Zoology that we put everything in Formalin to preserve it. Surgical spirit was the purest alcohol we could think of that we could easily get hold of, apart from vodka but that seemed a waste.”

Less than 1% of young seahorses make it to adulthood. Image via Graham Tarrant

Before it was stored in the alcohol, Graham took photographs of the creature to send to The Seahorse Trust, in advance. The images show it was a small, male seahorse just under 8cm. Although it was not pregnant at the time it is thought that it may have previously been.

Graham travelled, just after New Year, from Wareham to Ottery St Mary, where The Seahorse Trust is based. Putting it in the spirit, as opposed to freezing it, meant it is possible to still retrieve its DNA. Research can be carried out and DNA testing on enough samples could indicate some idea of population size for a certain area.

Although a rare occasion, this isn’t the first seahorse to be washed up in Dorset. In 2010 a number of spiny seahorse appeared on the shores of Hamworthy.

If you spot a seahorse washed ashore on any beach in the UK contact The Seahorse Trust on 01404 822373 or email them at info@theseahorsetrust.org

Government delay plans to introduce MCZs

The government have withdrawn their decision to confirm the introduction of Marine Conservation Zones, around the coastline of the UK, early next year. Plans to protect certain areas of the ocean, in order to give marine life a safer environment to live, were set to be designated at the beginning of 2012. These plans have now been postponed until at least 2013.

Insufficient evidence was provided by stakeholder groups according to Defra, the government department for environment, food and rural affairs. Defra Environment Minister Richard Benyon said, “it is vital that we have an adequate evidence base for every site if we are to create successful well-managed MCZ’s.” He continued, “the need to strengthen the evidence base for the MCZ recommendations means this is going to take longer than the ambitious target first put forward.”

Map showing Marine Conservation Zones originally planned for 2012. Image via Julie Hatcher

One of the proposed sites around the coast of the UK is Studland Bay, Dorset. Julie Hatcher, Marine Conservation Officer for the Dorset Wildlife Trust explained, “originally the government said [the lack of evidence] shouldn’t delay the process because we need to have these areas in place as soon as possible. They said the best available evidence was good enough. Now for some reason they’ve gone against that.” Below she explains more:

Studland is thriving with marine life and is home to the two species of seahorse, Spiny and Short-Snouted. Since 2008 these seahorse have been legally protected by the government under the Wildlife and Countryside Act when there were added to a list of species protected by law. The seahorse is one of the very few marine species on this list after much concern that they needed protection. Julie explained, “the statutory authorities are already looking at putting management in place to make sure seahorses and their habitat aren’t being damaged. That’s going ahead anyway, whether or not the MCZ goes forward.”

Spiny seahorse which gained legal protection in 2008. Image via Dorset Wildlife Trust

Although the seahorses of Studland have protection, the rest of the marine life in the area, including the endangered Undulate ray, and around the UK do not. Studland Bay has sufficient evidence to support how sensitive the area is for wildlife but many areas’ data collection is not as solid. This has delayed Defra’s plan to confirm designation of sites, however there has not yet been a definitive answer as to how much data is sufficient.

Julie Hatcher explains below why Marine Conservation Zones, in her opinion, are so important.

Poll: How much do you know about seahorses?

It worried me when I found out that, to some people seahorses were simply characters of myth and not actual living creatures. Seahorses play as much of a vital role in the make-up of marine ecosystems as every other sea creature.

This poll was created to find out how many people are aware of the role of a seahorse within the marine environment, and for those that aren’t, whether they have an interest in finding out more.

Welcome to The Seahorse Project

Hello and welcome to the official blog page for The Seahorse Project, a site dedicated to finding out the latest news and issues in the world of seahorses.

Image via weheartit.com

Around the UK, sea grass is disappearing more and more rapidly due to boats dropping their anchors, damaging the grass on the sea beds and, in turn, slowly destroying the homes of many of these tiny creatures. Seahorses are so small it is easy to overlook the problems surrounding them. But that is why this blog has been created.

It will be an area for news, discussion and opinion to try to help make a difference to the future of the seahorse. Any comments are welcome as they will help develop The Seahorse Project further and reach out to more people interested in and passionate about the subject, so please feel free to share your opinions.

As well as issues facing the species native to the UK, the Spiny Seahorse and the Short-Snouted Seahorse, this blog will explore and discover the many projects around the world that aim to make the future of the seahorse a longer one.

For news updates follow @seahorseproject on Twitter and Like us on Facebook

Thanks for reading,

Hannah, The Seahorse Project