World's Smallest Seahorse Found in Indonesian Waters

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, May 12, 2003 (ENS) - The world's smallest known species of seahorse, mistaken in the past for the offspring of another species of seahorse, has now been identified as a unique species.

Adults of the new species, a pygmy seahorse known as Hippocampus denise, are typically just 16 millimeters long - smaller than most fingernails. There are already 32 other known species of seahorses.

Marine biologist Sara Lourie, a member of the Project Seahorse marine conservation team based at the University of British Columbia, is the scientist responsible for finding the new species in the deep corals of the Flores Sea off the coast of Indonesia.

Lourie had the honor of naming the new species. She chose to recognize underwater photographer Denise Tackett, whose 1997 images first hinted at the need for a new classification.

The name Denise is derived from Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and means "wild or frenzied," which seems appropriate, according to Lourie. "Compared with other small seahorses, they're active little creatures," she says.


Hippocampus denise in its natural habitat, a gorgonian seafan. (Photo by Denise Tackett courtesy Project Seahorse)
Because it lives among the deeper corals and camouflages itself, the tiny new fish may be safe from the over-exploitation threatening other seahorse species. But with only a handful of sightings on record, it is hard to know what risks they face, warns Lourie.

Heavy duty trawling gear that can flatten reefs is one threat. Underwater tourism is another. "Divers and photographers could possibly love these animals to death," she says.

Lourie is doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal. She worked with Dr. John Randall of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, to describe the new species. Their research, appearing in the current issue of the journal "Zoological Studies," is the result of extensive co-operation with divers, photographers and naturalists from around the world.

At the same time that Project Seahorse announced the discovery of the new seahorse species, the conservation team expressed disappointment with the decisions of Indonesia, Japan, Norway, and South Korea to withdraw from international trade rules for seahorses set by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

More than 150 nations attending the November 2002 CITES meeting in Santiago, Chile endorsed a plan to protect seahorses from overharvest through strict regulation of international trade. In 2004, seahorses will be listed in Appendix II of the convention, which means that any international shipment must be accompanied by an export permit affirming that it is was legally harvested in a way that is not detrimental to the survival of the species.

“We are confident all member countries, including the dissenting nations, support the basic principles of sustainable use. We look forward to helping address their concerns and develop their management policies,” said Dr. Amanda Vincent, director of Project Seahorse. “But it is clear we still have much work to do to ensure the survival of both seahorses and the people who depend on them.”

Project Seahorse served as the lead scientific advisor and chaired the working group on seahorses for CITES. It will continue to provide technical support to the 161 member countries of CITES and other agencies involved in implementing the Convention.


A Christmas ornament made with dried seahorses (Photo courtesy Project Seahorse)
At least 24 million dried seahorses are traded among 77 nations each year for traditional medicines and souvenirs. Hundreds of thousands more seahorses find their way into the aquarium trade. “This will probably be the single biggest wildlife trade issue under international management. So we need to get it right,” Dr. Vincent said.

The addition of all 32 known species of seahorses to Appendix II of CITES was a landmark decision, bringing marine fishes of commercial value under an international regulatory regime. By taking out a “reservation,” the four dissenting nations have opted out of CITES for the purposes of seahorse management.

“The decision could hamper international efforts to address the serious threats seahorses face from overfishing, incidental bycatch and loss of habitat,” said Dr. Vincent.

In cases where both exporting and importing parties have taken out reservations, CITES regulations need not be followed, although the countries may introduce their own management schemes.

Indonesia is a major exporter of seahorses, while Japan and South Korea are believed to be net importers. Their reservations could make it more difficult to ensure the long-term survival of some species of seahorses.

Project Seahorse recognizes the challenges the CITES listing will pose for seahorse fishers and traders, as Project team members have been working closely with them for more than a decade. In fact, the listing was deferred for 18 months – the longest delay ever given to the implementation of a CITES listing – to allow governments time to develop appropriate strategies to minimize economic and social disruption while maximizing conservation benefits. The team remains hopeful the dissenters’ concerns can be addressed before the listing takes effect in 2004.