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Dwarf Seahorses May be Banned in the U.S.

Posted: September 28, 2012, 1:00 p.m., EDT

Increasingly, the marine aquarium trade is under scrutiny. Dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae) could soon end up being listed as endangered or threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA). Should they end up classified as endangered, interstate and international trade in the species would be prohibited except under federal permit.

More specifically, if a species is listed as endangered under the ESA, it is illegal to kill, hunt, collect, injure or harass it…or to damage its habitat in any way. It is also illegal, not just to sell specimens or parts and products made from them, but also to buy them. If a species is listed as threatened, restrictions may vary according to what are deemed to be the conservation needs of the species, but they could end up being subjected to the same restrictions or prohibitions as an endangered species.

Seahorses for sale
Seahorses (these are Hippocampus kuda) are traded under CITES II criteria, but if moves currently under way in the U.S. are approved, trade in H. Zosterae could end up being prohibited. John Dawes

The ESA considers a species endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

According to the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity, the dwarf seahorse (which occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, including the Florida Keys and Texas waters, as well as in Bermuda and the Bahamas) qualifies for one or the other of these labels. It currently is listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as “data deficient” in its 2012 Red List, having earlier been listed as “vulnerable” in 1996. The change in status was implemented because there were “no appropriate data on biology and ecology, habitat, abundance or distribution.”

On May 4, 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), published a 90-day finding in the Federal Register (Vol. 77, No. 87), following the petition from the Center for Biological Diversity that the dwarf seahorse be listed. The NMFS stated: “We find that the petition and information in our files present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted.”

In accordance with the law, the NMFS announced the launch of a status review in the above issue of the Federal Register, “to determine if the petitioned action is, indeed, warranted.” It solicited scientific and commercial information regarding the species, having recognized that (as in the above-mentioned IUCN listing) there are some gaps in the data.

On receipt of the 90-day finding details, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) immediately put out a call for data, a request that was swiftly transmitted by others (me, included) to trade and scientific contacts, thus rapidly spreading the news well outside U.S. territory.

Having studied the matter in great detail, consulting literature searches, and receiving valuable feedback from a number of sources, PIJAC concluded that the proposed listing is unwarranted. There are, indeed, many gaps in the available data. Furthermore, there is no published literature that updates the information presented in the petition.

PIJAC maintains that indications of abundance or references to studies that “infer” problems—without supporting data—cannot be used as deciding criteria regarding the potential listing of the species. The claim made by the petitioner that dwarf seahorses “may be over-harvested” is, according to PIJAC, pure speculation, since there are no documented studies regarding harvesting. In fact, the only harvesting that occurs is in South Florida waters and is regulated by the state. Also, there are no data regarding illegal collection in other parts of the range in the Gulf and Caribbean where the practice is banned.

Assertions regarding habitat loss (particularly regarding sea grass beds) are also questioned, since the vast majority of Florida’s sea grass habitat (approximately 3.7 million acres/5,712 square miles) occurs within protected areas where no collection is allowed. While there may be some dwarf sea horse populations or sea grass habitats that may be “dangerously impacted,” these are extremely localized at best and cannot be extrapolated to apply to other parts of the species’ range.

In addition, PIJAC argued that the available data do not support the finding that the species is in danger of extinction or is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. Neither do the data support the claims that there is “a present or threatened destruction or modification of the species’ habitat;” that over-utilization is occurring; that the Florida data are correct; that disease or predation is present; that existing Florida and CITES controls are inadequate; or that there are “other natural or manmade factors” of such significance as to warrant listing.

PIJAC made its submission by the stated deadline of July 3, 2012. At the time of writing, we are awaiting further news from the NMFS. It seems, though, that the available evidence does not warrant listing the dwarf seahorse as either endangered or threatened under the ESA. Should this assumption prove to be correct, it will, of course, continue—just as all the other species in the genus Hippocampus—to be subjected to CITES II criteria which control, but do not ban, trade.

Note: The full text of the 90-day finding is accessible Here. <HOME>

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