Seahorse © L. Bryant
Seahorses in the Helford River
Although these delicate little fish, well-known from books and films, are more associated with warmer seas, they have been found in our shallow Cornish waters. They swim in an upright position and, feeding on small crustaceans, can grow up to 15cm in length. During the breeding season the male receives the eggs from the female, fertilises them and broods the embryos in his special pouch. Seahorses need vegetation in which to shelter and anchor themselves. Eelgrass beds offer them a safe haven. In the past the Long-snouted or Maned seahorse, Hippocampus ramulosus, has been found in the Helford River and hopefully they will be seen there again.
There are more records of seahorses from the Cornish coast than anywhere else in British waters. World-wide, there are moves for the protection of one or other of the few dozen known species. The fact that they mate for life, gives them a talismanic quality and ‘lacing the drink’ with ground-up seahorse is believed to ensure human fidelity! Where they are collected, ‘no take zones’ have been successful in maintaining numbers despite the potential for over-collecting.
There are 26 Cornish and Scillonian records of Hippocampus guttulatus syn. ramulosus, the Long-snouted, Maned or Spiny Seahorse on the Environmental Records Centre’s database, the earliest record being 1899. The estuaries and bays of our south coast are favoured, but there are a couple of recent records from our less hospitable north coast. Stragglers have been found on the UK west coast as far north as the Shetlands, but most have been off the Cornish coast.
Hippocampus hippocampus, the Short-snouted or European Seahorse is smaller and rarer. What is believed to be the first British record was found in the mouth of the Tamar in 1998. More recently a young but damaged specimen was found off Port Isaac and taken into care at the Blue Reef Aquarium, Newquay.
Both species could now be breeding in the English Channel and Celtic Sea. A Seahorse Trust has been formed to take any measures to help their prospects. They are more at home in the Bay of Biscay, but the warming of our seas could extend their normal range into British waters and they may well be breeding in the English Channel and Celtic Sea. Here in the Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area, conditions are ideal and no doubt more sea horses will be found in the future.
Stella M Turk
Three Seahorses were brought up in a Lobster Pot near the Channel Islands and two were spotted right away and put back into the sea. The third, however, was not spotted until 24 hours later and amazingly was still alive. Seahorses are of course fish, so it must have remained in a pool of water or in a very damp place to have survived so long out of the sea. It was taken to the Plymouth National Marine Aquarium where it was placed in the quarantine tank for a few days and it is hoped to breed from it at a later date. The seahorse is one of the two species found around the British Isles, Hippocampus hippocampus.
The Seahorse Nature Aquarium in Exeter has added yet another species of seahorse to its collection. This time it is one of the largest seahorses in the world Hippocampus abdominalis, known as the big bellied seahorse. As you probably know, in seahorses it is the male that becomes pregnant. The eggs are deposited by the female into the male’s brood pouch where they embed in the pouch’s soft tissue which includes – in most species – a single membrane dividing the pouch. H. abdominalis‘s large pouch has as many as five membranes, giving more surface area for egg implantation and this species can give birth to 1500 live young at one time. The young arrival was 7” long but it could grow to 13” or 14”. They normally live in the seas around Australia.
The Helford VMCA was established just over 10 years ago and brought together landowners, river users and conservationists. Because this is a sheltered marine environment the land is used right down to the high tide mark and the nature of its use has a critical effect on marine life. However co-operation between commercial and leisure users in conjunction with The Cornwall Wildlife Trust has benefited the river and it is now one of only two rivers in the country designated as a Class A river. It is visited by dolphins and seahorses and is abundant in fish and bird life and oysters.
Would you make a good Peeping Tom? Visitors to Newquay Sea Life Centre are being asked to spy on one of its most popular exhibits. They would like to find out whether the seahorses are as faithful to their partners as they are reputed to be. Seahorses were thought to be monogamous, with females delivering their eggs to just one male suitor, who then rears the young, but recent observation have sown a seed of doubt and the staff are wondering if the females “play around”.
Marine biologists Juan Romero and Dominic Boothroyd from the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth, have flown to Africa to carry out surveys of the Indian Ocean Coastal waters in an attempt to establish the current size of the seahorse population and the diversity of seahorse species. Seahorses in African waters are threatened by extensive dynamite fishing , and they are also in huge demand in the far east for traditional medicines and over 60 million are used each year in this trade. Unlike most other animals there is no consistent global method for classifying the number and diversity of seahorses and the National Marine Aquarium biologists aim to increase awareness of the global plight of seahorses.
There are 33 known species of seahorses worldwide, and many of these are sliding toward extinction. More than 20 million, both dead and alive, are sold each year by at least 52 countries, for traditional medicine or as pets or dried as souvenires. In Hong Kong where Chinese medicines are popular, seahorses fetch a higher price than silver. The most threatened is the South African Knysna seahorse and it has recently been listed as an endangered species. It is restricted to estuaries and has only ever been found in four locations, but can now only be found in two of the South African estuaries. Like many other endangered animals in the world they may only eventually survive in zoos or aquariums, for London Zoo has successfully bred 700 baby Knysna seahorses, the latest arrivals being born earlier this year. Long snouted seahorses Hippocampus ramulosus live around Devon and Cornwall and up as far as Dorset. Mike has occasionally brought them up in his crab-pots, but you are more likely to find them in shallow and sheltered waters like the Fal Estuary and in eelgrass beds and this is the species you are most likely to see. The short-nosed seahorse Hippocampus hippocampus lives around the Channel Islands and has been caught off our coast. If we are going to find ways of protecting them we need a lot more information about seahorses so please report any sightings.