Malta Seahorse Research Project

The Seahorse Trust in partnership with the Professional Diving Schools Association (PDSA) and Nature Trust Malta (NTM) has set up a seahorse research project working in the Maltese archipelago to study and understand more about the 2 species of seahorses found in these clear Mediterranean waters. By working closely together with the people of Malta and Gozo, we aim to learn more about the seahorses and the habitat they live in.

Introduction

Seahorses are a small unusual shaped fish that can be found in shallow seas and oceans throughout the world. Their un-fish like shape has led to them being treated, quite rightly, very differently to other fish and they are sort after by divers and fishermen the world over, for very differing needs.

Fishermen, fish for them mainly for the Traditional Medicine Trade which takes in excess of 150 million animals per year (source: Kealan Doyle, SOS 2012), because of this they are protected internationally and under European environmental laws. Malta has its own environmental protections laws, under which both seahorse species have been fully protected since 2003.

Malta has two species of seahorse, the Spiny (Hippocampus guttulatus) and the Short Snouted (Hippocampus hippocampus) both are recognised as Data Deficient (DD) under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and so responsible, sustainable, research is vital to further our knowledge and separate fact from fiction; securing the long term future for these fragile animals.

These are the same two species that are found in the UK and throughout Europe and so a greater understanding is needed, so we can learn more about their needs and how to protect them in the wild for the future.

 

Project Partners

Partnerships are key to our work throughout the world and none more so than in Malta where we are setting up an advisory committee of interested individuals and organisations to advise and help with our research work.

The project is a joint project between The Seahorse Trust, the Professional Diving Schools Association (PDSA) of the Maltese archipelago and the Nature Trust Malta (NTM) and is being jointly coordinated on Gozo by PDSA representative Donna Hayler-Montague and on Malta by PDSA representative Neville McLellan and in the UK by The Seahorse Trust.

Donna is also the official representative for The Seahorse Trust in Malta and her e-mail is MALTA PROJECT

 

                               PDSA contact persons

         Donna Hayler-Montague (Gozo)               seahorse@pdsa.org.mt

         Neville McLellan (Malta)                          seahorse@pdsa.org.mt

         http://www.pdsa.org.mt/                          seahorse@pdsamalta.com

 

                                                                

Seahorse Trust / PDSA / NMT Seahorse Research

Both species of seahorse found in Maltese waters, the Spiny (Hippocampus guttulatus) and the Short Snouted (Hippocampus hippocampus) are recognised as Data Deficient (DD) under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and so responsible, sustainable, research is vital to further our knowledge and separate fact from fiction; securing the long term future for these fragile animals.

Divers can play an important role in the conservation of seahorses by reporting sightings to The Seahorse Trust at MALTA PROJECT at the specially set up e-mail address of seahorse@pdsamalta.com

Reporting seahorse sightings as often as you see them (even if you see the same seahorses each time) is really important to build up a better picture of their behaviour, movements and welfare, so that in the long term we can assure the future of these amazing fish.

 

Malta National Seahorse Database

We have set up the National Malta Seahorse Database which is run by The Seahorse Trust where we will record all the sightings we and others see in Malta and Gozo. Although this database is not open to the public to see; so we can protect the exact locations of the seahorses, it will provide information and statistics on an invitation only basis to allow us to write reports and give recommendations to our in-country partners to preserve these amazing animals for generations to come. We will also be publishing our reports on the Trust’s website on the Malta Seahorse Research Project page, so that others can learn about Malta’s unique marine life.

The database will link into the Europe wide database we are developing which already contains the National British Seahorse Database for the UK and there are plans to bring in other European countries, giving us a greater understanding of seahorses throughout Europe.

Licenses

Throughout the project we will be under strict license issued by the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority (MEPA) as we look for sites around the islands where seahorses are found and we hope to start an individual identification project in year two, photographing (without flash, as this can kill seahorses) and recording individual markings and features.

Maltese Environmental Law

To actively seek out seahorses and photograph them, a licence, issued by MEPA is required.  Both species of seahorse found in Malta, the Spiny (Hippocampus guttulatus) and the Short Snouted (Hippocampus hippocampus) have been protected under Maltese environmental law since 2003 - FLORA, FAUNA AND NATURAL HABITATS PROTECTION REGULATIONS, 2006 PART IV, PROTECTION OF SPECIES.

However, from time to time divers will come across seahorses and so adhering to these guidelines (below), will help to protect these fragile creatures and build on our knowledge. It is not against the law to record information about seahorses if you accidently find them, so please do not waste the opportunity, find out as much as you can about them and let us know. You actions will help to preserve the species for the future, imagine a world without seahorses, it would be very empty indeed. When you do find them please follow our guidelines so others will have the opportunity to see them as well.

Why do we need Seahorse guidelines?

Interference                               

Diving to spot and take pictures of seahorses in the wild has become a very popular hobby with divers around the world and we fully understand why anyone wants to see these incredible animals but the very practise of going to see seahorses could cause them to suffer from interference and could be harming them; the diving community needs guidelines to advise them on best practise if they see a seahorse. We have written guidelines below based on 32 years of working with seahorses, so please abide by them and respect the seahorses.

Stress                                            

Seahorses are an unusual fish in that they suffer from stress but unless you know what to look for you would not know it is happening.

One of the first signs when approaching a seahorse is it turns its back to you and lowers its head to its chest and in worse case scenarios it changes to a darker colour. These are the signs that show a diver they need to stop what they are doing and back off to let the seahorse relax. The seahorse is trying to present as small a profile as possible to make it invisible to any potential predator.

Seahorses naturally carry a number of diseases dormant in their bodies such as TB or vibrio and if they get stressed, one or other of these diseases could affect them and over a number of days or weeks they could die as a result of the infection, a factor caused by stress.

Flash and lighted photography induces a great deal of stress in seahorses and so this is why so many countries and public aquariums around the world ban it. Malta and the UK have banned the use of flash and lighting when filming or photographing seahorses.

Some people still take pictures and video of seahorses and so if you intend to do this then please take care, limit your pictures to one or two, don't use flash and never move the seahorses to get a better position; if they go to move off then let them go, they obviously want to get away from you.

Please help our research if you have taken a picture by sending it to us so we can identify the species, sex and in some cases the individual you have photographed, this will help to protect them for the future.

Protection 

Seahorses are protected under a lot of laws around the world for a very good reason; they are under threat in the wild from disturbance, fishing and being taken for the curio and aquarium trade. Without these laws, seahorses will be extinct in the wild within the next 20 to 30 years.  A MEPA licence is required to deliberately seek out and photograph seahorses in Malta and Gozo, however divers do regularly encounter them and so guidelines are important to help protect the seahorses.

Research                          

If you come across a seahorse do not waste the opportunity, participate in the data recording scheme, and send your sighting into The Seahorse Trust by filling in the online reporting form on our website. This will help us to build up a greater understanding of seahorses and the marine world they live in so that we can advise the authorities on the best ways to protect them for generations to come.

Education                         

Education about seahorses and the marine environment is vital to their long term future, it is important that people know the effect they have on them in the wild and what their actions will do to the seahorses without the right knowledge.

Seahorse Trust / PDSA / NTM Seahorse Guidelines

To actively seek out seahorses and photograph seahorses, a licence issued by MEPA is required.   Both species of seahorse found in Malta, the Spiny (Hippocampus guttulatus) and the Short Snouted (Hippocampus hippocampus) have been protected in Maltese environmental law since 2003 - FLORA, FAUNA AND NATURAL HABITATS PROTECTION REGULATIONS, 2006 PART IV, PROTECTION OF SPECIES.  However, divers will come across seahorses and so adhering to these guidelines, written in conjunction with The Seahorse Trust, will help to protect these fragile creatures.

What do I do if I see a seahorse?

  • Stop, be still and just watch, you will understand more about these amazing animals by just sitting and watching.
  • Approach very slowly and cautiously and if the seahorses starts to look stressed then stop and/or back away.
  • If there are a group of you, make sure you are in a semicircle and leave an opening to allow the seahorse to swim off if it wants to.
  • Do not try to stop it swimming away and certainly do not chase it, this will cause it undue stress.

How can I tell if a seahorse is stressed?

  • One of the first things a seahorse does when you approach is to turn its back to you; this is a defensive and natural reaction. It hopes you can’t see it, by providing the narrowest profile.
  • If you sit quietly it will settle and turn back again but a lot of divers are impatient and will try to turn the seahorse by hand, which only causes it immense stress and is against the law. It is against the law to touch a seahorse without a license.
  • As a seahorse gets stressed, its colour starts to darken and it bends its head downwards to present less of a profile. If this is continuous then it could in the long term lead to the death of the animal.
  • If a seahorse is so stressed it swims off, do not follow it, it wants to get away from you, let it.

What is the best way to react to them?

  • Very slowly and carefully, compared with you, seahorses are small animals and any dark shadow cast over them will make them feel as though a predator is in the area.
  • Seahorses rely on camouflage and stealth to avoid predators, so sitting still is crucial to its natural behaviour. If a seahorse starts to swim away it has reached a stage where it no longer feels safe and is in ‘flight’ mode, hoping that by taking flight it will outrun its predator.
  • Careful slow movements are crucial and do not crowd them, hover over them or get too close.

What to do when photographing a seahorse

  • Never use lights, flash or strobes, all three can induce stress which could lead to the death of the seahorses.
  • Approach very slowly and cautiously.
  • Never try to move the seahorse or handle it for a better picture.

How does stress affect seahorses?

  • Seahorses naturally carry diseases dormant in their bodies, such as Vibrio or TB.
  • Under normal conditions these diseases do no harm and the seahorse can live out its life without ever having been affected by them.
  • However if a seahorse becomes stressed, one of these diseases could take hold of the weakened seahorse with long term disastrous results, that could lead to death.

How to protect their habitat

  • Maintain good buoyancy control - by swimming just above the sea grass and the seabed and avoiding trailing yourselves and your gear in the substrate.
  • Keep diving gear tidy; attach loose hoses, survey equipment and other dive gear securely. This will also avoid damage to the habitat as well as preventing equipment loss which adds to the marine litter.
  • Avoid sharp, sudden changes in direction when in the sea grass; fins and the wash created by them can stir up the sediment and potentially damage the sea grass. When in the habitat, change direction slowly and kick gently. Moving with care will also help maintain the visibility.
  • Do not pull at or hold onto sea grass or other natural objects, even if you are drifting. If you need to slow down or stop, brace yourself gently on the seabed and settle carefully.

When watching your seahorse make a note of the following:

  • Colour
  • Species
  • Description
  • Size
  • Sex
  • Behaviour
  • Habitat it is living in
  • Exact location
  • If possible the GPS
  • Depth of water it is in
  • Weather
  • Sea temperature
  • If you do take a photograph follow the guidelines above and send The Seahorse Trust a copy so they can confirm identification (remember it is important not to use flash and do not handle the seahorses)

How to identify the seahorse species

How to tell the sex of a seahorse

Male seahorses have a pouch to keep the fry in during pregnancy below the belly attached to the tail female seahorses do not, even when the pouch is empty of fry it forms a

diagonal line from the belly to the tail.

What you do with the information

  • When diving if you come across a seahorse, you can make a difference by reporting your sightings to The Seahorse Trust, PDSA or the NTM

         at http://www.theseahorsetrust.org/divers.aspx or by e-mailing them at MALTA PROJECT or seahorse@pdsamalta.com.

         Online survey form                               http://www.theseahorsetrust.org/survey-form.aspx

 

For further information

The Seahorse Trust -                                  www.theseahorsetrust.org       INFORMATION

Malta coordinator -                                     Neville McLellan                      seahorse@pdsamalta.com

Gozo coordinator -                                     Donna Hayler-Montague           seahorse@pdsamalta.com

Disclaimer

The Seahorse Trust/PDSA encourages cautious and respectful diving to others and the environment. To safely conduct any dive, participants must rely on their own abilities, training and knowledge of local conditions, including tide, weather and boating activities. The PDSA in conjunction with The Seahorse Trust provide the above information to help advise and encourage the safe conduct of any dive but accepts no responsibility for anyone who disregards their training or any safety advice, or takes unnecessary risks.