Malta Research Project

Pdsa and Ntm logo

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 studying and understanding more about the 2 species of seahorse 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.  They are sought after by divers and fishermen the world over, for very different reasons. Fishermen fish for them mainly for the traditional medicine trade – which takes in excess of 150 million seahorses per year (source: Kealan Doyle, SOS 2012).  Because of this fact, they are protected internationally and under European environmental laws.

Malta has its own environmental protection laws, under which both local seahorse species have been fully protected since 2003.

Malta has the Spiny (Hippocampus guttulatus) and the Short Snouted (Hippocampus hippocampus), both of which are recognised as Data Deficient (DD) under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Responsible, sustainable, research is vital to further our knowledge and separate fact from fiction, thus 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 to learn more about their needs and how to protect them in the wild for the future.

Seahorse Trust / PDSA / NMT Seahorse Research

IMPORTANCE OF REPORTING SIGHTINGS

seahorse research

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. We can then 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.

Project Partners

WE ARE DELIGHTED TO BE WORKING IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE PROFESSIONAL DIVING SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION AND NATURE TRUST MALTA

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. This 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, on Malta by PDSA representative Neville McLellan, and in the UK by The Seahorse Trust.

For more information please contact The Seahorse Trust on theseahorsetrust@gmail.com

spiny seahorse

Malta National Seahorse Database

We have set up the National Malta Seahorse Database which is run by The Seahorse Trust. Here we will record all the sightings reported in Malta and Gozo. Although this database is not viewable by the public, 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.  There are plans to bring in other European countries. This will give us a greater understanding of seahorses throughout Europe.

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 accidentally find them, so please do not waste the opportunity. Find out as much as you can about them and let us know. Your 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?

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROTECTING THE SPECIES AND WHY

Interference

Diving to spot and take pictures of seahorses in the wild has become a very popular hobby with divers around the world. We fully understand why anyone would want to see these incredible animals, but the very practice 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 practice if they see a seahorse. We have written guidelines below based on over 40 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 of stress when approaching a seahorse is that it will turn its back to you and lower its head to its chest.  In worse case scenarios, it will change 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. 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.

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

Some people still take pictures and videos of seahorses. If you intend to do this, then please take care and limit your pictures to one or two. Don’t use flash and never move the seahorse to get it into a better position. It is against the law to touch a seahorse without a licence. 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.

yellow seahorse in coral

Protection 

Seahorses are protected under a lot of laws around the world for very good reasons. They are under threat in the wild from disturbance, fishing and being taken for the curio, traditional medicine and aquarium trades. Without these laws seahorses will be extinct in the wild within the next 20 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, but please participate in the data recording scheme, and send your sighting in to 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 seahorses in the wild, and what harm could be caused to them without the right knowledge.

Seahorse Trust / PDSA / NTM Seahorse Guidelines

IT IS IMPORTANT THAT YOU CARRY OUT THE CORRECT PROCEDURES WHEN YOU DISCOVER A SEAHORSE

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 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 to do if you 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 seahorse starts to look stressed then stop and/or back away.
  • If you are in a group, 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.

Approaching a seahorse

YOU MUST KNOW THE CORRECT APPROACH WHEN YOU SEE A SEAHORSE

You should approach very slowly. 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.

 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 you should not crowd them, hover over them or get too close.

Habitat

HOW TO PROTECT THEIR HABITAT

Maintain good buoyancy control by swimming just above the seagrass and the seabed, and avoid trailing yourself and your gear in the substrate. Keep diving gear tidy. Attach loose hoses and 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 seagrass. Fins and the wash created by them can stir up the sediment and potentially damage the seagrass. When in the habitat, change direction slowly and gently. Moving with care will also help maintain the visibility.

Watch a seahorse

IF WATCHING A SEAHORSE TO REPORT IT TO US, PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THE FOLLOWING:

Colour, species, description, size, sex, behaviour, habitat, location, GPS location if possible, depth of water, weather, sea temperature. If you do take a photograph, please 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 not to handle the seahorse.

yellow seahorse

 How to tell the species of a seahorse.

There are more than forty different species of seahorse found around the globe. There are often very subtle variations in appearance of different species, and because they blend in well with their habitat these variations can be difficult to  see unless you know what you are looking for.

seahorse chart

 How to tell the sex of a seahorse

Male seahorses have a pouch below the belly, attached to the tail, in which to keep the fry during pregnancy. Female seahorses do not have such a pouch. Even when the pouch is empty of fry it forms a diagonal line from the belly to the tail.

sex seahorse chart

What to 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 either by e-mail on theseahorsetrust@gmail.com or on our online survey form: SEAHORSE SURVEY FORM

 

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 encourage divers to be cautious and respectful 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 provides 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.