Pattaya – A Seahorse Hotspot in Thailand
We were barely ten minutes into our first survey dive at Koh Pai, when Freshy (Watchara Charoenkaew), our dive guide and seahorse spotter extraordinaire, stopped and pointed to a pencil sea urchin. After weeks of diving around Thailand with few seahorses recorded in our surveys, my assistant Jew (Udomlert Koythong) and I were tremendously excited to encounter a seahorse so soon. As we approached the sea urchin cautiously, I glanced down and signaled “Two! Two seahorses!” to Jew and Freshy. I looked down again and burbled, “No, wait, three, no, four…hang on a second.” In the end, after a thorough search of the urchin, I triumphantly held up seven fingers – seven seahorses, on a single sea urchin. It was just an indication of the seahorse findings to come in our brief visit to Pattaya.
Why were we interested in seahorses? Around the world, seahorse populations face significant threats to their survival. They are slow-moving, have limited home ranges, and typically mate for life, and so are especially vulnerable to habitat disturbances and overfishing. Seahorses are primarily caught as bycatch in shrimp trawl fisheries, although targeted fisheries can exert the largest pressure on some populations. Captured seahorses are traded dried for traditional medicine or curios, and live for the aquarium trade. This trade is global and complex, involving millions of animals and more than 80 countries. Currently, many seahorse species are considered “threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. In addition, all seahorse species are listed under Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that countries exporting seahorses have to prove that the trade does not harm wild populations.
According to CITES official reports, Thailand exports the highest number of seahorses in the world, approximately five million individuals per year from 2004-2010. In Thailand, Project Seahorse and John G. Shedd Aquarium are collaborating with the CITES Authorities in the Department of Fisheries (DoF) and with Thai researchers to assess the distribution of seahorses along the coast of Thailand, seahorse population numbers and habitat preferences. The data from our surveys will help the Thai government to manage the seahorse trade in Thailand, and ensure its sustainability. One way to meet CITES requirements for sustainable exports is to find seahorse hotspots - areas where seahorses can be found in large numbers, or areas important for seahorse reproduction and population renewal, and to put measures in place to protect these hotspots.
Hence our efforts in Pattaya. As I traveled through Thailand in search of seahorses and seahorse hotspots, I began to hear from local divers about how one can almost always spot seahorses around the islands off Pattaya. After a grueling few weeks of surveys spanning the provinces of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surat Thani and Chumphon, we finally landed in Pattaya in October 2013, ready to check out the local seahorse scene. Gwyn Mills from Dive Tribe gave us the rundown of the habitats and dive sites around the near and far local islands, and we set off on our first survey trip to Koh Pai with no small amount of anticipation.
And what an extraordinary survey it turned out to be! After the first seven seahorses, we found another four on a second pencil urchin and on mussels for a total of 11 seahorses in the survey dive, which certainly kept us busy underwater with taking measurements and photographs. In total, after three days of diving at seven survey sites, we found and recorded data for 17 individuals, all Hedgehog Seahorses, Hippocampus spinosissimus. This was certainly a far cry from our survey efforts earlier in 2013 along the Andaman coast. From almost two months of extensive surveys at 14 sites, we only managed to find eight seahorses. However, the best was yet to come. One of the Pattaya dive instructors, Andrew Jennings, recommended that we check out a site off Koh Larn that he had nicknamed “Seahorse City.” As we descended down to the site, a sinuous equine shape swam into view amidst the branching sponges – it was a Hedgehog Seahorse! With Andrew’s keen eyes and help, we spotted 22 seahorses over two dives off “Seahorse City,” a record number for divers in Pattaya. Still, there were probably more seahorses at the site that we did not encounter due to bottom time and air constraints. It was also encouraging that several pregnant males and juveniles were recorded over our four survey days; a good sign that the population in the area is reproducing.
So what is next? Buoyed by our results, I gave a community presentation on seahorses in Thailand and our findings in Pattaya, organized and hosted by Dive Tribe, which certainly generated a buzz among the members of the local dive community. The discovery of this hot spot of seahorses is also a good opportunity to encourage participation in an international citizen science initiative, iSeahorse, recently launched as a website (www.iSeahorse.org) and accompanying iPhone app by Project Seahorse.
With iSeahorse, ocean enthusiasts around the world can contribute to marine conservation with a few clicks on their computers or a few taps of their smartphones. The app is designed for people to quickly log seahorse sightings on their iPhones or iPads whenever they encounter an animal in the wild. This allows us to track seahorses over their geographic ranges and apply collectively-garnered new knowledge to seahorse and marine management and conservation. Initial survey results have been reported to the DoF in Bangkok as well, and we hope to promote dialogue between the DoF and various stakeholders of the local community in Pattaya to protect this very special area in Thailand for seahorses and other marine life.
(Article supplied by Tse-Lynn Loh, Ph.D, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Project Seahorse
Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research, John G. Shedd Aquarium)