Ria Formosa seahorses: a race against habitat destruction
Concern over the dwindling number of seahorses in Ria Formosa is reaching fever pitch after an exposé by Expresso newspaper painted a desolate picture of the local seahorse population and raised fears that these tiny, beautiful sea creatures may be closer than ever from becoming extinct in the Algarve.
Biologist and diver Miguel Correia only found one specimen during a dive at the channel of Faro, the same area where he found dozens of seahorses during a dive five years ago.
“It is depressing and discouraging,” said the researcher from the University of the Algarve’s CCMAR sea centre.
At the start of the year, Correia said that illegal fishing has played a big role in the disappearance of the species. As he explained, the Chinese medicine industry sees seahorses as a remedy for all kinds of problems even though there is no scientific evidence to back this up.
Throughout the first six months of the year, he and his team carried out several dives in the area to assess the estuary’s seahorse population and see how critical the situation is. The numbers are worrying.
In eight of the dives no seahorses whatsoever was found, while in four only one or two were spotted. No more than 21 seahorses were found during a single dive.
Correia’s worst fears were confirmed: the local seahorse population has been devastated to the point where it may have become impossible to recover.
Since 2012, around 600,000 seahorses are believed to have disappeared from the estuary and only around 155,000 are believed to remain.
The numbers are even more devastating compared to 2001, when around 1.3 million seahorses were estimated to exist in Ria Formosa.
If something is not done to protect the small sea creatures, Correia believes that they could disappear from the Algarve within “two or three years”.
The seahorse census was requested by the Oceano Azul (Blue Ocean) Foundation after news spread about the disappearance of the tiny fish.
“We decided to act when we realised that they could disappear due to the government’s inaction. Modernity is not just about fibre optics, it is about protecting our environmental values and saving a species that could be a symbol of the Ria Formosa and the Algarve,” said Tiago Pitta e Cunha, executive director of the foundation.
The census’ final report was only completed this month and helped prove that illegal fishing is the main issue to tackle.
“The worst thing is that this is still happening. It is done in a brutal way, by trawling, in a boat that drags a net that catches everything it comes across,” Miguel Correia explained.
This method of fishing not only decimates the seahorse population, but it also destroys its natural habitat.
The researcher laments: “During our dives, we see that the nets destroy huge extents of seagrass. Seahorses are left with nothing to hold on to.”
Expresso reports that maritime police have already identified an “extremely lucrative network of (seahorse) trafficking” that operates in Olhão and has international links.
The amount of money paid for each batch of seahorses has increased recently, which, in turn, is pulling more people to this illegal trade.
This is all believed to have started three years ago when foreign buyers started requesting sea cucumbers, which are also sought for their alleged medicinal benefits in the Asian market.
Researchers believe ‘one thing led to another’ and seahorses quickly trumped sea cucumbers as the more “profitable product”.
One kilo of seahorses can be sold for around €1,500 and the value can increase exponentially once it reaches the Asian market.
Says Expresso, buyers approach fishermen at local docks and hand them lists of the protected sea creatures that they are interested in buying. Those who agree catch the creatures at night.
Maritime police try to do what they can to dissuade the illegal fishing, but human and physical resources are scarce and insufficient to tackle the problem.
Still, Correia says that something must be done “soon or it will be too late”.
“It’s true that we can breed them in captivity. It sounds like a magical solution, doesn’t it? But it’s not. There is no way I would reintroduce them into the wild just to be caught again. I’d only do it with the guarantee that there would be more surveillance.
“Even then, breeding them in captivity is not the solution. There are diseases than can spread and put the whole community at risk. The only solution is to end trafficking.”
Despite their name, seahorses are in fact tiny fish that get their name from their horse-shaped head. There are at least 25 species of seahorses around the world.
By MICHAEL BRUXO