Minister of the Sea Ana Paula Vitorino is concerned about Ria Formosa’s seahorse population – and how fast it seems to be disappearing – and has vowed to protect the species from extinction.
On Tuesday, the minister visited the Ramalhete station of the University of the Algarve’s Sea Science Centre (CCMAR) to get an up-close look at the “fantastic” conservation work that is being carried out to protect the seahorse population, particularly the Hipponutre project led by Jorge Palma.
“One of the goals of this visit is to speak with researchers and obtain information to carry out the planning of the (seahorse) sanctuaries,” Vitorino told reporters, adding that a series of maritime spatial plans are in the process of being approved by the government.
Warnings that seahorses (Hippocampus gutulatus and Hippocampus hippocampus) were disappearing from Ria Formosa started three years ago and since then the possibility of these species disappearing altogether has become very real.
The minister says that there are “many reasons that have caused this significant decrease in population and we have to fight each one of them”, she explained.
“We need to increase surveillance, which we already have, to stop their illegal capture. Then we need to recover the marine environment and reduce the number of tourism boats. Lastly, there is something that is beyond us, which is climate change,” the minister added. Research and a change in human behaviour will also play a key role.
“We may have laws and surveillance, research and recovery projects, but we humans are the main predators of this species and most ecosystems,” she said.
For years, experts have been warning that illegal fishing has been responsible for at least part of the decimation of the estuary’s seahorse population.
Seahorses are often captured and sold due to their popularity in the Chinese market as a “medical wonder”, despite no actual proof that they have any kind of medical effects.
Many have described the cause as a “race against time”. Last November, it was revealed that around 600,000 seahorses are believed to have disappeared from the estuary since 2012 and only around 155,000 are believed to remain.
The dire situation is even more apparent when the numbers are compared to 2001, when 1.3 million seahorses were estimated to exist in Ria Formosa.