Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Seahorses off Shelter Island!

Call it luck…call it an amazing coincidence, but on the year when we planned to initiate a Seahorse Research project in the Peconic Estuary we found natural seahorses! That’s right, natural seahorses happy and healthy in the PE!

This past January I had met Todd Gardiner from the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium when we gave back-to-back lectures at the Friends of Flax Pond Winter Lecture Series at the Childs Mansion in Old Field. I had never participated in a “tag team” lecture before, but this one was arranged in such a way that I presented the habitat side (eelgrass) and Todd discussed the fisheries (seahorses).

While listening to Todd’s talk I became aware of the plight of local seahorses (Hippocampus erectus) and the fact that their numbers appear to be dropping, even in the Great South Bay where he regularly finds them. He also discussed that there was no current protection for this species and that large numbers are being harvested for the pet trade.

As usual, my mind raced with new project ideas. If we are already planting eelgrass in the PE why not team up with Todd and introduce seahorses as we plant our eelgrass? If this works we could introduce habitat and the animal it supports almost simultaneously. Not really, since there would have to be a delay as the grass becomes established and attracts suitable food for the seahorses, but that is the basic concept.

As a follow up, Ali and I had a meeting with Todd to see how we could coordinate our efforts. It was decided that we would work with Todd as he is THE local expert and he typically has a supply of both hatchery reared and wild caught seahorses on hand at the aquarium during the summer.

This year we planned to introduce a number of seahorses into different sized natural and/or planted plots in the PE to see what size is big enough for these little creatures. For obvious reasons we want to find the smallest size that will still support an adult pair. This way, when we plant this fall we know what sized plots to establish so that the seahorses get what they need.

On May 28th part of our project took a quantum leap forward. While scouting for new planting sites off of Little Ram Island Kim found a very small remnant patch of grass. As she was taking pictures of this dwarf (6”) tall grass she found a pair of seahorses clinging to the base of the plants. As you can imagine she was more that just a little excited.

On the same day a dive at another site with very short grass in shallow water also yielded a number of healthy looking seahorses. Apparently seahorses are alive and well in the Gardiners Bay.

On the following day and early this week we found additional animals, all in small patches of grass east of Shelter Island. In my 15 years of diving in the PE I have NEVER seen a seahorse and now we know exactly where to look for them!

We look forward to following these guys and learning more about them. Hopefully, what we learn this summer will allow us to adapt or eelgrass planting methods to the point where we can introduce seahorses back into the central and western PE at one of more of our planting sites…


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