World’s smallest seahorse facing extinction in oil spill clean-up
Wednesday 8 September 2010
One of the world’s smallest seahorse species could virtually disappear due to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and subsequent clean-up efforts, conservationists are warning.
The dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae), found only in waters off the Gulf Coast, now faces a bleak future after much of its habitat was destroyed by the spill.
Scientists are worried that the clean-up process could further diminish dwarf seahorse populations and other marine life.
Conservationists from the ZSL's Project Seahorse team are urging British Petroleum (BP) to minimise the use of chemical dispersants and the burning of oil during the clean-up process, which is expected to take years.
Dwarf seahorses, which are less than one inch long, produce few young, making them vulnerable to environmental change. The population of dwarf seahorses is expected to decrease dramatically during the clean-up, after the spill exposed them to high levels of oil toxins and destroyed large swaths of their food-rich habitat.
To slow the oil spill’s movement, BP has burned off the oil caught in seagrass mats floating in open water. While most seahorses live in seagrass beds in the coastal shallows of the Gulf, others live in these loose mats of vegetation offshore.
©Shedd Aquarium Burning these mats has killed many marine animals while depriving others of their habitat and exposing them to further toxicity.
Dr Heather Koldewey, ZSL’s Programme Manager for the International Marine and Freshwater Conservation Programme, says: “Seagrass is vital to the long-term health of coastal ecosystems, sheltering marine animals, acting as fish nurseries, improving water quality, and preventing erosion. In extreme cases where seahorses are at high risk of poisoning such as this one, seagrass mats and beds can be cut to reduce toxic exposure.
“However we are urging BP to continue to use booms in the clean-up to isolate the oil slicks. These can be skimmed, left to evaporate, or treated with biological agents like fertilisers, which promote the growth of micro-organisms that biodegrade oil.”
Dr. Heather Masonjones, a seahorse biologist at the University of Tampa, says: “It’s absolutely critical that measures be taken to preserve the seagrass mats and beds during this vulnerable time.
“Incidents such as the explosion of the Mariner Energy oil platform, only last Thursday, demonstrate how we must act quickly and carefully to give these fragile marine species the best chance of survival.”