THERE IS no call for a ban yet on seahorse fishing in the Philippines, but the speed in which the country's seahorse population is getting depleted has raised concerns among conservationists, community leaders and even ordinary fisherfolk.
Here in this barangay on Jandayan Island off Bohol, for instance, residents already knew they had seriously depleted the local seahorse population by the mid-1990s. Where they once could harvest up to 100 seahorses a night, they were now catching 25 or less.
The good news is that a community-based seahorse protection project has been ongoing here since 1994, pooling together the efforts of conservationists, marine experts and local fisherfolk to stem the decline in seahorse numbers.
And in Tigbauan, Iloilo, some 300 kms northwest from here, groundbreaking work aimed at breeding seahorses in captivity is experiencing whopping success.
The bad news, however, is that initial research done in Handumon suggests that seahorse populations rebound slowly. According to the Manila-based green group Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, which initiated the project here, there has been little noticeable growth in the area's seahorse numbers since conservation efforts began in earnest in this barangay almost five years ago. Replenishing these strange-looking fish in their natural environment may thus take years, or even decades.
Still, important first steps have already been made by the Handumon seahorse protection project, as well as by the seahorse captive-breeding program in Iloilo.
Here in Handumon, villagers are being taught about the biology of seahorses. They are also being helped in designing programs to stabilize and replenish the seahorse population, and developing alternative income sources.
Haribon's Marivic Pajaro, who is the Handumon seahorse project leader, says the first component is teaching. "We develop their capabilities on how to manage resources," she explains. "Before they can do some actions, they have to have some understanding of what the seahorse is."
The educational program focuses not just on adults, but on children as well. And thanks to private donations, Haribon has begun a program in which some teenagers get scholarships in exchange for assistance with research. These teens often become environmental leaders within the community.
Next comes action. For example, once villagers learn that taking pregnant males means the entire population will decline more rapidly, many fisherfolk begin releasing pregnant males – or holding them in underwater pens, where they first give birth before they are sold. Haribon has also enlisted the assistance of the island's seahorse buyers, getting them to stop purchasing pregnant seahorses.
But probably Haribon's biggest accomplishment here so far is the island's marine sanctuary. With Haribon's nudging, villagers have created a 33-hectare reserve, which is completely off limits to all fishing and forestry. The sanctuary is home to a large mangrove forest, which villagers themselves have replanted. It is also prime habitat for seahorses and countless other aquatic life forms.
Villagers pay a husband-and-wife team to keep watch in the reserve each night in a house built on poles, guarding against illegal fishers from neighboring communities.
The reserve also allows Haribon to study the seahorses' natural life cycle undisturbed by fishing. Further study is critical to the increased understanding of these fascinating fish because, while seahorses have captivated man for centuries, surprisingly little is known about them.
That which is known, researchers have only recently discovered. So far, Haribon has identified five species in the region, encompassing the whole range of seahorses—from spiny to smooth, small to large.
Haribon tags seahorses and records data on them over a period of time. What the group's researchers have found is that seahorses, in this region anyway, appear to be nocturnal, which explains why fishermen say they are easiest to find at night. The researchers have also observed that it is the female who tends to stray a bit at night from the pair's home territory, returning to meet the sedentary male at dawn.
Seahorse catches are also monitored through voluntary efforts. Fisherfolk record nightly catch numbers and report them to Haribon, allowing it to track the local seahorse population.
Aside from protecting seahorses through conservation methods, Haribon has also worked to develop alternative livelihood sources. One major project is handicrafts, all of which are made using materials indigenous to the island.
The products range from beach mats and handbags with a seahorse motif to wooden seahorse cutouts used as game boards. Most goods are sold at Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium, which has teamed up with Haribon to find markets for villagers' handicrafts.
Selling at Shedd's earns villagers good money, with woodcarvers getting P250 per wooden seahorse. But potential supply still outstrips demand, and the handicraft project has yet to provide enough income for villagers to live off it completely.
Pajaro, though, points out that alternative livelihoods at least help to lessen the pressure on seahorse populations. She notes, "With the crafts, they would say, 'Okay, we have money to buy rice.'" Therefore, the wife "does not have to force the husband to go out fishing." Instead of six or seven days fishing per week, it becomes four or five.
Pushed by Barangay Captain Gregorio Botero, villagers a few years ago also entered the lucrative business of seaweed cultivation. A large sack of dried seaweed, used as an ingredient in products ranging from toothpaste, to plastics, and ice cream, fetches about P700.
All these activities have led some to shift their attention away from seahorses, but many still do both. Fisherman Rey Abano is a good example. Abano—who still makes about P6,000 per year from selling seahorses, just enough for his family to get by—recently began tending seaweed as well.
Currently, he grows a small amount, earning about P1,000 every three months from seaweed. But that adds enough to his income for him to finish the house he and his wife Liza began having built recently, and perhaps even start saving for their son's education. He plans to expand his seaweed patch.
The community-based approach here has not escaped notice. In 1996, the Handumon initiative joined up with seahorse conservation projects in Canada, the United Kingdom and Vietnam, and took the name Project Seahorse. International researchers have come to Handumon to study seahorses.
Domestically, leaders of other communities have visited the barangay to learn more about the project. Haribon researchers and community organizers also travel to other areas to give presentations on seahorse conservation. The foundation, in cooperation with the U.S. Agency for International Development, is now working in several other communities to implement seahorse protection programs and develop alternative livelihood options there.
In the meantime, biologist Grace Garcia has also been hard at work at her laboratory in Iloilo, where she has been breeding seahorses in captivity since 1996. Although her achievement is not a worldwide first, Garcia's ability to produce offspring from seahorses born in captivity is unheard of in the Philippines and extremely rare anywhere.
In fact, other efforts to breed seahorses in the lab have been abandoned because researchers were unable to get viable offspring from captive pairs. According to a 1996 study by noted seahorse expert Dr. Amanda Vincent, one Department of Agriculture project just off Jolo, Sulu was abandoned in 1992 after disease spread through the adult population. That project got only 12 percent of offspring to survive for a week.
But Garcia's program, which is part of the work being done by the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center's Aquaculture Department (SEAFDEC) on ornamental fish, is now entering its third year. Many say its being able to generate third generation offspring is an astonishing achievement. Seahorses, after all, are incredibly finicky eaters and fussy about mating. Their water must also be kept very clean and circulating at all times.
Thus, keeping them alive in captivity is difficult; getting viable offspring from them an even greater problem. Most seahorse young, or juveniles as they are called, usually die after birth in captivity, or are unable to breed.
Garcia thought up the seahorse experiment after learning the Philippines was a major exporter of seahorses and that the population here was in severe decline. She recounts, "(I) thought doing aquaculture on seahorses would be the best species because it has two markets: Chinese traditional medicine and the aquarium trade." Having two markets means seahorses are declining even faster than other aquatic life.
Garcia bought wild seahorses for her initial stock. Her greatest problem, she says, was the dearth of published research on seahorses in captivity and the wild. To get her stock to eat, she mixed various forms of live feed to enrich their dietary intake. That, recalls Garcia, seemed to do the trick.
What proved more difficult was getting them to breed. If seahorses don't like one another, they simply won't mate. They had to be moved from one tank to another until suitable partners were found. But Garcia's patience paid off. Today, some of the most successful breeding pairs have a new batch of offspring nearly every two weeks.
Garcia's next step is to transfer the seahorses out of the lab, and into grow-out pens located in the ocean. Thus far, none of her seahorses have been sold or released into the wild because she has needed all the offspring for breeding stock and experimentation.
She admits being hesitant to release the captive-bred seahorses into the wild because she does not know how they may have changed genetically, and thus is uncertain of how her lab seahorses would affect wild populations.
Although Garcia's seahorses may yet be used to replenish dwindling seahorse stocks in the wild, the more likely destinations for them are aquariums, traditional Chinese medicine and curios. But that may help ease pressures on wild stock.
Before she can make raising seahorses in captivity an economically viable option to taking seahorses from the wild, though, she needs to reduce expenses. Right now, her lab-born seahorses, because of research costs and special live feed, are more expensive than their wild counterparts.
"I would like to invite some more researchers to do research work on
seahorses so that the development of technology would be faster," says
Garcia. "It's just too much for two people."