Case study: Captive Seahorses

Case study: Captive Seahorses

A very special group of marine fish exploited by the aquarium industry are the Syngnathidae, a family that includes seahorses, pipefishes, and sea dragons. Seahorses are bony fishes whose evolutionary history is so recent that the major stages of morphological evolution are still represented in extant species.

Sea Life London states: ‘We never take any [seahorses] from the sea for display – and if they become extinct, we’ll release our stocks into the wild’ (Sea Life website). In reality, if seahorse species become extinct, it is probably too late. Given that a considerable proportion of the seahorse trade is for aquaria, it would be more effective for Sea Life to focus on educating visitors about the dangers of fishing the animals for the aquarium trade and the importance of allowing animals to live naturally, in the ocean, free from exploitation.

In 2003, Weymouth Sea Life opened the ‘National Seahorse Breeding and Conservation Unit’ which, similar to other Sea Life’s captive-breeding programmes, is not part of any official EEP or ESB. There is no Stud Book which would enable the captive population to be managed genetically and the main aim is to stock aquariums with Seahorses.


Sea Life claim that Seahorses must be housed in aquariums because of the dangers they face in the wild,  however it is the public aquaria trade itself which contributed to,  and continues to contribute to, its demise. In fact, public aquaria only began to breed seahorses when the EC Zoos Directive was introduced in 1999, and the subsequent Zoo Licensing Act 1981 Amendment Regulations 2003 and 2003 forced aquariums to establish conservation programmes.

At Brighton Sea Life, a staff member claimed to Freedom for Animals investigator that Sea Life saves 80% of live young, whereas in the wild, only 5% survive to adulthood. In fact, the number is around 0.5% yet litters are large and this survival rate is actually high compared to other fish, because of their protected gestation, making the process worth the great cost to the father. The eggs of most other fish are abandoned immediately after fertilisation.

Sea Life do not campaign to end the Seahorse trade, yet this is what is desperately needed.  Supporting the ‘sustainable’ harvesting of Seahorses means that Sea Life and other companies which profit from the exploitation of fishes can continue with business as usual. Even captive-bred exports should not be allowed where they cannot be distinguished from wild-caught animals. A regulated trade in Seahorses benefits traders and consumers, rather than the animals themselves.

The Seahorse Trust is one of the NGOs which Sea Life supports, and there is no mention of the role that public aquaria play in the demise of the animals on this NGO’s website. The Seahorse Trust advocates captive-breeding as the solution, advocates for an end to the trade for traditional medicine, and points a finger at the curio trade and the home aquarium trade’ for the decimation of populations.

This case study is an excerpt from the 2014 report An Investigation into the UK’s Largest Public Aquarium Chain. Please click HERE to access the full text (including references)

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