The Lined Seahorse Hippocampus erectus, the only seahorse species native to New York (NY), is listed as “vulnerable” on the Red List of Endangered Species (IUCN 2018). NY’s native seagrass, eelgrass Zostera marina, provides vital habitat for seahorses and other species. Unfortunately, eelgrass acreage in NY’s estuaries has suffered an 89% loss since records began in 1930 (NYS Seagrass Taskforce Final Report). Recent legislative measures were taken to help protect and conserve seahorse populations in NY (S13-0310, En Con L), prohibiting the collection of seahorses for commercial purposes, but further measures are needed to understand seahorse population dynamics and to increase available habitat in order for the species to persist. Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) has been restoring eelgrass for over 30 years, and launched a community-based initiative to enhance eelgrass restoration efforts known as the “Marine Meadows Program” (MMP) back in 2011. Since that time, citizens have prepared thousands of shoots of eelgrass for planting by CCE SCUBA divers. CCE has also been involved in education about seahorses and their relationship with eelgrass since 2008 through camp curricula, school programming and outreach education.
Seahorses are the perfect ambassador species for CCE’s eelgrass restoration work, as they are habitat dependent and eelgrass is considered their preferred habitat in NY. With great public interest and concern about seahorses, in June 2018, the Seahorse Conservation Initiative was born, starting with a small number of seining events for the public and CCE’s summer camp attendees in the eelgrass meadow near our Tiana Facility in Hampton Bays, NY. Our main goal is to expand the newly initiated Seahorse Conservation Initiative in 2019 by implementing both professional as well as citizen-science based research and education about Long Island seahorses. All data collected by or submitted to the initiative will be inputted into an global database to help with conservation efforts, called “iSeahorse”. In-situ research would greatly increase our scientific knowledge of this species, and if we can demonstrate that seahorses are relying on specific habitat types in NY, this information can be passed onto government officials who could take further measures to protect seahorses. Using citizen volunteers, we would also like to increase seahorse habitat through eelgrass plantings as well as creation of an artificial reef known as a “Seahorse Hotel” off of our Tiana Bayside Facility in Hampton Bays using repurposed lobster pots collected by CCE Fisheries Department’s “Derelict Lobster Pot Removal” Program (*similar strategy used successfully in Australia to restore seahorse habitat). CCE is currently working with the Town of Southampton to create a restoration area in an unvegetated area near the Tiana facility (“Tiana Bayside Restoration Area” or TBRA), where the eelgrass plantings as well as the Seahorse Hotel would potentially be installed. Having two different habitat types for seahorses adjacent to each other will not only benefit seahorses but all types of marine life, and this area will serve as an educational and scientific research site for the future. By getting people in the water to look for seahorses, we will help foster stewardship of our marine habitats and the species that rely on them.
Project Components: Task 1. Citizen-science based research / education opportunities to include: 10 public education/seining events in summer 2019 at the Tiana Facility; 6 in-camp or in-classroom education/seining events in spring/summer/fall 2019 (at Tiana Bayside, in-school, or other CCE facility); Expansion of seahorse monitoring efforts through collaborations w/universities, the fishing community and general public (including the creation of outreach material); Creation of SCUBA club to monitor for seahorses using i-Seahorse protocol; Host 2 MMP workshops supplying 2000 eelgrass shoots to be planted at the TBRA in fall 2019 (Cornell staff to sustainably collect donor shoots from healthy meadows, MMP volunteers will prepare planting units, Cornell divers plant units, volunteers to monitor the success of the plantings as well as observe for seahorse recruitment). Task 2. Professional scientific research to include: 6 days of scientific diving to survey for seahorses around Long Island, NY during the summer of 2019 and the creation and monitoring of the Seahorse Hotel to be installed at the TBRA by the end of 2019. Surveying observations to include size, sex, habitat, a photograph; if applicable, locate the same individual(s) on successive occasions to determine existence of site fidelity (individuals can be identified by unique markings or coronet structure). Surveys will focus on areas with natural or artificial habitat such as aquaculture gear. The Seahorse Hotel will require permitting which can take many months to acquire. Volunteers to help with installation; staff to monitor monthly for 1 year.