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Tough Ride For FL Seahorse

November 1, 2010

TAMPA, Fla. - The fate of the dwarf seahorse species that calls Florida seagrass beds home is up in the air after all that oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico this past summer. Experts say it will take time to figure out how the oil affects the population of these small, fragile creatures that live off Florida's shores.

Dr. Heather Masonjones, associate professor and chair of the biology department at the University of Tampa, says the big question for the seahorses is how the oil affected the seagrass beds that they call home.

"No seagrass, no seahorses. For this particular species, we have not found them associated very often with other ecosystems."

Masonjones says that if the oil acted as a shade, keeping light from penetrating the salt water, the grass that harbors the seahorses is threatened.

"Seagrass requires high levels of light to be able to photosynthesize and do the things seagrasses do to be able to grow and develop."

Those working to protect the seahorse fear their plight is flying under the radar as media attention has turned elsewhere. The group Defenders of Wildlife says there is an urgent need to investigate the conservation status of the dwarf seahorse in the wake of the tragedy, as well as the extent to which all seahorses in the Gulf of Mexico are being threatened.

Elizabeth Fleming of Defenders' Florida office says seahorses are extraordinary and unique creatures but unfortunately very little is known about how they may have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"We won't know for some time to come about where the oil went and what the toxic effects are going to be, and even about the effects of all those dispersants that were applied."

Fleming says oil isn't the only problem for seahorses. She says they are threatened by fishing nets, collected for the aquarium trade and harvested for use in traditional Asian medicine.

Glen Gardner, Public News Service - FL