State agencies are supporting the first commercial farm for seahorses, in Connemara, Lorna Siggins, Marine Correspondent.
Seahorse symbol of equal opportunity Like the panda in China, the tiny seahorse should become the icon for conservation in Ireland. That's the view of a group of scientists who have started up the first commercial "farm" for the species in a laboratory in Connemara. It could also become a symbol for equal opportunity, given that it is the male seahorse who gives birth - and pairs are monogamous for life. Eachuisce Eireann Teo Seahorse aims to breed the tiny fish for aquaria, but also for possible export to China where it is regarded as an aphrodisiac. Seahorses, Hippocampus guttalutus and Hippocampus hippocampus, are rarely seen in Irish waters, although lobstermen have found them in pots around Carna and Cill Chiarain in Connemara. They have also been identified in Lough Hyne in Co Cork. The wild fish don't feed naturally in captivity and yet there is a keen demand for them in Europe for display in aquaria. Due to the feeding problem, they have a relatively short lifespan and can become emaciated very quickly. Farmed seahorse do feed in tanks, however, and are therefore far more suitable for this type of market. Prohibitive food costs had scuppered previous attempts in other countries to cultivate the fish, but the research team has found a solution. The key to this cultivation project is the diet of the Irish seahorse population - the natural zooplankton off the west coast enriched by nutrients from the Gulf Stream, explains Mr Kealan Doyle, who has worked with seahorses and conservation-related research abroad for many years, and returned several years ago to set up a venture here. There are 35 species of Hippocampus around the world and the Connemara team is farming eight of these, including two locals, H. guttalutus and H. hippocampus, says Ken Maher of Eachuisce Éireann Teo. The seahorses grow to between 10cm and 15cm long and employ an unusual spawning technique known as "true sex role reversal", says Maher. The female deposits eggs in the male's "brood pouch" where they are fertilized and gestated for 20 to 24 days. The male then gives birth to live miniatures which will grow on to adulthood. The key to success in growing this unusual creature, which is classed as a fish, is feeding, he says. About a million wild seahorse are collected each year for aquaria, but only about 1,000 survive past 12 weeks because they refuse to feed. The company has developed a method whereby juveniles are "weaned" off the zooplankton they would naturally eat onto commercial freeze-dried foods, allowing them to survive and thrive. The company managed to win the support of former marine minister Frank Fahey and the State agencies involved in marine research. It has also been assisted by postgraduate students, some of whom have given of their own time in the early stages. Funded by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the company now employs seven people in its base in Carna, Co Galway. NUI Galway has provided premises at its laboratory in Carna at cost, where Doyle has installed a recirculation system. He also had the support of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Bord Iascaigh Mhara and the Marine Institute. Broodstock was originally a mixture of the native and imported species, but the farm is now focusing on the native and an Australian species, Doyle says. Micheal Corduff of Údarás na Gaeltachta says that the project is of strategic significance. "The critical element in farming any new species is managing the broodstock, production of the eggs, fertilisation of the eggs, feeding of the hatched larvae, and once you have that you are well on the way to commercial production," he says. "This project should trigger off a number of projects on the conservation and production side." Doyle believes cultivation will also help to preserve wild stocks, and makes no bones about potential export to China. "Such is the demand in China that the seahorse is under threat in Pacific waters. This medicinal seahorse trade involves 40 million individuals annually," he says. Udaras na Gaeltachta is less enthusiastic about the Chinese dimension, pointing out that it is a bulk market. "The best prices can be commanded by selling to aquaria," Corduff stresses. Several of the seahorses have been sent to the Mara Beo aquarium in Dingle, Co Kerry. They have also been sent to the Atlantaquaria in Salthill, Co Galway, and to the aquarium in Portaferry, Co Down. "We intend developing the seahorses into an icon for marine conservation in Ireland," Doyle says. The company plans to develop a conservation centre, which will raise awareness about the fish. It is also looking into restocking native populations when a survey funded by the Heritage Council has been carried out. Lorna Siggens Irish Times 3 October, 2002
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