NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The government will study whether the inch-long dwarf seahorse should have federal protection.
The seahorse — the smallest of four species found in U.S. waters — lives only in seagrass beds in the Gulf of Mexico. The beds have declined dramatically since the 1950s, and were contaminated by the BP oil spill of 2010, said Center for Biological Diversity conservation biologist Tierra Curry.
The National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday agreed to conduct a year-long study to decide whether the seahorse should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. It will essentially be a review of all published information about the animal, said Bob Hoffman, branch chief for the service's endangered species division.
Curry said Florida waters have lost more than half their seagrasses since 1950, with Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and the Bahamas also showing dramatic losses.
Studies released over the past year have scientists worried that oil and dispersants from the 86-day spill in 2010 may be causing continuing damage to fish, deep-water coral, seaweed beds, dolphins, mangroves and other species of plants and animals.
"Oil spills like the one two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico exact a terrible toll on marine life, especially species like the dwarf seahorse that were already struggling to survive," Curry said.
Marine scientist Joel Fodrie said he has not seen much difference in the seagrass meadows from Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands to St. Joseph Bay, Fla., marine nurseries which he has trawled for juvenile fish from mid-July to late October every year since 2006.
Seagrass ecosystems are stressed by climate change, pollution that keeps light from reaching the grass and fragmentation, said Fodrie, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina's Department of Marine Sciences.
But in 2010 he hauled up larger-than-usual numbers of 12 of the 20 most common fish — possibly because the spill halted fishing in much of the Gulf, leaving more fish to spawn — and found no change in the other eight species.
Fodrie said Thursday that he didn't have last year's count yet, but is studying whether fish are growing more slowly since the oil spill than before it.
Dwarf seahorses — and other species of seahorse — are far too rare to make any conclusions, he said. He said 200,000 individual fish caught over five years included only 60 seahorses of all kinds; at least seven of them were caught last year.
Fish that lay masses of eggs on the ocean floor are the most likely to be damaged because they would be exposed for some time to chemicals in the sediment, he said.
Male seahorses carry developing eggs in a pouch. When they hatch, tiny seahorses swim out of the pouch.
"Seahorses are vulnerable because they're already rare. But I have no reason to think they were any more or less damaged than others," he said.