Species group report card
– seahorses and pipefishes
Supporting the draft marine bioregional plan for the North-west
prepared under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
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Species group report card – seahorses and pipefishes .................................................... 1
1. Seahorses and pipefishes of the North-west Marine Region ......................................... 3 2. Vulnerabilities and pressures ......................................................................................... 5 3. Current protection measures.......................................................................................... 9 References ........................................................................................................................ 10
Attachment 1: Listed seahorses and pipefishes occurring in the
North-west Marine Region ................................................................................................ 14
SPECIES GROUP REPORT CARD –
SEAHORSES AND PIPEFISHES
Environment Supporting the draft marine bioregional plan for the North-west Marine Region prepared under the Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
The primary objective of report cards is to provide accessible and up-to-date
information on the conservation values found in Commonwealth marine regions. This information is maintained by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and is available online through the department’s website (www.environment.gov.au). Reflecting the categories of
conservation values, there are three types of report cards:
species group report cards ;
marine environment report cards ;
heritage places report cards. ;
While the focus of these report cards is the Commonwealth marine environment, in some instances species and ecological processes occurring in state waters are referred to where there is connectivity between species and ecological processes in state and Commonwealth waters.
Species group report cards
Species group report cards are prepared for large taxonomic groups that include species identified as conservation values in a region; that is, species that are listed under Part 13 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
1999 (EPBC Act) and live in the Commonwealth marine area for all or part of their lifecycle. All listed threatened, migratory and marine species and all cetaceans
occurring in Commonwealth waters are protected under the EPBC Act and are identified in the relevant marine bioregional plans as conservation values.
Species group report cards focus on species for which the region is important from
a conservation perspective; for example, species of which a significant proportion of the population or an important life stage occurs in the region’s waters.
For these species, the report cards:
outline the conservation status of the species and the current state of ;
knowledge about its ecology in the region
define biologically important areas; that is, areas where aggregations of ;
individuals of a species display biologically important behaviours
assess the level of concern in relation to different pressures. ;
1. Seahorses and pipefishes of the North-west Marine Region
The family Syngnathidae is a group of bony fishes that includes seahorses, pipefishes, pipehorses and sea dragons. Australia has the highest recorded diversity of syngnathids in the world, with an estimated 25–37 per cent of the
330 syngnathid species currently described (Pogonoski et al. 2002). Along with syngnathids, members of the related Solenostomidae family, or ghost pipefish, are also found in the North-west Marine Region.
Most of the 22 syngnathid and the single solenostomid species known to occur in the North-west Marine Region are found in the shallow waters of Commonwealth marine reserves such as Ashmore and Mermaid reefs (DEWHA 2008).
Hippocampus alatus) Solegnathus However, at least two species, the winged seahorse (and the western pipehorse (sp.
2), have also been recorded in deeper shelf waters of the Region (up to 200 metres). As yet no species of true sea dragon has been recorded in the North-west Marine Region. The family Solenostomidae, or ghost pipefish, is a related species group.
All members of the Syngnathidae and Solenostomidae families are listed marine species under the EPBC Act and although no species is currently listed as threatened or migratory, this status is being reviewed (Scales 2010). Twenty-two species of syngnathid and one species of solenostomid listed under the EPBC Act are thought to occur in the North-west Marine Region and are listed in Table 1. Approximately 32 additional species of syngnathid occur in Western Australian state waters adjacent to the region, although taxonomic uncertainty still surrounds a number of these (DEWHA 2008). Of these 32 species of syngnathid, nine are thought to be endemic to state waters adjacent to the region (DEWHA 2008). Syngnathids are diverse, ranging from apparently rare and localised species, to widely distributed and very common species. Knowledge about the distribution, abundance and ecology of both syngnathids and solenostomids in the North-west Marine Region is limited. Typically syngnathids are carnivorous and feed on small crustaceans such as copepods, often eating those that drift by or reside in coral branches or algal mats (Gronell 1983; Kendrick & Hyndes 2005; Martin-Smith 2008; Scales 2010). A few species also eat other invertebrates (for example, shrimps) and larval fish (Kuiter 2009). Almost all syngnathids live in nearshore and inner shelf habitats, usually in shallow, coastal waters, among seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs, macroalgae-dominated reefs, and sand or rubble habitats (Dawson 1985; Lourie et al. 1999, Lourie et al. 2004; Vincent 1996). Temperate-water species predominately inhabit seagrasses and macroalgae, while tropical species are primarily found among coral reefs (Foster & Vincent 2004; Scales 2010).
The ridge-nose pipefish is known to occur on shallow coral reefs, but also in sandy or rubble areas, and in stands of
Sargassumtropical macroalgae. Sheltered bays, lagoons and estuaries with seagrass and macroalgae are thought to be
Syngnathoides biaculeatusimportant habitats for the double-ended pipehorse () (Barrows et al. 2009; Takahashi 2000).
Little is known of the habitat of the other pipehorse species recorded in the North-west Marine Region, the western pipehorse, but it is likely that tropical, subtropical and warm temperate reef habitats (e.g. with hard and soft coral, sponges and sand) are important habitats. The western pipehorse has been found in waters 20–200 metres deep, with
Solegnathusmost records from depths more than 50 metres. Research in eastern Australia has shown that pipehorses
may be more abundant in proximity to reefs in areas having some three-dimensional structure (sessile biota), such as sponges and gorgonian corals (Zeller et al. 2003). Similar habitat preferences might be expected in north-west Australia. The EPBC Act controls international trade in all wild capture and aquarium-raised Australian syngnathid and
Hippocampus solenostomid species. Within the Syngnathidaefamily, the entire genus (seahorses) are listed on
Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (CITES 2008; Scales 2010). This group of bony fish is internationally traded in dried form for traditional medicine and ornaments as well as alive for aquarium display (Bruckner et al. 2005; Martin-Smith & Vincent 2006; Scales 2010). As a signatory to this convention, Australia is obliged to manage international trade to enable the conservation of wild populations. Licences are granted under CITES for trade in these species.
Biologically important areas
Biologically important areas identify areas where aggregations of individuals of a species display biologically important behaviours. Based on available information, biologically important areas have been identified where possible for listed threatened and marine species where the region is considered to support a significant proportion of the population or an important life history stage. Biologically important areas have not yet been identified for seahorse or pipefish species in the North-west Marine Region.
2. Vulnerabilities and pressures
Syngnathid populations may be particularly susceptible to pressures because their biology is characterised by relatively low population densities; lengthy parental care combined with small brood size limiting their reproductive rate; strict monogamy, which means that social structure is easily disrupted; sparse distribution, which means that lost partners are not quickly replaced; typically low rates of adult mortality, which means that fishing exerts a relatively substantial selective pressure; strong association with preferred habitat, which can make populations vulnerable to site-specific impacts; and low mobility and small home ranges, which restrict recolonisation of depleted areas (Foster & Vincent 2004; Vincent 1996). Most species are more localised than previously thought, and preserving habitats is one of the most important factors in protecting seahorses (Kuiter 2001; Shokri et al. 2009).
Syngnathids tend to use only certain parts of apparently suitable habitat. For example, they have been recorded occupying the edges of seagrass beds or macroalgae-dominated reefs and leaving large areas unoccupied (Scales 2010; Vincent 1996). Most species associate strongly with site, presumably with localised reproduction, although some solenostomids, such as the blue-finned ghost pipefish, may have a prolonged larval stage that may permit longer range dispersal (Kuiter 2009).
In shallower waters, pipefish and seahorses are a dominant group of fish and are important predators of benthic organisms such as mysids in the zooplankton and small amphipods. (CITES 2001; Gronell 1983; Kendrick & Hyndes 2005; Martin-Smith 2008). A few species also eat shrimps and vertebrates such as larval fish. It is thought that the species eat enough to affect the structure of benthic invertebrate communities (Lourie et al. 1999). As such, removing these species could well disrupt ecosystems (Vincent 1996).
Assessment of pressures
Pressures have been assessed for the 22 species of syngnathid and 1 species of solenostomid found in the North-west Marine Region as a species group, based on their life history characteristics and presence in the region. A summary of
of concernof potential concernthis analysis is provided in Table 1. Only those pressures identified as or are discussed in
further detail. For more information on the regional pressure analysis refer to Schedule 1 of the draft North-west Marine Bioregional Plan.
Table 1: Assessment of the level of concern associated with the effects of pressures on selected seahorse and
pipefish species of the North-west Marine Region
Sea level rise Climate change
Changes in sea temperature Climate change
Ocean acidification Climate change
Chemical pollution/contaminants Shipping
Marine debris Shipping, vessels, (other)
Physical habitat modification Dredging, dredge spoil
Offshore construction and mining operations
Extraction of living resources Commercial fishing (domestic)
Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing
Bycatch Commercial fishing (domestic)
Oil pollution Shipping
Invasive species Shipping
Tourism land-based activities
data deficient/ of concernof potential concernof less concernnot of concern Legend not assessed
Chemical pollution/contaminants—shipping; other vessels; urban development; mining operations
of potential concernChemical pollution and contaminants are for the seahorse and pipefish species assessed. Chemical
pollution has the potential to adversely impact syngnathids primarily through habitat loss or damage. The highly specialised characteristics of syngnathid biology, including a restricted diet, specific habitat requirements, low mobility and low reproductive output with obligate male brooding, render them more susceptible to threats that involve loss or degradation of habitat (Kuiter 2009; Martin-Smith & Vincent 2006; Pogonoski et al. 2002). In addition, the species’
tendency to have specific habitat preferences within small home range sizes reduces their ability to find and adapt to new habitats, thereby making them vulnerable to habitat loss or damage (McClatchie et al. 2006).
The North-west Marine Region and adjacent coastal areas support a number of industries including petroleum exploration and production, minerals extraction, ports, shipping, commercial and recreational fishing, pearling and aquaculture, marine tourism, salt production, agriculture and defence-related activities (Clifton et al. 2007; Jonasson 2008). These industries are all potential sources of chemical pollution and contamination. Some of the industries, particularly mining and petroleum exploration and development, have grown rapidly over the past few decades, as has the infrastructure necessary to support them (Jonasson 2008).
The population of Western Australia showed an overall increase of 5.3 per cent in the period 2001–2006, with a 13.5 per
cent jump in the Pilbara, which includes regional centres such as Karratha and Port Hedland (Clifton et al. 2007). The areas adjacent to the North-west Marine Region also have an increasing population of temporary residents largely associated with mining and petroleum activity (Clifton et al. 2007). The expansion of the north-west’s economy is
reflected in the increased number of vessel visits to the region’s ports and the intensification of shipping activity (IRC
2007). There are 12 ports adjacent to the North-west Marine Region, and a number of new ports (including Ronsard Island, Port Hedland expansion, Dixon Island and Cape Preston) are being considered by the Western Australian Government to meet the increasing global demand for iron ore and other commodities (DEWHA 2008; DPI 2007; IRC 2007). An increase in shipping and port expansion associated with the growth of the resources sector in the north-west has potential implications for the marine environment including loss or contamination of marine habitat as a result of dredging and sea dumping, oil spills, and interactions between vessels and protected species (DEWHA 2008; IRC 2007). Physical habitat modification—dredging; fishing gear (active and derelict); offshore construction and
of potential concernPhysical habitat modification is for the seahorse and pipefish species assessed. Seahorses
HippocampusSolegnathus( species) and pipehorses ( species) are among the site-associated fish genera that have life
histories that render them vulnerable to habitat damage (Martin-Smith & Vincent 2006; Pogonoski et al. 2002). Species associated with soft bottom substrates are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation (Martin-Smith & Vincent 2006; Pogonoski et al. 2002; Vincent et al 2005). Endemic species with a limited geographic range that occur in the vicinity of urbanised and industrial areas, such as Port Hedland, or in areas where nearshore waters are subject to pollutant run-off, may also be particularly susceptible to the impacts of habitat degradation (DEWHA 2008). Expanding offshore oil and gas exploration and production and associated increases in shipping and port development have the potential to cause habitat modification through activities such as dredging, installation of infrastructure and sea dumping. The use of some fishing gear is a source of habitat degradation. Five commercial fisheries in the region use trawling methods, which can physically impact on benthic communities (Fletcher & Santoro 2007; Heupel & McAuley 2007; Larcombe & McLoughlin 2007; Newton et al. 2007).