If you swim in the Gulf of Mexico and can make your way out to the seagrass beds, you might catch a glimpse of a dwarf seahorse.
If so, consider yourself lucky. The inch-long seahorse -- the smallest in the U.S. -- is no mythical creature but is exceedingly rare. In recent years, they've been driven to the brink of extinction by pollution, collection and, most recently, the BP oil spill.
In response to these threats, the National Marine Fisheries Service just announced that the dwarf seahorses may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency will spend the next year determining whether the seahorses, which live in the Gulf and the Caribbean, will get protection. In the meantime, there are five important lessons to be learned from the plight of these strange and endearing creatures.
1. Offshore drilling is still dangerous. Yep, even though oil companies have assured us for years that it's safe, offshore drilling can go disastrously wrong. BP's busted Macondo well spewed uncontrolled for months in the spring and summer of 2010, dumping more than 200 million gallons of toxic oil in to the Gulf of Mexico. Two years later, some minor changes have been made in how drilling is regulated, but many of the fundamental dangers of offshore drilling remain unaddressed. And now drillers have set their sights on the Arctic, where cleanup of an oil spill would be nearly impossible. We saw what happened to birds and turtles in the Gulf of Mexico; think what would happen to the polar bears and walruses of the Great White North.
2. Spills kill more than you think. Some of the most disturbing photos in the aftermath of the oil spill were of dead pelicans, dolphins and sea turtles. As troubling as those are, the spill had profound -- if more difficult to see -- impacts on smaller animals in the Gulf, many of which are building blocks of their natural ecosystems. The plankton, plants and small fish were among the hardest hit and their harm will reverberate up the food chain. The dwarf seahorse was severely impacted. Both the oil and the chemical dispersants used in the aftermath are toxic to seahorses and their seagrass habitat -- and it may be years before we fully understand the damage.
3. Places Matter. Protecting rare and disappearing species means protecting the wild places where they live. In the case of the slow-swimming dwarf seahorse, the vast mats of seagrass are a perpetual home. It's where they live, feed and breed. No seagrass, no dwarf seahorses. In fact, one acre of seagrass can support tens of thousands of fish and millions of tiny invertebrates. For that reason, seagrasses have long been considered a significant "indicator" species that reflects the broader health of coastal areas. By protecting the dwarf seahorse, we'll also be protecting the homes for scores of other creatures they share the seagrass with.
4. Be nimble, take swift action when necessary. Although seahorses were already struggling before the BP disaster in April 2010, the oil spill accelerated their path toward extinction. That's why it's important that the National Marine Fisheries Service moves quickly to protect them. We can't be complacent in the face of new facts. And, in the case of species already on the brink of extinction, it's incumbent upon those with the power to protect them before their decline becomes irreversible. When Congress wrote the Endangered Species Act, it wisely included provisions allowing the government to take swift action when needed. Think of the Act as the emergency room for wildlife in trouble -- and the struggling dwarf seahorse certainly fits the bill.
5. Embrace nature's weirdness. Seriously. Some may ask why save this tiny seahorse at all? We don't eat it, it's not worth much money, so what's the point? If we let the dwarf seahorse slip away, we'd lose yet another of nature's fascinating citizens. The males are the ones who get pregnant, and couples, once formed, are completely monogamous and known for their peculiar greeting ritual conducted each morning. But beyond just being interesting, the dwarf seahorse is part of a suite of life that nourishes biodiversity, where each piece is part of a larger, more complex whole that ultimately enables life on Earth. Giving up on species like the dwarf seahorse -- with all its glorious weirdness -- wouldn't bode well on the future we're building for ourselves.