It’s true. Seahorses not only survive, but thrive in New York Harbor and surrounding waters including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay. Throughout the last several years, I’ve caught many adult seahorses in my seine net while fishing along the harbor’s southern shore. There is also a decent population of seahorses that exist in other parts of the estuary including near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Seahorses living close by the Brooklyn Bridge might strike you as an urban oxymoron, but actually it makes sense. These unique fish are poor and slow moving swimmers. A single seahorse will rely on its long tail to grip onto sea grasses, pilings, or other firm objects to stay in one place. Plenty of pilings and sea grasses exist underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Good seahorse habitat.
Occasionally a storm or a strong current might displace a few little seahorses downstream to other parts of the estuary. Once these little critters find something hard to attach, they will continue feeding on plankton. With a small, toothless mouth, a seahorse will quickly suck in water and hopefully prey into its long, tubular snout. It feeds on a variety of small shrimp and various zooplankton.
Right here in New York Harbor swims the Northern Lined Seahorse or Northern Seahorse, the only native seahorse in local waters. It’s a celebrated creature with a tiny head that looks like a horse and only about 5 to 6 inches long. Male and female pairs practice monogamy, one of the few aquatic species in the bay to do so. Males will care for developing offspring in his pouch for two to three weeks.
While decent population data does not exist on just how many Northern Lined Seahorses exist in New York Harbor, it’s a good bet the population is viable, at least for now.
While the average lifespan of a Northern Lined Seahorse is only about four years, it’s not an easy life in New York Harbor. Habitat loss and pollution, including trash and chemical spills, do great damage to their home and to finding an abundance of food. Seahorses are also a targeted fish around the world, including New York Harbor, for ornamental display, aquarium fishes, and traditional Asian medicine. Over 20 million dried seahorses and 1 million live ones are traded yearly in Asian markets.
Moreover, seahorses are commonly taken as bycatch in commercial fishing nets. These actions are why the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List as “Vulnerable” the lined seahorse primarily due to indirect evidence that numbers are continuing to decline which has raised concern. As humans continue to ravage seahorses, the population declines.
Yet, the pint-size seahorse is not passive and has some things in its favor. One is their unpalatable ridged plates and spines. These make a body too boney and largely indigestible for hungry striped bass, bluefish, or larger fish. That is if a fast moving fish can even find a seahorse.
Seahorses have the ability to camouflage their body to hide from predators. Just like chameleons, geckos, and other extraordinary wild creatures, the lined seahorse can change color to mimic its surroundings. Individuals can be olive-brown, ash gray, black, and even bright orange, red, or yellow.
Many seahorses discovered in the bay, however, are usually dark in color, camouflaging best with the dim and dusky waters of the harbor. Seahorses blend in so well in fact that it’s often difficult for scientists to even find them.
It’s never easy finding one. This is probably a good thing. It’s what makes finding one so special. You really have to be at the right place at the right time. Almost like finding a small needle in a great big bay. Seahorses don’t make it easy. They’re a seasonal creature in New York Harbor, often migrating to the ocean in the winter.
Due to their boney body and ability to camouflage, seahorses are generally believed to have few natural predators. Yet, if the Northern Lined Seahorse are to continue surviving in New York Harbor, it will take the work of many people to continue cleaning up local waterways and improving and restoring habitat, especially healthy sea grass bed habitat. Please help by making sure waters are clean and trash is properly discarded or recycled. Do not collect seashores as pets or for medicine. If you find a live seahorse, take a picture and please return it quickly to the water. Keep wild animals wild.