Center for Biological Diversity Files Petition To List the Dwarf Seahorse as Threatened or Endangered

Identification of protected habitat (grass beds) can cause restrictive regulations on their access 

NMFS, announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list the dwarf seahorse as threatened or endangered and designate critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

We find that the petition and information in our files present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted. We will conduct a status review of the species to determine if the petitioned action is warranted. To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial information regarding this species.

DATES: Information and comments on the subject action must be received by July 3, 2012.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments, identified by the code NOAA-NMFS-2012-0101, addressed to: Calusa Horn, Natural Resource Specialist, by any of the following methods:

     Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic comments via 

the Federal eRulemaking Portal http://www.regulations.gov

     Facsimile (fax): 727-824-5309.

     Mail: NMFS, Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue 

South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

     Hand delivery: You may hand deliver written comments to 

our office during normal business hours at the street address given 

above.

    Instructions: All comments received are a part of the public record and may be posted to http://www.regulations.gov without change. All personally identifiable information (for example, name, address, etc.) voluntarily submitted by the commenter may be publicly accessible. Do not submit confidential business information or otherwise sensitive or protected information. We will accept anonymous comments. Attachments to electronic comments will be accepted in Microsoft Word, Excel, Corel WordPerfect, or Adobe PDF file formats only.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Calusa Horn, NMFS, Southeast Region, 

(727) 824-5312; or Dwayne Meadows, NMFS, Office of Protected Resources, (301) 427-8403.

Background

On April 7, 2010, NMFS received a petition from the Center for 

Biological Diversity to list the dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) 

as threatened or endangered under the ESA. The petitioner also 

requested that critical habitat be designated. The petition states that 

the species is declining and threatened with extinction due to loss or 

curtailment of seagrass habitat and range, overutilization resulting 

from commercial seahorse collection, inadequacy of existing regulatory 

mechanisms, vulnerable life-history parameters, noise, bycatch 

mortality, illegal fishing, invasive species, and tropical storms and 

hurricanes. Copies of this petition are available from us (see 

ADDRESSES, above) or at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/ListingPetitions.htm.

ESA Statutory and Regulatory Provisions and Evaluation Framework

    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the ESA of 1973, as amended (U.S.C. 1531 et 

seq.), requires, to the maximum extent practicable, that within 90 days 

of receipt of a petition to list a species as threatened or endangered, 

the Secretary of Commerce make a finding on whether that petition 

presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating 

that the petitioned action may be warranted, and to promptly publish 

such finding in the Federal Register (16 U.S.C. 1533(b)(3)(A)). When 

substantial scientific or commercial information in a petition 

indicates the petitioned action may be warranted (a ``positive 90-day 

finding''), we are required to promptly commence a review of the status 

of the species concerned during which we will conduct a comprehensive 

review of the best available scientific and commercial information. In 

such cases, within 12 months of receipt of the petition, we shall 

conclude the review with a finding as to whether, in fact, the 

petitioned action is warranted. Because the finding at the 12-month 

stage is based on a more thorough review of the available information, 

as compared to the narrow scope of review at the 90-day stage, a ``may 

be warranted'' finding does not prejudge the outcome of the status 

review.

    Under the ESA, a listing determination may address a ``species,'' 

which is defined to also include subspecies and, for any vertebrate 

species, any distinct population segment (DPS) that interbreeds when 

mature (16 U.S.C. 1532(16)). A joint NMFS-U.S. Fish and Wildlife 

Service (USFWS) policy clarifies the agencies' interpretation of the 

phrase ``distinct population segment'' for the purposes of listing, 

delisting, and reclassifying a species under the ESA (61 FR 4722; 

February 7, 1996). A species, subspecies, or DPS is ``endangered'' if 

it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion 

of its range, and ``threatened'' if it is likely to become endangered 

within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion 

of its range (ESA sections 3(6) and 3(20), respectively, 16 U.S.C. 

1532(6) and (20)). Pursuant to the ESA and our implementing 

regulations, we determine whether species are threatened or endangered 

because of any one or a combination of the following five section 

4(a)(1) factors: (1) The present or threatened destruction, 

modification, or curtailment of habitat or range; (2) overutilization 

for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (3) 

disease or predation; (4) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; 

and (5) any other natural or manmade factors affecting the species' 

existence (16 U.S.C. 1533(a)(1), 50 CFR 424.11(c)).

    ESA-implementing regulations issued jointly by us and the USFWS (50 

CFR 424.14(b)) define ``substantial information'' in the context of 

reviewing a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species, as the 

amount of information that would lead a reasonable person to believe 

that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted. In 

evaluating whether substantial information is contained in a petition, 

the Secretary must consider whether the petition: (1) Clearly indicates 

the administrative measure recommended and gives the scientific and any 

common name of the species involved; (2) contains detailed narrative 

justification for the recommended measure, describing, based on 

available information, past and present numbers and distribution of the 

species involved and any threats faced by the species; (3) provides 

information regarding the status of the species over all or a 

significant portion of its range; and (4) is accompanied by the 

appropriate supporting documentation in the form of bibliographic 

references, reprints of pertinent publications, copies of reports or 

letters from authorities, and maps (50 CFR 424.14(b)(2)).

    Court decisions have clarified the appropriate scope and 

limitations of the Services' review of petitions at the 90-day finding 

stage, in making a determination that a petitioned action ``may be'' 

warranted. As a general matter, these decisions hold that a petition 

need not establish a ``strong likelihood'' or a ``high probability'' 

that a species is either threatened or endangered to support a positive 

90-day finding.

    We evaluate the petitioner's request based upon the information in 

the petition including its references and the information readily 

available in our files. We do not conduct additional research, and we 

do not solicit information from parties outside the agency to help us 

in evaluating the petition. We will accept the petitioner's sources and 

characterizations of the information presented, if they appear to be 

based on accepted scientific principles, unless we have specific 

information in our files that indicates the petition's information is 

incorrect, unreliable, obsolete, or otherwise irrelevant to the 

requested action. Information that is susceptible to more than one 

interpretation or that is contradicted by other available information 

will not be dismissed at the 90-day finding stage, so long as it is 

reliable and a reasonable person would conclude it supports the 

petitioner's assertions. In other words, conclusive information 

indicating the species may meet the ESA's requirements for listing is 

not required to make a positive 90-day finding. We will not conclude 

that a lack of specific information alone negates a positive 90-day 

finding, if a reasonable person would conclude that the unknown 

information itself suggests an extinction risk of concern for the 

species at issue.

    To make a 90-day finding on a petition to list a species, we 

evaluate whether the petition presents substantial scientific or 

commercial information indicating the subject species may be either 

threatened or endangered, as defined by the ESA. First we evaluate 

whether the information presented in the petition, along with the 

information readily available in our files, indicates that the 

petitioned entity constitutes a ``species'' eligible for listing under the ESA.

Next, we evaluate whether the information indicates that the species at issue faces extinction risks that are cause for concern; this may be indicated in information expressly discussing the species' status and trends, or in information describing impacts and threats to the species. We evaluate any information on specific demographic factors pertinent to evaluating extinction risk for the species at issue (e.g., population abundance and trends, productivity, spatial structure, age structure, sex ratio, diversity, current and historical range, habitat integrity or fragmentation), and the potential contribution of identified demographic risks to extinction risk for the species. We then evaluate the potential links between these demographic risks and the causative impacts and threats identified in section 4(a)(1).

    Information presented on impacts or threats should be specific to 

the species and should reasonably suggest that one or more of these 

factors may be operative threats that act or have acted on the species 

to the point that it may warrant protection under the ESA. Broad 

statements about generalized threats to the species, or identification 

of factors that could negatively impact a species, do not constitute 

substantial information that listing may be warranted. We look for 

information indicating that not only is the particular species exposed 

to a factor, but that the species may be responding in a negative 

fashion; then we assess the potential significance of that negative 

response. Many petitions identify risk classifications made by other 

organizations or agencies, as evidence of extinction risk for a 

species. Risk classifications of the petitioned species by other 

organizations or made under other Federal or state statutes may be 

informative, but the classification alone may not provide the rationale 

for a positive 90-day finding under the ESA. Thus, when a petition 

cites such classifications, we will evaluate the source information 

that the classification is based upon, in light of the standards on 

extinction risk and impacts or threats discussed above.

Species Description

Hippocampus zosterae is commonly known as the dwarf or pygmy 

seahorse (hereafter dwarf seahorse). The dwarf seahorse is one of the 

smallest species of seahorses, with adult height ranging from 2 to 2.5 

centimeters (Lourie et al., 2004). In general, seahorses have heads 

positioned at right angles to their bodies, curved trunks, and a 

prehensile, finless tail. The dwarf seahorse varies in coloration; 

individuals can be beige, yellow, green, or black, and some individuals 

have white marking or dark spots. Seahorses can change coloring and 

grow skin filaments over time to blend in with their surroundings. 

Short-term color changes may also occur during courtship and other 

intra-species interactions. Seahorse skin is stretched over a series of 

bony plates that form rings around the trunk and tail. The dwarf 

seahorse has 9 to 10 trunk rings, 31 to 32 tail rings, and 12 pectoral 

fin rays (Lourie et al., 2004). Seahorses in general are ambush 

predators, consuming primarily live, mobile prey, such as small 

amphipods and other invertebrates (Bruckner et al., 2005).

    Dwarf seahorse males and females are sexually dimorphic; males have 

a relatively longer tail and a shorter snout (Foster and Vincent, 

2004). Male and female dwarf seahorses form monogamous pair bonds and 

remain together and mate repeatedly over the course of a single 

breeding cycle (Masonjones and Lewis, 1996; 2000). The breeding season 

for the dwarf seahorse occurs February through November and appears to 

be influenced by environmental parameters such as day length and water 

temperature (Foster and Vincent, 2004). During copulation the female 

deposits her egg clutch into the male's brood pouch where it is 

fertilized (Foster and Vincent, 2004). The gestation period within the 

male's brood pouch is approximately 10 to 13 days, and males can carry 

two broods a month. Most male seahorse species can produce 100 to 300 

young per pregnancy cycle. However, smaller seahorse species, such as 

the dwarf seahorse, release 3 to 16 offspring per cycle (Masonjones and 

Lewis, 1996). Juvenile dwarf seahorses are independent at birth, 

receiving no further parental care. Juveniles reach maturity in 3 

months (Foster and Vincent, 2004). The dwarf seahorse generally lives 1 

to 2 years, though living longer than a year is considered rare (Alford 

and Grist, 2005).

    The dwarf seahorse's distribution ranges across the sub-tropical 

northwest Atlantic and has well-defined habitat preferences. Bruckner 

et al. (2005) describe the species' distribution as patchy and its 

abundance as generally low. This species occurs in insular locations, 

including Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Cuba; along Atlantic continental 

shorelines from northeast Florida through the Florida Keys; and, in the 

Gulf of Mexico south to the Gulf of Campeche (Bruckner et al., 2005). 

The dwarf seahorse's habitat is restricted almost completely to 

seagrass canopies (Bruckner et al., 2005). Seahorses are characterized 

as feeble swimmers with low mobility that may disperse by clinging to 

drift macroalgae or debris (Foster and Vincent, 2004; Masonjones et 

al., 2010). The dwarf seahorse exhibits preferences for areas with 

dense and high seagrass canopies, in shallow waters less than two 

meters, and higher salinities (~30 ppm) (Alford and Grist, 2005; 

Bruckner et al., 2005; Vincent, 2004). Sogard et al. (1987) found total 

seagrass shoot density is positively correlated with density of H. 

zosterae. Seahorse populations were significantly correlated with water 

flow, with individuals being more likely to be located in low-flow 

areas, such as protected bays and lagoons, rather than high-flow areas, 

such as bridge cuts (Bruckner et al., 2005). The species is described 

as occurring predominantly in Florida's estuaries, but is said to be 

``more abundant'' in south Florida and the Florida Keys. According to 

Bruckner et al. (2005), the dwarf seahorse does not appear to be common 

in many areas in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Florida.

Analysis of the Petition

    We evaluated whether the petition presented the information 

indicated in 50 CFR 424.14(b)(2). The petition states the 

administrative measures recommended, and provides the scientific and 

common name of the species. The dwarf seahorse is taxonomically 

classified as a species and thus is an eligible entity for listing 

under the ESA. The petition includes a detailed narrative justification 

for the recommended measure, including some information on numbers of 

the species, historical geographic occurrences of the species, and 

threats faced by the species (see summary below). The petition provides 

some information relevant to the status of the species. The petition 

includes supporting references and documentation. Therefore, we 

conclude the petition meets the requirements of 50 CFR 424.14(b)(2). A 

detailed description of their narrative justification follows.

    According to the petitioner, at least four of the five causal 

factors in section 4(a)(1) of the ESA are adversely affecting the 

continued existence of the dwarf seahorse, specifically: (A) Present or 

threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or 

range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 

educational purposes; (D) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; 

and (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued 

existence. In the following sections, we use the information presented 

in the petition and in our files to determine whether the petitioned 

action may be warranted.

Information on Extinction Risk and Species Status

Information on extinction risk and species status in the petition 

includes references cited in support of the conclusion that the dwarf 

seahorse has declined or is declining, several risk classifications by 

governmental and non-governmental organizations, and discussion of life 

history and demographic characteristics that make the species 

intrinsically vulnerable to decline, particularly in conjunction with 

threats and impacts such as habitat loss.

    The petitioner characterizes H. zosterae as numerically low in 

abundance where it occurs, and describes numerous studies as indicating 

the species' population trend is declining. In addition, the petitioner 

states that a declining population trend can be inferred from loss of 

seagrass habitats, because the species is a habitat generalist. The 

petitioner cites various surveys and studies that indicate that dwarf 

seahorse populations have declined in many estuarine and bay systems 

throughout the species range. Several citations characterize the dwarf 

seahorse as common, abundant, or a dominant species. However, the 

petitioner believes that these characterizations are not supported, 

because the number of dwarf seahorses collected was a numerically low 

component of the studies and surveys. The information provided in some 

of the studies is limited and it is difficult to determine whether the 

sampling methodology was appropriate for dwarf seahorse collection. For 

example, studies that sampled a variety of habitat types (i.e., 

seagrass, mud or sand banks, and deeper bays or channels, etc.) using a 

methodology that may not be conducive for seahorse collection (e.g., 

larger mesh sizes), would likely collect few dwarf seahorses. 

Therefore, the study results may not necessarily represent low 

abundance or a declining population trend, but could be due to use of a 

sampling method that is not conducive for surveying the species. 

However, the petitioner also cites several studies that indicate that 

the species is not very common or abundant throughout most of its range 

(i.e., Gulf of Mexico, west of Florida). Several citations have also 

documented dwarf seahorse declines in many surveyed seagrass systems in 

Florida. Declining populations of the dwarf seahorse have been observed 

to occur in conjunction with seagrass loss.

    The petitioner cites various status classifications made by the 

American Fisheries Society (AFS), International Union for Conservation 

of Nature (IUCN), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 

(FFWCC), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 

and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation to support its claim 

that the dwarf seahorse should be listed as threatened or endangered 

under the ESA. As discussed above, we do not give any particular weight 

to classifications established by other scientific and conservation 

organizations, which may or may not be based on criteria that directly 

correspond to the listing standards of the ESA. However, we have 

reviewed and evaluated the underlying information used to develop the 

various classifications given to the dwarf seahorse by entities listed 

in the petition.

    The AFS designated the dwarf seahorse as ``vulnerable'' in 2000. 

According to AFS, this classification is given to species that are 

``(special concern) not endangered or threatened severely but at 

possible risk of falling into one of these categories in the near 

future.'' AFS gave the dwarf seahorse this categorization based on (1) 

rarity, (2) habitat degradation, and (3) restricted habitat. AFS 

provided several citations to supporting these characterizations, but 

only one of them was available to us or provided by the petitioner. The 

available citation, Fourqurean and Robblee (1999), analyzed ecological 

changes (i.e., seagrass die-off, algal blooms, and increased turbidity) 

in the Florida Bay estuary. The study examined the ecological changes 

that transpired as a result of a large seagrass die-off that occurred 

in Florida Bay during the late 1980s. The study noted that fish and 

invertebrates inextricably associated with seagrass habitat 

dramatically declined following the referenced seagrass die-off, 

lending support to the AFS classification.

    The petition cites the IUCN's classification of the dwarf seahorse 

as ``Data Deficient,'' which the IUCN assigns to a species ``when there 

is inadequate information to make a direct, or indirect, assessment of 

its risk of extinction based on its distribution and/or population 

status.'' The IUCN database entry for dwarf seahorse does not contain 

any information directly assessing the species' population trends or 

its extinction risk. However, the entry does include referenced 

conclusions in support of the petition's conclusion that the species' 

status may be inferable from losses of and threats to its seagrass 

habitats, at least in the United States (``This species may be 

particularly susceptible to decline. The information on habitat 

suggests they inhabit shallow seagrass beds (Lourie et al., 1999) that 

are susceptible to human degradation, as well as making them 

susceptible to being caught as bycatch * * * The American Fisheries 

Society (AFS) lists the United States populations of H. zosterae as 

Threatened due to habitat degradation (Musick et al., 2000). While this 

status may apply on a national level, we did not find information that 

would justify such a listing for the species as a whole.'').

    The FFWCC lists the dwarf seahorse as a Species of Greatest 

Conservation Need (SGCN) in the state of Florida's Wildlife Action Plan 

(FFWCC, 2005). SGCN's are defined as ``animals that are at risk or are 

declining.'' The Action Plan categorizes the dwarf seahorse's 

population status as low and population trend as stable. We cannot 

evaluate any underlying information used to categorize the dwarf 

seahorse as a SGCN because the information provided in Florida's 

Wildlife Action Plan does not include species-specific information, 

although the plan does also describe the status of submerged aquatic 

vegetation in Florida, particularly seagrasses, as ``poor and 

declining,'' ranking numerous threats to these habitats as ``very 

high'' or ``high.''

    TNC listed the dwarf seahorse as imperiled in their 

``Identification of Priority Sites for Conservation in the Northern 

Gulf of Mexico: An Ecoregional Plan'' (Beck et al., 2000). The 

objective of the Ecoregional Plan was to identify biologically diverse 

habitats within the northern Gulf of Mexico, defined as extending from 

Anclote Key, FL to the Laguna Madre de Tamaulipas, Mexico, and to 

establish high priority sites for conservation. The plan also 

identified individual species as ``conservation targets'' in addition 

to identification of priority habitat sites for conservation. 

``Conservation target'' species were included if: ``(i) They were 

imperiled and conservation of their habitats would be insufficient for 

their conservation or (ii) they were declining faster than their 

habitats.'' The plan identified the following species as conservation 

target species, notably including several species listed under the ESA 

as threatened or endangered: the dwarf seahorse, fringed pipefish, 

opossum pipefish, Texas pipefish, diamondback terrapin, Gulf sturgeon, 

Florida manatee, and the Kemp's ridley sea turtle. The plan was based 

in part on a Geographic Information Systems database developed from 

``all the readily available information on the distribution of these 

[conservation] targets.''

    In their 2009 report on Marine Ecoregions of North America, the 

Commission for Environmental Cooperation categorized the dwarf seahorse 

as a ``species at risk'' within the northern Gulf of Mexico (Wilkinson 

et al., 2009). However, because there is no description of how the ``at 

risk'' categorization was determined, we cannot further assess the 

Commission for Environmental Cooperation's ``species at risk'' 

categorization. The petitioner also states that the dwarf seahorse is 

recognized as a Species of Concern by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 

but provides no citation or information on this designation; we were 

unable to evaluate the referenced categorization made by the 

petitioner.

    The petitioner describes life history characteristics generally 

applicable to the genus Hippocampus that could be indicative of its 

extinction risk, for which the petition provides supporting information 

(Baum et al., 2003; Foster and Vincent, 2004; Lourie et al., 2004; 

Masonjones et al., 2010). We believe that the dwarf seahorse's life 

history characteristics in and of themselves are likely well-adapted 

for the species' ecological niche. However, the petition presents 

information on other threats (i.e., habitat loss and overutilization) 

that may interact with these life history characteristics to increase 

extinction risk. The dwarf seahorse's narrow habitat preference and low 

mobility could increase the species' ecological vulnerability. 

Similarly, patchy spatial distributions in combination with low 

population density make a species susceptible to habitat loss or 

change. The petition and references also suggest that other life 

history characteristics, such as low fecundity, complex reproductive 

behavior, and monogamous mating systems may also increase the species' 

vulnerability. Seahorse species have complex reproductive behavior and 

appear to be monogamous at least within a single breeding cycle; if 

courting or pair bonds are disrupted due to removal or disturbance 

during courtship or mating it may diminish the productivity within a 

single breeding cycle. Low fecundity could reduce the ability for 

population recovery from overexploitation of particular areas. The low 

mobility and patchy distribution of dwarf seahorse suggest that the 

species may be slow to recolonize depleted areas. This is particularly 

true given that the dwarf seahorse is restricted to seagrasses (Alford 

and Grist 2005; Lourie et al., 2004), which in some areas have declined 

substantially over the course of several decades (Waycott et al., 

2009). The importance of life history characteristics in determining 

responses to exploitation has been demonstrated for a number of species 

(Jennings et al., 1998).

    In summary, the information presented indicates that the dwarf 

seahorse has a patchy distribution and is not very abundant or common 

in many areas throughout its range. Declines in the dwarf seahorse 

population have been documented in a number of Florida's estuaries and 

bays. It is evident that the dwarf seahorse is inextricably associated 

with seagrass and the inferences made about the species' declining 

status due to habitat loss are supported.

    The petition also includes risk classifications for the dwarf 

seahorse made by other organizations; however these do not include a 

specific analysis of extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse. While the 

species is present on these lists, they provide no analysis of 

population size and trends or other information directly addressing 

whether the species faces extinction risk that is cause for concern. 

However, in some of these classifications the dwarf seahorse's status 

is linked to the degraded or threatened status of seagrass habitats, 

which supports a similar contention made by the petition. The 

petitioner presents substantial scientific or commercial information 

indicating that the species' life history and demographic 

characteristics make it vulnerable to decline and potential extinction 

risk, particularly in conjunction with threats to the species including 

loss of its habitat.

Information on Impacts and Threats to the Species

The petitioner states that impacts and threats corresponding with 

four factors in section 4(a)(1) of the ESA are impacting the dwarf 

seahorse. Specifically, the petitioner states that the following 

factors are affecting the dwarf seahorses continued existence: (A) 

Present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its 

habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, 

scientific, or educational purposes; (D) inadequacy of existing 

regulatory mechanisms; and (E) other natural or manmade factors.

The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of Its Habitat or Range

Information from the petition and in our files suggests that the 

primary threat to the dwarf seahorse is from habitat decline. The 

petitioner states that the dwarf seahorse is threatened by the loss and 

degradation of seagrass habitat, which increases the species' 

vulnerability. The petitioner references considerable seagrass loss 

throughout the species range and especially in the northern Gulf of 

Mexico which has occurred over the course of several decades, and 

provides summaries of indirect and direct anthropogenic factors that 

continue to impact seagrasses (oil and gas development, loss and 

degradation of mangrove habitat, declining water quality, development 

and human population growth, damage from vessels, trawling and global 

climate change). Seagrass declines cited within the petition range from 

6-90 percent (Waycott et al., 2009), depending on the timeframe, 

geographic area, and system (i.e., estuary, coastal water, or bay).

    In Texas, the petition cites a 90 percent decline in ``vascular 

vegetation'' which occurred within the Galveston Bay system on the 

upper Texas coast from 1956 to 1990 (Pulich and White, 1990). Waycott 

et al. (2009) also documented a 90 percent decline in seagrass acreage 

within the Galveston Bay system from 1956 to 1998. Hadley et al. (2007) 

reported that nearly all seagrass beds ``disappeared from the main 

parts of Galveston Bay in the 1970's'' and attributed the decline to a 

variety of anthropogenic impacts, as well as natural events. The 

petitioner notes that eutrophication and harmful algal blooms have 

caused seagrass declines in Corpus Christi, Laguna Madre, and Baffin 

Bay (An and Gardner, 2000; Breier et al., 2004). Several factors, both 

natural (i.e., droughts, hurricanes, fresh water flows, etc.) and 

human-induced (i.e., nutrient loading or water quality, sedimentation 

caused by dredging, prop scarring caused by vessel traffic, and direct 

physical disturbance), are believed to be affecting the health, 

abundance, distribution, and density of seagrasses in Texas (Handley et 

al., 2007; Pulich and White, 1997).

    The petition provides evidence that Alabama and Mississippi have 

also experienced extensive seagrass loss. Alabama documented an 82 

percent decline in seagrass coverage within Mobile Bay between 1981 and 

2003. Perdido Bay lost approximately 75 percent of its seagrass 

coverage from 1940 to 2003. Similarly, Mississippi Sound experienced a 

50 percent decline in seagrass coverage from 1992 to 2003 (Waycott et 

al., 2009).

    For Florida, the petitioner references a USFWS Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment for Pine Island, Matlacha Pass, Island Bay, and Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuges, which states that Florida has lost more than 50 percent of its seagrass habitat since the 1950s (USFWS, 2010). The petition also cites the Florida State Wildlife Action Plan's status rank for Florida's submerged aquatic vegetation of ``poor and declining,'' and the Plan's identification of numerous stresses to seagrass ranked as ``very high'' or ``high'' (e.g., altered water quality, habitat destruction, altered species composition, and sedimentation) (FFWCC, 2005). The petition references seagrass loss in northwestern Florida (e.g., Pensacola Bay, Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrew Bay, and the Big Bend region) (USGS, 2004; Waycott et al., 2009). Florida's Big Bend region lost approximately 667,184 acres of seagrass between 1984 and 1992 (USGS, 2004). The petition references several studies that report seagrass loss in southwestern Florida's estuary and bay systems, including Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay, Greater Charlotte Harbor, Naples Bay, Faka Union Bay, Fakahatchee Bay, and Florida Bay. The petition states that Tampa Bay lost approximately 60 percent of seagrass coverage between 1879 and 2006 (Waycott et al., 2009), that seagrass in Sarasota Bay decreased from 12,073 acres in 1950 to approximately 9,063 acres in 2001 (Waycott et al., 2009), and that seagrass in Naples Bay decreased by 90 percent since the 1950s (FDEP, 2010). The 2010 Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) Environmental Assessment for Southwest Coastal Estuaries refers to an ``ecosystem analysis'' conducted by Carter et al. (1973) which documented that Fakahatchee Bay contained 57 percent seagrass coverage and Union Bay contained 23.1 percent seagrass coverage in the early 1970s. Carter et al. (1973) also documented three species of seagrasses in these areas (Halophila decipiens, H. wrightii, and Thalassia testudinum), however the FDEP assessment cites an unpublished 2005 study by Locker that suggests that since the 1970s seagrass species composition in Fakahatchee Bay has been reduced to a single species (H. decipiens) and that Faka Union Bay has lost all seagrass cover.

    The petitioner identifies oil and gas refining and the byproducts 

from such activities as a specific source of ongoing impacts to 

seagrass habitats. The petition references the DWH oil spill, stating 

that ``a significant portion of H. zosterae's range is threatened by 

pollution from the spill, which covered vast areas in the Gulf.'' The 

petitioner states that oil pollution and the use of dispersants has 

resulted in the direct mortality of the dwarf seahorse, the destruction 

and degradation of their seagrass habitat, and contamination and 

reduction of their invertebrate prey. The petition references a Project 

Seahorse news release (2010) where scientists at the organization 

caution that the dwarf seahorse could face extinction as a result of 

the DWH oil spill, citing impacts such as direct mortality due to high 

toxin levels, contamination of habitat, as well as contamination of the 

species food sources. The petition cites peer-reviewed scientific 

literature which supports the claim that oil pollution and the use of 

dispersants can adversely affect seagrasses and fishes at all life 

stages. Information was provided on the quantities of oil and methane 

released into the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the amount of coastal 

shoreline damaged by the DWH oil spill. The petitioner also discusses 

the long-term pollution that the oil industry causes to coastal 

environments in general.

    The petitioner also presents arguments that the destruction of 

Florida's mangrove habitats may be adversely affecting the dwarf 

seahorse ``to the extent that seagrass beds are negatively affected by 

the loss of mangroves, or that mangroves provide direct habitat value 

for the seagrasses,'' because ``in some areas seagrass beds occur in 

close association with mangroves, with mangroves protecting seagrass 

beds by trapping sediments and stabilizing shorelines (Hoff et al., 

2010; Pauly and Ingles, 1999).'' However, the petition does not provide 

information to characterize the extent of the association between 

mangroves and seagrasses, and the petition is limited to generalized 

statements of potential sources of threats to seagrasses from impacts 

to mangroves. We acknowledge that mangroves in Florida have been 

destroyed or degraded in large amounts over the course of decades, and 

face many of the same ongoing threats of loss and degradation as do 

seagrasses, discussed elsewhere in this finding.

    The petition lists several other factors it identifies as 

contributing to seagrass loss including declining water quality, 

development and human population growth, damage from vessels, trawling, 

and global climate change. As discussed above, extensive seagrass loss 

has occurred throughout the Northern Gulf of Mexico over the last 

several decades. The causes for these losses are many, but include 

climate and water-level variations, physical removal, smothering with 

sedimentation, light reduction resulting from turbidity or 

phytoplankton, and increased nutrient loading (Handley et al., 2011). 

Seagrasses are highly dependent on water quality and clarity for their 

survival, and reduced water quality due to nutrient loading, algal 

blooms, and contamination resulting from non-point source pollution, 

such as storm water run-off, has been identified as a threat/stressor 

to seagrass. The petition cites development and human population growth 

as a factor which increases the dwarf seahorse's risk of extinction. 

The petition cites Lellis-Dibble et al. (2008) as support for its 

statement that human population growth affects coastal resources, 

stating that ``53 percent of the current U.S. population lives in 

coastal counties, creating tremendous stress on coastal resources.'' 

The petition references various activities that are often associated 

with coastal development (i.e., dredging and channelization, vessel 

prop scarring, increased water pollution, altered hydrologic and 

salinity regimes), which are all also recognized to cause stress and/or 

degradation to seagrass habitat. The potential consequences of threats 

to the dwarf seahorse habitat are discussed above.

    In summary, the petition and its references present substantial 

information that indicates the present or threatened destruction, 

modification, or curtailment of habitat or range may be causing or 

contributing to extinction risk that is cause for concern for the dwarf 

seahorse.

Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or Educational Purposes

The petitioner cites information that dwarf seahorse populations 

are declining and that their life history characteristics (sparse 

distribution, low population densities, low mobility, small home 

ranges, slow re-colonization potential, low rates of population 

increase, highly structured social and reproductive behavior) increase 

their vulnerability to overexploitation, and that the demand for 

seahorses in the aquarium, curio, and traditional Chinese medicine 

trades is increasing, further exasperating the species' exploited 

status.

    Dwarf seahorses are harvested commercially to be sold and traded 

live as aquarium fishes, and are also dried and sold at curio shops as 

souvenirs, or processed into key chains, jewelry, ornaments, 

paperweights, etc. There is also a high demand for seahorses in the 

traditional Chinese medicine trade where they are believed to cure 

several health disorders (Vincent, 1995). Smaller sized, bony 

seahorses, such as the dwarf seahorse, are less desirable for the 

purpose of traditional Chinese medicine (Lourie et al., 2004). However, 

Vincent (1995) stated that ``poor quality'' seahorses are increasingly

susceptible to overexploitation by the traditional Chinese medicine 

trade because the supplies of larger ``good quality'' seahorses are in 

decline. In 2004, concerns over the international trade of seahorses 

resulted in all seahorse species being protected under Appendix II of 

the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered and Threatened 

Species (CITES; for further discussion, see next section). A CITES 

technical memorandum on the international conservation and trade of 

seahorses (Bruckner et al., 2005) noted that the dwarf seahorse is one 

of 17 seahorse species observed or reported to be traded. Several 

publications have noted the popularity of the dwarf seahorse in the 

aquarium trade (Vincent, 1996; Woods, 2001). Woods (2001) found that 

the dwarf seahorse is the second most exported ornamental fish in 

Florida. Koldewey et al. (2010) conducted an international review of 

the seahorse aquaculture trade from 1997 to 2008 and found that 100 

percent of dwarf seahorse exports were wild-caught individuals, not 

captive-bred. Alford and Grist (2005) suggest that wild dwarf seahorse 

populations have decreased in Florida and that the species is difficult 

to locate and harvest in areas where it was once considered common.

    The only seahorse commercial fishery in the United States is 

located in the state of Florida. Bruckner et al. (2005) state that most 

of the seahorse harvest in Florida is for the dried curio market. Dwarf 

seahorses are primarily harvested in state waters as targeted catch by 

divers using nets or as bycatch by fishers using trawls (e.g., in the 

live-bait shrimp fishery) with some seahorse harvest conducted by seine 

or dredge (Bruckner et al., 2005). A study conducted on the Marine Life 

Fishery in Florida from 1990 to 1998 (Adams et al., 2001) documented a 

five-fold increase in seahorse landings between 1991 and 1992 (from 

14,000 harvested in 1991 to 83,700 harvested in 1992). The increased 

landings primarily consisted of the dwarf seahorse. Bruckner et al. 

(2005), state that 90 percent of the dwarf seahorse harvest is in 

southeast Florida and the Florida Keys region and that more than 50 

percent of the harvest in southwest Florida was collected by divers 

from 1990 to 2003. The number of seahorses landed in Florida varied 

between 1990 and 2003, from 6,000 to 111,000 individuals per year. 

Approximately 91 percent of those landings were dwarf seahorses, so the 

number of dwarf seahorses landed (1990-2003) ranged from 2,142 to 

98,779 individuals per year (Bruckner et al., 2005). The petition 

provides data on the quantities of seahorses being exported, allotted 

bag limits permitted by the State of Florida, and the ways in which the 

species is commercially utilized (e.g., aquarium market, curio market, 

and Chinese traditional medicine trade).

    Commercial harvest may be negatively affecting dwarf seahorse 

populations. The petition and its supporting citations also indicate 

that commercial demand for the dwarf seahorse is extensive, and that 

populations in some geographic areas where they are harvested may have 

declined. Therefore, based on the standards for making 90-day findings, 

we accept the petition's characterizations of the information presented 

and conclude that substantial information in the petition and in our 

files suggest overutilization may be a factor contributing to 

extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse.

Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

The petitioner states that regulatory mechanisms at the 

international, federal, and state level are inadequate to protect the 

dwarf seahorse from commercial overharvest and trade, and inadequate to 

protect its seagrass habitat from loss and degradation. As such, the 

petitioner argues that inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms is 

one of the factors causing the species to be threatened or endangered.

    The petition notes that in 2004, the entire genus Hippocampus, 

including the dwarf seahorse, was listed under Appendix II of CITES. 

Species listed under Appendix II are those in which trade must be 

controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their 

survival, but are not necessarily at risk of extinction. International 

trade of CITES Appendix II species can take place if an export permit 

is issued. Export permits are only issued if the Management Authority 

of the exporting country is satisfied that the specimens were ``legally 

obtained'' and the Scientific Authority of the exporting country 

advises that the ``export will not be detrimental to the survival of 

the species in the wild.'' The petition lists several reasons it 

believes that CITES Appendix II does not effectively protect the dwarf 

seahorse from overexploitation: it does not apply to seahorses that are 

traded entirely within the U.S. domestic markets, not all exports are 

inspected, and certification that trade is not detrimental to the 

persistence of the dwarf seahorse is not possible because no 

comprehensive population data is available. The petition and citations 

indicate that no stock assessment has been conducted for the dwarf 

seahorse.

    The petitioner also states that the CITES listing is not sufficient 

to protect the dwarf seahorse from illegal trade occurring in Mexico, 

and cites references finding that most seahorse trade in Mexico occurs 

on the black market. Mexican populations of dwarf seahorse are listed 

in the NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2001 as species subject to special protection; 

Mexico prohibits the intentional capture and trade of wild seahorses, 

permitting only the commercialization of cultured and incidentally 

caught seahorses (Lourie et al., 2004). The petitioner acknowledges 

that Mexico prohibits the deliberate capture and trade of wild 

seahorses and only authorizes the trade of seahorses if they are 

``incidentally caught in non-selective fishing gear.'' However, the 

petitioner asserts that Mexico's regulations and enforcement of those 

regulations are inadequate to protect the dwarf seahorse from decline 

or illegal harvest.

    The petitioner also argues that other existing regulatory 

mechanisms at the Federal (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and 

Management Act, National Marine Sanctuaries Act) and state level 

relevant to the U.S. seahorse trade (Florida laws and regulations, 

discussed below) are also inadequate to protect the species. Neither 

Federal law prohibits collection of the dwarf seahorse. Florida has 

regulatory mechanisms that require anyone wishing to collect or sell 

dwarf seahorses to have a Saltwater Product License, a Marine Life 

Endorsement, and a Restricted Species Endorsement under Florida law 

(Chapter 370.021.01(2)(a)) and Administrative Code 16R-500). There is a 

commercial bag limit of 400 dwarf seahorses per person or per vessel 

per day (whichever is less), and a recreational bag limit of 5 dwarf 

seahorses per person, per day (FL 68B-42.005), but no apparent cap on 

total annual take of the species. There are no seasonal restrictions or 

closures for this fishery. There does not appear to be a limit on the 

number of seahorses that can be collected as bycatch, but the landings 

value of all marine life bycatch must be less than $5,000 annually 

(Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, 2009).

    The petitioner also argues that existing regulatory measures do not 

adequately protect the dwarf seahorse's seagrass habitat. The petition 

references declining water quality and the physical damage (prop scarring) caused by

recreational and commercial vessels as contributing to the decline of seagrass habitat

throughout the dwarf seahorse's range. The petitionstates that 

the protections of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have not 

prevented ongoing threats to seagrasses since the sanctuary's 

designation. Similarly, the petition states that loss and degradation 

of seagrasses is not prevented within other areas protected by the 

state or federal governments. The petitioner acknowledges that federal 

regulations such as the Coastal Zone Management Act provide a degree of 

habitat protection, but say that despite the Act's intentions, seagrass 

habitat continues to decline throughout the dwarf seahorse's range.

    The petitioner also states that protection from oil pollution is 

inadequate because, while the Oil Pollution Act is intended to protect 

the species' habitat from spilled oil, accidental spills inevitably 

occur. Finally, the petition states that regulation of greenhouse gases 

is inadequate. However, the discussion does not explain how the 

described potential increases in atmospheric concentrations of 

CO2 that may result in the absence of adequate regulations 

may result in extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse.

    In summary, the petition presents substantial information 

indicating that inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms may be 

contributing to extinction risk that is cause for concern for the dwarf 

seahorse, particularly in regards to regulations intended to control 

harvest for domestic markets and international trade, and we will 

evaluate these regulations' impacts on dwarf seahorse during the status 

review. We will also evaluate whether existing regulatory mechanisms 

relevant to preventing damage to seagrasses are inadequate in a manner 

that contributes to extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse. Similarly, 

we will evaluate whether existing regulatory mechanisms relevant to 

preventing oil pollution are inadequate in a manner that contributes to 

extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse.

Other Natural or Manmade Factors

The petition describes other natural or manmade factors that may be 

affecting the dwarf seahorse, including life history characteristics, 

bycatch mortality, noise, and unintentional and illegal fishing, 

hurricanes or tropical storms, and invasive species. As described 

previously, the petition provides information describing how ``life 

history parameters'' in the form of complex reproductive strategies, 

low population density, and patchy spatial distribution, are affecting 

the species' ability to recover from habitat loss and overexploitation. 

The available information indicates that the dwarf seahorse has some 

life history characteristic that may increase the species' 

vulnerability, in conjunction with habitat decline and overutilization.

    The petitioner also suggests that the dwarf seahorse is vulnerable 

to increased risk of extinction, because ``low frequency boat motor 

noise negatively impacts the health, behavior, and reproductive success 

of dwarf seahorses (Masonjones and Babson 2003).'' The petition cites a 

single reference, Masonjones and Babson (2003), to support its 

assertion that vessel noise is a threat to the dwarf seahorse. We 

attempted to evaluate the referenced citation, which is an abstract 

from the 17th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology--

Book of Abstracts (2003). According to the Masonjones and Babson (2003) 

abstract, dwarf seahorses were exposed to recordings of low frequency 

boat motor noise (ranging from 70-110 dB and 60-600 HZ) with 

``continuous'' and ``intermittent'' noise treatments, as well as 

``quiet'' treatments. The abstract states that adult dwarf seahorses 

exposed to ``noise conditions showed a significantly higher incidence 

of gas bladder disease, behavioral differences, and had significantly 

longer gestation lengths than controls. Fewer offspring were born to 

parents exposed to continuous noise and the offspring were smaller and 

had lower growth rates than control offspring.'' The abstract provides 

minimal information, and we cannot determine whether this study was 

conducted in a laboratory or in the species' natural environment, 

though we assume from the limited information the study was conducted 

in a laboratory. Based on information in the abstract we cannot 

determine what the study's limitations were for ``continuous'' and 

``intermittent'' noise exposures levels, as well as ``quiet'' 

treatments. Likewise, we cannot determine the intensity levels the 

seahorses were exposed to or the duration of exposure time. We 

recognize that dwarf seahorses in the wild are exposed to levels of low 

frequency noise transmitted from vessels, but exposure levels are 

likely temporary and infrequent (i.e., only when a vessel is operating 

within the vicinity of a seahorse). Without additional information 

(e.g., exposure duration, how noise levels tested in the laboratory 

environment compare to noise levels in the natural environment, and how 

noise levels may be attenuated at distances from the noise source given 

water depths, turbidity, currents, and other natural factors) we cannot 

conclude how the results of this study on vessel noise correspond to 

impacts on wild populations. The information presented in the 

referenced abstract does not constitute substantial information 

indicating that low frequency vessel noise is an operative threat that 

has acted or is acting on the species to the point that it is 

contributing to an extinction risk of concern for the dwarf seahorse.

    As described previously, bycatch of the dwarf seahorse in trawl 

fisheries, specifically the live-bait trawl fishery in Florida, is a 

source of commercial harvest. According to the petitioner, seahorses 

are affected by nonselective fishing gear because trawling often covers 

seahorse habitat and their life history characteristics render them 

particularly vulnerable to overexploitation. The petitioner states that 

seahorses likely experience injuries or mortality during towing and 

sorting, but notes that the post-release mortality of bycaught 

seahorses is unknown. The petitioner also references a study that 

suggests discarded seahorses are subject to increased predation upon 

release and experience deleterious effects as a result of being 

bycaught (Foster and Vincent, 2004). It is conceivable that 

incidentally caught seahorses that are not retained for commercial sale 

could be injured or die post-release and that unintentional collection 

could disrupt natural behaviors. However, as the petition notes, post-

release mortality estimates are not available for seahorses. The 

available information is insufficient to indicate post-release 

mortality or bycatch mortality is a threat that is contributing to an 

extinction risk of concern for the dwarf seahorse. Nonetheless, as 

described in the overutilization section of this finding, we will 

evaluate to what extent the dwarf seahorse is affected by indirect 

(i.e., bycatch) and direct commercial harvest during the status review.

    Last, the petitioner asserts that unintentional and illegal 

fishing, hurricanes and tropical storms, and invasive species are 

``potentially threatening'' the dwarf seahorse. Broad statements about 

generalized threats to the species do not constitute substantial 

information that listing may be warranted. The petition does not 

present information indicating that the dwarf seahorse is responding in 

a negative fashion to unintentional and illegal fishing, hurricanes and 

tropical storms, or invasive species. Therefore, we find that the 

petition does not present substantial information to indicate that 

these generalized threats are operative and have acted or acting on the 

species to the point that it may warrant protection under the ESA. Nonetheless, during the

status review we will research and consider all information submitted relevant to these

potential threats.

Summary of Section 4(a)(1) Factors

We conclude that the petition presents substantial scientific or 

commercial information indicating that a combination of at least four 

of the section 4(a)(1) factors may be causing or contributing to 

extinction risk for the dwarf seahorse: present or threatened 

destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range, 

overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or 

educational purposes, inadequate existing regulatory mechanisms, and 

other natural or manmade factors.

Petition Finding

After reviewing the information contained in the petition, as well 

as information readily available in our files, we conclude the petition 

presents substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned 

action of listing the dwarf seahorse as threatened or endangered may be 

warranted. In accordance with section 4(b)(3)(B) of the ESA and our 

implementing regulations (50 CFR 424.14(b)(2)), we will commence a 

review of the status of the dwarf seahorse and make a final 

determination as to whether the petitioned action is warranted. During 

our status review, we will determine whether the species is in danger 

of extinction (endangered) or likely to become so in the foreseeable 

future (threatened) throughout all or a significant portion of its 

range, or that the species does not warrant listing under the ESA.

Information Solicited

To ensure that the status review is based on the best available 

scientific and commercial data, we are soliciting information on 

whether the dwarf seahorse is endangered or threatened. Specifically, 

we are soliciting information in the following areas: (1) Historical 

and current distribution and abundance of this species throughout its 

range; (2) historical and current population status and trends; (3) 

life history in marine environments; (4) curio, traditional medicine, 

and aquarium trade or other trade data; (5) any current or planned 

activities that may adversely impact the species; (6) historical and 

current seagrass trends and status; (7) ongoing or planned efforts to 

protect and restore the species and their seagrass habitats; (8) 

management, regulatory, and enforcement information; and (9) any 

biological information on this species. We request that all information 

be accompanied by: (1) Supporting documentation such as maps, 

bibliographic references, or reprints of pertinent publications; and 

(2) the submitter's name, address, and any association, institution, or 

business that the person represents.