Rare seahorse sighting off Nova Scotia sparks wonder, draws praise

HALIFAX - A marine biologist is praising two divers for filming a rarely seen seahorse and posting it on a website that collects information from amateur naturalists.

Nedia Coutinho and Martin Roy, owners of an underwater imaging company, spotted the lined seahorse in St. Margaret's Bay near Halifax on Oct. 12 last year and uploaded it to iSeahorse.org on April 1.

Amanda Vincent, the project co-ordinator of Project Seahorse, said Thursday the last sighting of a seahorse in Canada was 13 years earlier, also off Nova Scotia's coast.

The professor of marine conservation at the University of British Columbia said the species is listed as being vulnerable to extinction. Vincent said harmful fishing practices and damage to habitat has caused their decline.

She said having images and video uploaded to the website helps scientists track the range of the lined seahorse as water temperatures shift due to global climate change.

"Finding them in Nova Scotia is very interesting and very exciting to help us understand we're part of their range," she said in an interview from her Vancouver office.

Vincent said she's hopeful the discovery will prompt other divers to report sightings of the lined seahorse and upload images to the iSeahorse.org website.

"It would be great to know what Canada's role is in the long-term future of the species," she said.

The marine biologist said contributions by "citizen scientists" to naturalist websites allow scientists to collect better data and target their recommendations for conservation measures.

She said her project is starting to enlist contributors to return to sites where seahorses have been seen and monitor their populations.

"We do citizen science because we genuinely need the information people can contribute. There are only 12 seahorse biologists working in the wild and there are 48 species spread all over ... the world's waters ," she said.

"And we also want people to connect to the ocean, and seahorses are iconic species that give people a sense of wonder and awe when they look at the ocean."

Coutinho said she couldn't believe her eyes when she first spotted the nine-centimetre high seahorse because she believed the creatures were only seen in warmer waters.

"I was so excited," she said in a phone interview. "This is the first time I had ever seen one."

She said she and Roy will return to the site in St. Margaret's Bay where they saw the lined seahorse and continue reporting what they see.

"I know I'm not a scientist ... but I can give the support with my video and I do care about those creatures more now," she said.

The University of British Columbia, which announced on Thursday the seahorse discovery, said the fish are found in coastal waters throughout the globe, from northern Europe to the Indian Ocean and from Korea to New Zealand.

Tens of millions of the animals are caught and traded for use in traditional Chinese medicine, aquarium display and as souvenirs, the school said.