Seahorse find a good sign in James

Published 7:18 pm Tuesday, November 19, 2019

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer

In a county full of farmers like Isle of Wight, the word ‘horse’ conjures up an image quite unlike the kind found at Days Point. 

Lynwood Butner was surprised to pull a lined seahorse from her oyster cage on Nov. 10.

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The discovery may be an indicator that the health of the James River — namely its underwater grasses — is on the rise, according to James Riverkeeper and Senior Advocacy Manager Jamie Brunkow. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Brunkow said that prior to this discovery he hadn’t heard any reports of  seahorse sightings in the James River for several years. 

Since seahorses aren’t the strongest of swimmers and often need underwater plants to tether themselves in place with their tails amid the waterflow, the seahorse may be an indicator that the James River’s eelgrass is faring well, he said. 

Making up for their lack of mobility, lined seahorses also have the ability to change color, said Brunkow. 

On the James River’s health, Brunkow pointed to the 2019 “State Of The James” report that came out last month, which shows a 16-percent increase in the health of the James River’s underwater grasses. 

“The presence of these grasses, which provide essential habitat for juvenile fish, crabs and waterfowl is a positive sign that water quality is improving,” according to the report. 

The lined seahorse — also known as the northern seahorse and the spotted seahorse — is the only type found in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, said Brunkow. 

Because of coastal degradation, aquarium trade and other factors, the lined seahorse is listed as “vulnerable,” according to Brunkow. 

“The fact that we see them at all is a positive sign,” he said.

The seahorse ranks up there along with polar bears, manatees, snowy owls and leatherback sea turtles as vulnerable species, according to the International Union for Conservation and Nature.

The presence of the seahorse in the James River near Days Point — where it was found — is typical for the species, said Brunkow, adding that river waters near Smithfield and Isle of Wight are a bit brackish and suitable for seahorses compared to upstream. 

Brunkow said that the health of the James River largely declined during the second half of the 20th century, concurrent with population growth in the U.S., resulting in increased farming and runoff that degraded the river, as well as the illegal dumping of kepone that was revealed in the 1970s.    

Now, through efforts of the James Riverkeeper program — which was created in 2001 through the program’ss coordination with the Waterkeeper Alliance  — and other conservation programs, the James River is recovering. 

The James River is one of the five largest rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, along with the York River, the Potomac River, the Rappahannock River and the Susquehanna River, information courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  {/mprestriction}