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Down on the … Seahorse Farm?

Recognizing a market for these elegant sea creatures, a Big Island company carefully raises them in captivity.


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These pinto seahorses are wooing each other. During that process, one might even change color. And if things get really hot and heavy, the male may become pregnant. photo: Leslie Leddo

Driving past the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawai'i Authority on the Big Island's Kona Coast, there are few outward signs that a marine miracle is occurring at the 870-acre ocean research, business and technology park. For the past seven years, in one small corner of the facility, two researchers have achieved what many once thought was impossible: developing a successful, captive-breeding program for seahorses.

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm is the brainchild of Craig Schmarr and his wife, Carol Cozzi-Schmarr, a marine biologist. Last year, the couple began offering public tours of their 2.5-acre seahorse aquafarm, the only one of its kind in the United States.

A decade ago, the Schmarrs hadn't given much thought to seahorses. The couple were living in Costa Rica, managing a shrimp hatchery, when someone brought them a seahorse that had washed up on the beach. "That was the first time I had ever seen one," says Schmarr, a native of Australia. With unlimited access to live shrimp larvae—a seahorse's favorite food—the couple was able to nurse the delicate animal back to health in their office aquarium. After learning how endangered seahorses were becoming, they developed a commercial captive-breeding program and moved to Hawai'i in 1998.

The Schmarrs collaborated with University of Hawai'i aquaculture specialist Clyde Tamaru, who shared their concern for the plight of wild seahorses. "About 20 [million] to 25 million are taken from the world's oceans each year for use in [Eastern] medicines," says Tamaru. "The aquarium and curio trade consumes hundreds of thousands more."

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm
734460 Queen Ka'ahumanu Road., Kailua Kona.
Tour admission is $30 for adults and $20 for children ages 6-12; under age 6, free. (808-329-6840; www.seahorse.com.)

Wild seahorses are famously fussy eaters and demand a constant supply of live food, making them difficult to breed and raise in captivity. But Ocean Rider trains the captive-bred animals to eat nutritious frozen food by the age of 3 months. Schmarr says his seahorses are healthier, stronger and easier to raise than those taken from the wild. More than 1,000 frisky Ocean Rider seahorses are raised each month. "For the moment, we're selling most to saltwater aquarium enthusiasts," says Schmarr. But a long-term goal is to see captive-breds supplied to the medicinal market to relieve pressures on wild populations.

Ocean Rider raises 14 seahorse species, which sell for up to $300 each. Schmarr says mustangs, the common name for Hippocampus erectus (native to Atlantic waters), are the biggest sellers and come in all colors. "They'll eat right from your hand," he says, "and are really stunning. Even more eye-catching are the pintos, with their extraordinary mottled color patterns, fire reds and sunfires, named for their brilliant coloration, and the spectacular, 10-inch-long gigantes.

You can see a species of seahorse native to the South Pacific at Ocean Rider, but the company does not sell its seahorses in Hawai'i. "Seahorses have 300 babies a month," explains Carol Cozzi-Schmarr. "And we wouldn't want anyone to release them into the ocean here." To tour the seahorse farm, make an appointment for an afternoon visit, Tuesday through Saturday.

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