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You’ll Get to Hold a Seahorse in Your Hands at This Hawai‘i Farm

A couple of aquaponic wizards are running a watery farm where they breed a most captivating, and endangered, species.


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These seahorses are growing not in the ocean, but at the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm.
Photo: Courtesy of Ocean Rider Searhorse Farm

On a rocky spit by the Kona airport, Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm is carrying on one of Hawai‘i’s most quixotic enterprises: raising seahorses. It’s one of the earliest farms in the world to successfully do so—and, during a tour of its Kona lab, you can actually have a close and, to judge from reactions, magical encounter.

 

“I made a cup of my hands in the water,” said Gail Harada, a poet and professor of English at Kapi‘olani Community College, after a recent visit. “Then they put a seahorse in there, in my hands, but without it touching—just floating there. And then,” she sighed, meltingly, “it curled its tail around my little finger.”

 

Nestled among the deepwater-fueled startups at the Big Island’s scientific business incubator, the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawai‘i Authority, or NELHA, Ocean Rider is the dream of a pair of aquaculture specialists, Carol Scozzi-Schmarr and Craig Schmarr. 

 

The two pooled their savings to create what Carol calls “our aquaculture playground,” but with a serious purpose: saving a species under pressure.

 

Like many reef fish, seahorses are vanishing due to unregulated freelance taking (yes, that’s the industry term) for the aquarium trade. “It’s horrifying,” says Carol. “People think there are plenty of fish. There aren’t.”

 

Reef-fish taking is a particularly sensitive issue in Hawai‘i, the subject of mounting regulatory efforts and pushback from locals who supplement their income by doing it. Ocean Rider offers itself as a solution. “Rather than telling people what to do,” says Carol, “we have an answer—because farming the seahorses is our model for saving the reef fish, too. And if we can farm reef fish, they can be left alone in the ocean.”

 

One goal is to breed yellow tang, one of the most popular, and overfished, aquarium species. But the “holy grail” of seahorse breeding is the leafy sea dragon. “They’re worth $20,000 in stores and are now almost gone, almost impossible to find,” says Carol. “We’ve been trying to breed a couple for eight years. We try every three months. They don’t usually breed until they’re 15 years old, so we have a few years to go before we get worried.”

 

The Schmarrs are already reintroducing Hawaiian seahorses back into the wild. “Someday they’ll make a comeback. But all this does require a chunk of money. We hope people will step up.”

 

One way to step up is to take the Ocean Rider Farm tour. “We’re a farm, not an attraction,” says Carol. “But everybody gets to hold a seahorse and take the tour with a biologist. You’ll see 26 species, including our only two endemic Hawaiian seahorses.”

 

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, 73-4388 ‘Ilikai Place, Kailua-Kona, (808) 329-6840, seahorse.com

 

READ MORE STORIES BY DON WALLACE 

 

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Honolulu Magazine March 2017
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