- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

ON THE YORK RIVER, Va. Biologists Jorge Gomezjurado and William Reay held opposite ends of a large net and slowly dragged the bottom of the York River as they waded in water up to their hips.
Then they draped the net over the side of their boat and eagerly picked through their plunder: several half-foot-long, skinny, northern pipefish, which looked like seahorses that had been straightened out.
Mr. Gomezjurado, senior aquarist with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, wanted to collect five females and 15 pregnant males from the lower Chesapeake Bay area to start a breeding project to supply a seahorse exhibit at the aquarium with disease-free northern pipefish.
"It's a way to show the local people that we have pipefish and seahorses here in the Bay," Mr. Gomezjurado said of the exhibit. "Everyone has the same reaction: 'They're in the Chesapeake Bay?'"
Both pipefish and their close relations, seahorses, are threatened internationally by destruction of habitat by pollution, development along shorelines and damaging fishing methods.
The Chinese traditional medicine industry also harvests seahorses and pipefish to be used as remedies for asthma, lethargy and impotence. The aquarium estimates 20 million seahorses are caught for this purpose annually.
In addition, millions of seahorses and pipefish are dried and sold as souvenirs. Many also are sold for use in home aquariums, but few survive long because maintaining them is difficult.
Increasing public awareness about the need to protect these fish is a goal of the exhibit "Seahorses: Beyond Imagination," which has been open at the National Aquarium since last year. It features nearly 20 species of seahorses, pipefish and their cousins, sea dragons, in re-creations of their natural habitats.
Usually thought of as tropical, seahorses and pipefish also are found in temperate coastal waters around the world.
There are about 180 species of pipefish. The largest may reach up to 2 feet in length.
Northern pipefish, which are common, have tubular snouts like a seahorse but lack the seahorse's characteristic prehensile tail. They are native to the Chesapeake Bay and are found from Newfoundland to North Carolina.
The Bay also is home to lined seahorses.
Unlike most fish, pipefish and seahorses have bony plates instead of scales.
Pipefish also share another unusual characteristic with seahorses: the males get pregnant. The male receives the eggs from its mate, fertilizes them, carries them until they hatch and releases the young into the water. The male northern pipefish carries 50 to 150 eggs, from as many as four different females at one time.
In his search for northern pipefish, Mr. Gomezjurado had help from aquarist intern Colin Huck and from Mr. Reay, director of the lower Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
The reserve is one of 25 established nationwide to protect and study estuaries, places where fresh water from rivers mixes with saltwater.
The researchers shoved off in a 21-foot boat. Motoring past ospreys sitting in nests built on top of navigation markers, they headed out several miles toward the uninhabited Goodwin Islands at the mouth of the York River. Pipefish live among the sea-grass beds there.
At first, the researchers caught croaker, flounder, shrimp, sea lettuce, some blue crabs and a different species of pipefish, the dusky pipefish but no northern pipefish.
"It doesn't seem like they like this at all," Mr. Reay said.
Mr. Gomezjurado would not be deterred.
"This is a very good place, very pristine, not too much human activity and less pollution, too," he said.
On their third try, using a net about 17 feet across, Mr. Gomezjurado shouted gleefully, "We have a pregnant pipefish." Looking up at the sky, he added, "Thank you, my friend."


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