The Weedy Seadragon is classified as Near Threatened under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and as a member of the broader family of Syngnathiformes (Seahorses and Pipefish) is classified as a protected species in NSW. Being poor swimmers with small fins, they rely on camouflage amongst seaweed to avoid potential predators, typically in 10+m depth where they are safely out of areas susceptible to strong wave action. Feeding primarily on small mysid shrimp they use their long snouts to slurp up these shrimp that congregate just off the seafloor.
Being slow movers these fish unsurprising can be stressed very easily and populations are known to plummet very quickly as happened in Shelly Beach around 2011/12 when the local population all but disappeared.
Fortunately this year sightings have begun again, with both adults and juveniles being sighted but they are a long way from recovering to their original numbers. Whilst exciting news, the popularity of Shelly Beach is also providing challenges to their survival.
Almost every diver these days has a camera to capture their awesome underwater adventures and experience. Every weekend they hit the water at Shelly Beach in large numbers. Two weeks after the first sighting this year I found a dead seadragon on the sand.
I see videos and photos posted on Facebook of seadragons in midwater, their bodies extended as they try to escape attentions of divers and snorkelers, obviously moved there to get a “better” picture. These are stressed fish. If only ten divers take ten shots each that’s 100 blinding flashes impacting their eyesight and again adding further stress as well as impairing their ability to feed.
So what can be done?
Firstly budding underwater divers need to understand that shooting 20+ shots won’t necessarily result in a good photo. Get your composition right then take the shot. They don’t move fast so if you can’t get it right in few shots just enjoy the sight from a safe distance.
Don’t touch them ever, as by law “it is an offence to kill, injure, take, trade, move or export”. Recent reports of them being found near the shore in 3-4m of water suggest that they are probably sick, or have been moved there for a photo opportunity as that is not their natural habitat. Missing appendages on the body of the picture above suggest it was not well.
A healthy unstressed seadragon will have its snout parallel to the seafloor and its tail pointing towards, or even touching the sand.
Consider your impact carefully when diving with them and let’s all enjoy them and watch their population flourish again.