The Seahorse Whisperers
story by Rose Kahele
photo by Peter French
When aqua-farmers Carol and Craig Schmarr sold their first harvest of seahorses in the fall of 1999, they cried. The box of three plastic bags, each containing ten specimens, was the culmination of a dream and represented six months of hard workbut the couple didn’t weep for joy: The grand total of their sale was $90. “We said, ‘Never again.’ It seemed stupid to continue, so we stopped, and we decided that we would just wait,” says Carol.
The Schmarrs had started their business, Ocean Rider, with the hope of saving endangered seahorses from extinction. Both had extensive experience running large commercial shrimp farms in Ecuador and Costa Rica, and they’d seen firsthand the decimation of seahorse populations along the Central American coast. The graceful and delicate animals were being taken from the wild for use in Chinese medicines and in the aquarium trade throughout the rest
of the world.
The Schmarrs were ahead of their time: Wild-caught seahorses were being sold to wholesalers for as little as two dollars eacha dollar less than what the Schmarrs could offerand there was no way to reach out to their markets in the continental United States. But it didn’t take long for the world to come around. Less than a year after their first harvest, the Schmarrs established a thriving Internet business, leapfrogging the wholesalers and reaching their customers directly. Today, Ocean Rider produces approximately 1,000 seahorses a month, with the vast majority selling over the Internet for between $25 and $500 per animal.
The Schmarrs recently opened up their 2.5-acre facility to once-a-day tours, in which visitors get an opportunity to feed and hold the peaceful marine animals.
“The tours supplement our bottom line, and they help us complete our mission,” says Carol, “which is to increase ocean awareness and to help save endangered species.” They also help to fund the couple’s next venture: raising Hawaiian reef fish.
And while she admits that breeding native tangs and butterfly fishes is much trickier than raising seahorses, Carol says that after a couple of years of R&D, they’ll have another healthy and ecologically responsible product available on the Internet, adding, “We hope to do for those fish what we’ve done for seahorses.”