Pictured is a 1804 rendition of a Pipefish by artist Edward Donovan, 1768-1837 (Image in Public Domain)

We first started diving Duck Trap Harbor some years ago after having bypassed it for some time. The thinking was that it was too shallow, not very exciting and therefore not worth much time exploring. When we finally decided to check it out, I was blown away by what we had been missing.
One of the many things I enjoy about Duck Trap Harbor is the number of pipefish that inhabit its waters. As you enter off the rocky beach, the little channel that forms the mouth of the harbor proves to be the deepest area near shore.

This pipefish at Duck Trap Harbor was seen among the rockweed. Photo by Charles Lagerbom

It will not get below 12 feet or so, but the bottom of the channel has patches of rockweed seaweed and eel grass. This, coupled with fresh water coming down from Duck Trap River, makes this estuary a great habitat for the Northern Pipefish (Syngnathus fuscus).
Pipefish are a subfamily of small fishes, with seahorses and seadragons, from the family Syngnathidae. They date back to the middle Miocene period about 13 million years ago.
The Northern Pipefish generally inhabits sheltered areas with eelgrass beds in bays and estuaries from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Maine. Due to the pipefish’s narrow distribution, they are less able to adapt to new habitats, so if their eelgrass beds get degraded or disturbed, pipefish populations suffer.
This is concerning since worldwide, eelgrass is on the decline mostly due to pollution and dredging. Eelgrass can also absorb CO2 35 times faster than the Amazon rainforest, so its loss affects the ecosystem in many ways, not just with pipefish.
When looking for pipefish at Duck Trap Harbor, we set up shop at the bottom of the channel where it widens off the beach. They tend to blend in quite effectively with the bottom terrain, the first time I thought I was looking at a blade of grass but then realized it had eyes and a little bugle for a mouth!
The pipefish name is derived from that peculiar form of snout, kind of like a long tube which ends in a narrow and small mouth. I think it resembles a bugle, it opens upwards and is toothless.
They are quite docile and do not dart away or curl up as most marine life tends to do. These gentlemen and ladies of the sea give the impression that they are tolerating your attention as long as you are respectful. I’m good with that.
Their eyes also rotate independently, which kind of startled me the first few times I encountered them.

Thia pretty tame Pipefish was spotted at at Duck Trap Harbor. Photo by Charles Lagerbom

Their sides are effectively camouflaged with armored plates connected in rings; this dermal skeleton has several longitudinal ridges. So, if you view a vertical section of the critter, it looks angular, not round or oval like other fish. A dorsal fin is always present and is its main means of locomotion. Pipefish tend to be very weak swimmers in open water, which is why they hang about the blades of eelgrass and rockweed.
Average size for the Northern Pipefish is about 12 inches in length. They feed on copepods and amphipods, pretty much minding their own business among the eel grass. They have no known enemies.

A pipefish at Duck Trap Harbor shows its armor plating. Photo by Charles Lagerbom

Pipefish are one of the marine faunal species, like seahorses, where the male takes on the parenting duties after fertilization, or post-zygotic. Courtship between male and female Pipefish involves a lengthy and complex ritualized dance which ends in copulation.
During this Tango-like dance, the female transfers her eggs into the male’s brood pouch. While eggs are being transferred, the pair of pipefish ascend in the water until they are done. Then, the male fertilizes the eggs, all while descending back down the water column to the safety of the eelgrass. Northern Pipefish are considered monogamous, although when species numbers are threatened, the female will take on multiple partners.
Young are born free-swimming and immediately begin feeding. Once born, they are totally on their own, which is good since at times it is possible the parent may view them as food! Yikes!
Doing some research, I found that pipefish are big in Traditional Chinese Medicine remedies, in fact they are referred to as medicinal pipefish. This has not helped their population numbers, as they are quite sought after.
The whole fish is used as a medicinal. It is caught, cleaned, then dried in the sun and used either whole, or ground up as a powder. Sometimes they are cut into segments or broken into pieces and stir-baked with wine for use.
According to principles of TCM, pipefish have sweet, salty and slightly warm properties. They are associated with the kidney meridian, so practitioners use them to strengthen the kidneys. Typical dosage of Pipefish can be up to 3 grams three times per day, usually powdered.
Pipefish are even more exploited because of a belief in their higher level of potency. They are considered to be an aphrodisiac, the larger the pipefish, the more potent it is considered to be.
Most pipefish species are therefore exploited for these traditional medicines, others are sold in the aquarium trade or curio markets. Pipefish are harvested in a host of countries through direct fisheries or as bycatch. Bycatch tends to account for most specimens dispatched for the TCM market.

Pictured is huge shipment of Asian Pipefish drying in the streets of Hong Kong. Photographed Aug. 20, 2019, from OceansAsia

This exploitation of pipefish has dramatically affected their numbers. Here in Maine, the loss or degradation of eelgrass beds has also helped dwindle pipefish populations. Causes of eelgrass loss can be from development, water pollution, mussel dragging and invasive green crabs.
To me, Duck Trap Harbor is a little refuge for these gentle creatures of the sea. Before learning more about them, just encountering one on a dive brightened my day. Now knowing what they face as a species, spotting one makes it an even more special occasion.

The Lagerbom crew exits Duck Trap Harbor after a great dive having encountered pipefish. Photo by Jennifer Lagerbom

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” available through Historypress.com.