Benthic status of 28 near-shore, artisanal, coral reef fishing grounds in the central Philippines was assessed (2000-2002) together with surveys of the seahorse, Hippocampus comes. Our measures of benthic quality and seahorse densities reveal some of the most degraded coral reefs in the world. Abiotic structure dominated the fishing grounds: 69% of the benthos comprised rubble (32%), sand/silt (28%) and dead coral (9%). Predominant biotic structure included live coral (12%) and Sargassum (11%). Rubble cover increased with increasing distance from municipal enforcement centers and coincided with substantial blast fishing in this region of the Philippines. Over 2 years, we measured a significant decrease in benthic 'heterogeneity' and a 16% increase in rubble cover. Poor benthic quality was concomitant with extremely low seahorse densities (524 fish per km(2)). Spatial management, such as marine reserves, may help to minimize habitat damage and to rebuild depleted populations of seahorses and other reef fauna. (c) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.