Seahorses. Who doesn’t like these little guys? The experience of spotting a seahorse among the coral is sure to bring a smile to any diver’s face. With their curved tails, round bellies and long snouts, it is easy to feel like you just want to put these little guys in your pocket and keep them safe. The sad thing is that many seahorse species are either endangered or nearly extinct for that exact reason.
34 Species of seahorses are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list. This means that they are either endangered or that there are not enough data on their numbers to confirm that they are not endangered. The seahorse populations most affected are those in Asia, but this is spreading globally as fishermen are looking for new seahorse hunting grounds.
Where have all the seahorses gone?
There are three markets that encourage mass capture and trade of seahorses. While seahorses are sometimes caught as by-catch of fishing and trawling practices, these species are so valuable that they are picked from the by-catch to be sold to one of the following markets.
Traditional Chinese medicine see vast amounts of seahorses traded every year. And when I say vast, I mean upwards of 150 Million! (Combined with trade in seahorses for the curio market). There are between 65-85 countries participating in trading seahorses for medicinal use with more being added to the list each year.
It is believed that consuming seahorses could cure a variety of ailments including Asthma, throat infections, insomnia and abdominal pain. Pregnant male seahorses are especially valuable as they are believed to cure impotence. As the consumers of medicines containing seahorses become wealthier, the demand has changed from purchasing seahorses to prepare at home to the commercial production of pills containing seahorses. This means that seahorses are now being caught commercially to produce mass quantities of the medicine.
About 90% of the captured and killed male seahorses are pregnant, leaving them no chance to reproduce and sustain the populations.
Captured seahorses are hung in the sun to die and then dry. Once they are dried the fishermen sells them to a middleman who then sells them to markets or factories that would process them to make medicine.
Home Aquarium trade
Trade for seahorses to the home aquarium market reaches similar numbers. Every year around 1 Million wild seahorses are caught and sold to the home aquarium market. Only a small number of these seahorses survive longer than a few weeks, this number is growing through education and breeding seahorses in captivation creating a culture of ‘conservation through cultivation’. Seahorses require optimal water conditions to survive – and this is not always possible to maintain in home aquariums.
Seahorses can cost up to £200 each in the home aquarium trade while seadragons can cost over £3,000 each.
The Curio trade
Many shops, especially in touristy coastal towns sell seahorses as mementos. This market also sees a number northwards of 1 Million seahorses being traded every year. Although these products are often labelled as being ‘from a sustainable source’, this is seldom the case. These creatures undergo the same fishing and drying practices as the ones selected for the Chinese medicine trade.
CITES and seahorses
CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is an agreement between the majority of countries to regulate the trade in animals and plants to make sure that the trade does not affect the wild populations. Seahorses were added to the list of protected species in 2004 due to the unsustainable practices in catching them.
Seahorses are on Appendix II of CITES. This Appendix is for species that are not necessarily near extinction yet, but could face extinction if their trade is not regulated. As per The Seahorse Trust , seahorses could become extinct in as little as 20 to 30 years if their trade is not curbed, or more sustainable practices are introduced.
Because seahorses is included in Appendix II they are subject to certain regulations including restrictions in their trade unless they are accompanied by a CITES permit. Absolutely all trade in seahorses require CITES permits and authorisation from a scientific or management authority. This includes export, import, re-export and re-import of any and all seahorses whether they are alive or dead, whole or in part.
A slight silver lining
There are a number of organisations that are trying to farm seahorses. They have not been fully successful as to date but could eventually lower the amount of wild seahorses being captured for trade in the future.
Seahorses are fascinating creatures. Although they charm and entice and often leave divers feeling like they just want to take them home and take care of them, seahorses area definitely best left in the wild while advocating for their protection and conservation.
* A version of this article first appeared at www.scubadiverlife.com
[P2]Add link to seahorse article I wrote before