Seahorses (Hippocampus species) are fascinating marine animals with miniature horse-like features and distinctive life stories, but unfortunately are also vulnerable due to overexploitation for ornamental trade and traditional Chinese medicine.
Although CITES prohibits wild seahorse trade, their numbers continue to decline rapidly. Yong and Foster question if captive breeding will be enough to overcome market pressures that threaten these fragile creatures.
Seahorses are highly valued for their medicinal qualities, with most removed from the wild being dead and dried for consumption in traditional Chinese medicine to treat asthma, boost virility and treat impotence. A small percentage may find their way into home aquariums or sold as kitschy souvenirs.
Not surprisingly, demand for medicinal seahorses will likely remain strong indefinitely; however, due to CITES action and national bans introduced (Foster et al., 2019), live trade appears to have stopped (Foster et al. 2019). Unfortunately, bans aren’t enforced effectively: research from University of British Columbia found that 95% of Dried seahorse sold in Hong Kong come from nations that prohibit export of these fishes – suggesting illegal trading is taking place nonetheless.
Solution: Reduce wild populations and protect marine ecosystems that provide wild seahorses with the pristine environments they require for growth and survival. Support captive seahorse, promote no-fish zones in marine parks and protect mangroves, wetlands, coral reefs and estuaries where these animals may seek sanctuary.
Seahorses have long been used as an effective treatment in traditional Chinese medicine to alleviate symptoms like asthma, baldness and impotence. Furthermore, seahorses may promote kidney yang, an antifertility remedy known as an effective aphrodisiac.
China’s increased use of seahorses in captivity has contributed to their dramatic decrease in numbers – dropping by 70 % within just 10 years.
Foster’s team conducted interviews with 220 Hong Kong traders to ascertain where their stock of dried seahorses, sold at Chinese medicine shops between 2016 and 2017, originated. Of those, 95% came from Thailand despite it having banned exports officially.
Foster stresses that illegal trade of marine species must be addressed globally and wishes for increased emphasis on shrinking fishing fleet sizes, banning large sections of ocean from trawling activity and tighter enforcement of trade bans already in place.
Seahorses are being harvested faster than they can reproduce and their numbers are rapidly declining worldwide. The international community has made progress to protect these beautiful creatures; they now appear on the endangered list and trade restrictions are in place via an agreement among 183 countries known as Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
But despite these regulations, many still harvest them illegally for traditional Chinese medicine, aquariums or dried curios. Each year alone 20 million seahorses are sold this way according to Project Seahorse at McGill University in Canada for this purpose alone – believed to cure ailments ranging from wheezing and impotence to inducing labor.
Seahorses face serious threats from commercial fishing techniques, especially trawl nets which cover an area twice the size of the continental United States and capture everything that crosses their path including seahorses. Many are then released back into the ocean without being sold, though occasionally some make their way into these nets and end up sold later on.
Two millennia of TCM demand has created an abundance of dried seahorse in China, and its compact form makes them easy to transport across borders with luggage. Trade bans tend to cause shifts in market shares that reduce rather than increase seahorse populations.
Dried seahorses can be found widely throughout Hong Kong’s Chinese medicine shops despite an export ban, with their sales rising year over year in spite of this data showing legal trade has decreased over the past decade.
Foster thinks the increase in sales may be linked to rising interest in traditional Chinese medicine; however, that alone wouldn’t save seahorses: their real concern lies with indiscriminate fishing practices – since seahorses are relatively rare animals they are unlikely to be targeted directly by artisanal fishermen but instead collected along with other fish in trawlers or gillnets.