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Seahorse trade continues despite export bans, study finds

Dried seahorses in Hong Kong. Image by Tyler Stiem/Project Seahorse.

  • Many countries with export bans on seahorses are still trading in the tiny animals, a new study has found.
  • Traders in Hong Kong, the world’s largest importer of dried seahorses, told researchers that their stocks of dried seahorses for 2016-17 had mostly come from Thailand, the Philippines, mainland China, Australia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam — most of these countries have export bans in place.
  • Much of the seahorse trade seems to persist despite the bans largely because of indiscriminate fishing practices like trawling that catch millions of seahorses every year while targeting other fish species.
  • This suggests that both outright bans on the seahorse trade as well as trade restrictions under CITES aren’t being enforced effectively.

Seahorses continue to be traded in large volumes, despite many source countries imposing bans on exports of the animals, a new study has found.

While some of these peculiarly shaped fishes with horse-like heads and prehensile tails are sold live to be showcased in aquariums, the majority are traded in their dried forms, mainly to be used in traditional Chinese medicines. Between 2004 and 2011, for instance, dried seahorses made up 98 percent of the reported 3.3 million to 7.6 million individual seahorses that were traded. Around 3 million to 5 million of these seahorses were imported by Hong Kong alone.

All known species of seahorses (Hippocampus spp.), however, are subject to trade restrictions. In 2002, these tiny animals were added to Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which means only those seahorses that are sourced sustainably and legally can be exported. However, instead of regulating the trade, many countries that previously exported seahorses, such as India, the Philippines and Indonesia, banned the exports outright. Even Thailand, once the world’s largest exporter of dried seahorses, imposed a ban starting January 2016.

“This meant that the countries historically responsible for 98% of reported seahorse exports by volume now had self- or CITES-imposed export bans on wild dried seahorses,” said Sarah Foster, lead author of the study published in Marine Policy, and a research associate with the Canada-based Project Seahorse.

To see if these bans were being enforced, Foster and her colleagues turned to Hong Kong, the world’s largest importer of dried seahorse. They interviewed 189 traders in Hong Kong, including importers, wholesalers and retailers, asking them where they thought their stocks of dried seahorses, purchased in 2016 and 2017, came from. According to the traders, their biggest source of dried seahorses was Thailand, followed by the Philippines, mainland China, Australia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam — most of these countries have export bans in place.

This didn’t surprise the team at all, Foster said.

“Dried seahorses are very easy to move across borders — they are small and, being dried, keep well over long time periods. They are often moved among shipments of other dried seafoods, or in personal luggage, or via other hard to detect routes,” she said. “So we had long suspected they were still crossing borders in spite of declared export bans.”

Last February alone, customs officials in India seized 160 kilograms (350 pounds) of smuggled dried seahorses.

“What we have now is a situation where the seahorse trade seems to be continuing ‘business as usual’ but is not legal, not managed and not monitored — all three of which are required under CITES provisions,” Foster said.

Dried seahorses are mainly used in traditional Chinese medicine. Image by Tyler Stiem/Project Seahorse.

Much of the seahorse trade seems to be persisting despite the bans largely because of indiscriminate fishing practices like trawling, which catch millions of seahorses every year while targeting other fish species. What this means, Foster said, is that seahorses will continue to be caught even if there is no market demand.

Moreover, bans or trade restrictions on seahorse exports are meaningless unless well enforced. Countries party to CITES, for example, must limit the export of seahorses to levels that are safe for wild populations. “Many are struggling to meet this obligation,” Amanda Vincent, co-author of the study and a professor at the University of British Columbia, as well as director of Project Seahorse, said in a statement.

But opting out of carefully managing the trade because it is difficult and imposing a total ban instead is also problematic, Foster said. “The challenge now is they are not fully implementing the bans either,” she said. “If Parties are going to use bans to meet their CITES obligations, instead of working toward legal and sustainable trade, then they have to enforce them. Otherwise the seahorse populations are no better off. They will continue to be caught and find their way into markets.”

The researchers say the seahorse trade can be managed in ways that don’t slash wild populations. Countries that have banned the seahorse trade must figure out ways to effectively enforce their bans, for example.

“Alternatively, they can lift the bans and take steps toward a legal and sustainable trade,” Foster said. “We are certain seahorses will do better with CITES support than without… [T]here are tools in place to support Parties to get it right. They can start with what they know now, and improve as they learn more in an adaptive management context. In many cases an imperfectly managed but legal trade is easier to move toward sustainability than trade occurring in the black market.”

The estuary or spotted seahorse, Hippocampus kuda, is one of most commonly traded seahorses. Image by Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Banner image of dried seahorses in Hong Kong by Tyler Stiem/Project Seahorse.


Foster, S. J., Kuo, T. C., Wan, A. K. Y., & Vincent, A. C. (2019). Global seahorse trade defies export bans under CITES action and national legislation. Marine Policy, 103, 33-41.

Correction 03-12-2019: A sentence noting that all species of seahorses are part of the illegal wildlife trade has been removed. Several seahorse species, especially the very small pygmies, are not part of the trade. All species are, however, listed in CITES Appendix II. The article now reflects this change. A previous version of the article also suggested that Australia has a seahorse export ban in place. Australia doesn’t and the article now reflects that.


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