CITES makes a difference to the trade in live seahorses

We’re thrilled to report on what may well be the first quantitative analysis of how CITES1 has influenced the international trade in marine fishes.

It was exciting to discover that listing seahorses on CITES Appendix II appears to have reduced the pressure of international trade in live seahorses (for ornamental display) on some of their wild populations. As regulation of wildlife trade is one of our primary goals, such progress is both encouraging and rewarding, especially given our leadership in this work for more than twenty years.

CITES is a critical tool for the conservation of wild animals and plants threatened by international trade. Seahorses were the first fully marine fish species added to Appendix II in 2002 despite the Convention entering into force in 1975. An Appendix II listing means that all exports must be legal, sustainable and monitored. Seahorses were also the first marine fishes to go through a CITES enforcement process called the Review of Significant Trade (RST). As such, seahorses –  all 46 species in the genus Hippocampus –  offer an important case study to understand how CITES action affects wildlife exports.

In contrast to our extensive work on the dried trade of seahorses, we knew little about how CITES has affected the trade in live seahorses. Although the vast majority of seahorses are traded dead for traditional medicine, the live trade for ornamental display is the main pressure on some populations. To fill this important gap in our understanding, we used official data and industry interviews to investigate changes in the international trade in live seahorses over time, exploring the influence of the CITES listing and the associated RST. In addition to a global overview, we delved into the two main destination markets for the live seahorse trade: the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (US).

We provide conclusive evidence that the Appendix II listing has measurably changed the global trade in seahorses, a rare and encouraging conclusion for this Convention. Our results show an overall decline in international trade volumes of live seahorses, and a shift from wild to cultured animals. Globally, we found that reported exports of seahorses from the key trading Parties declined notably in the first few years after the listing. Documented exports dropped yet more with the onset of the RST, such that official trade volumes in 2018 were just 7% of levels before the listing. Two changes explained this decline in traded volumes: (i) a decrease in reported wild sourcing after the listing and (ii) a later decrease in reported volumes of captive born seahorses, meaning that their parents came from the wild. Almost all live seahorses in international trade are now actually captive bred, meaning that their parents were themselves captive born. Global changes were largely echoed in changes in the US (as the biggest market) while changes in the EU were influenced by the growing culture and trade of seahorses within the EU.

In summary, the CITES listing for seahorses appears to have reduced pressure of international trade on some wild populations, those where capture primarily led to live exports for ornamental display. In contrast, the trade in dried seahorses remains very problematic after the CITES listing, involving large volumes of smuggled seahorses. The difference probably lies in the relatively small volumes in live trade, target capture of live seahorses, feasibility of culturing enough seahorses for the live trade, difficulty in smuggling live seahorses (because they must be shipped rapidly, in water), consumer preference for captive bred fish, high prices for live seahorses, and good regulatory capacity in many countries involved in live trade. The missing step in assessing the value of CITES implementation for wild seahorse populations is good monitoring to determine how they are actually responding to the changes we document.

Our findings will be considered by CITES Parties as they make efforts to improve implementation of the Convention for seahorses. They are also timely as CITES recently began a process to consider its role for conserving marine species traded for ornamental display.  As well, CITES member countries will almost certainly debate adding new marine fish species to CITES Appendices at the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP19, November 2022).

Watch this space for more updates on the trade of seahorses.

  1. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora