Dried seahorses for sale in Hong Kong. Photo by Tyler Stiem / Project Seahorse

Controlling Legal Trade

Our Project Seahorse work on wildlife trade has long played a significant role in applying a key United Nations agreement to marine fishes.

We have married meticulous research to bold management recommendations to create opportunities for policy change at national and global levels. Our direct involvement with countries around the world continues to influence multilateral action on regulating exports of a suite of marine fishes at risk of overexploitation.

Starting in 1994, Project Seahorse was the first to discover the extensive trade in seahorses and to identify its risks.

Trade surveys

Through field surveys on fisheries and trade on six continents, we calculated the trade in seahorses as totalling tens of millions of individuals across more than 20 species, exported and imported by about 80 countries. Trade in dried specimens dominated exports but capture of seahorses for the aquarium trade exerted considerable pressure on particular species in certain areas.

Our interviews and market surveys indicated that catch rate of seahorses was declining notably, despite accelerating demand. Such data led us to evaluate seahorses for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and discover that six species (then) were threatened by extinction.

Regulating exports

Once the impacts of fisheries and trade on seahorses became clear, we took action to move exports towards sustainability. Much of this work lay in engaging with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Project Seahorse was appointed to lead a CITES Working Group on the possibility of listing seahorses and other syngnathid fishes on Appendix II. Species on Appendix II can only be exported if a country grants permits confirming that such exports do not damage wild populations and the specimens were legally sourced.

Seahorses on CITES Appendix II

Our success in promoting listing of seahorses on CITES Appendix II – by providing the technical expertise, developing the management advice and guiding the conversation – was a notable victory for these quirky fishes but also for marine fishes more generally; seahorses were the first marine fishes voted onto Appendix II, in 2002. Ever since that vote, Project Seahorse has been instrumental in holding countries (now 182 of them) accountable for their commitment and promoting better action by CITES for conservation of seahorses…and other marine fishes.

We are actively involved in a variety of approaches for assessing and helping regulate trade in seahorses and other marine fishes. We are currently planning another series of trade surveys in key countries where illegal trade appears very problematic.

Sarah Foster (right) at CITES CoP18. Photo by Alessandro Ponzo