Assessing legal trade

Project Seahorse is a global leader in research on wildlife trade in the field and in analysis of trade records.

Our first field surveys of the trade in seahorses, then both legal and unregulated, began in 1994. That small foray revealed a huge scale and worrying impact of trade in seahorses. We then undertook surveys and mined available records in 48 countries across six continents.

Detective work

Our trade surveys have often been very difficult and demanding. Many of our most notable findings have emerged from intense field work, visiting markets and ports, talking to fishers and traders, boarding boats and digging through old records. That detective work has paid great dividends, with an unparalleled understanding of seahorse trade.

First surveys

Our first report on seahorse trade, published with TRAFFIC in 1996, revealed a massive export of these animals. The vast majority were used in dried form by traditional medicine in east Asia (especially in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) or by the curiosity trade. However, hundreds of thousands of seahorses were also sold live each year for aquarium display, mostly in North America and Europe.

Subsequent surveys

We continued to assess trade in seahorses after that first report, with a notable global push on field work and analysis in 1999-2002 and an array of surveys in many key countries ever since. Such investigations revealed that, prior to CITES listing, ever more countries from ever farther away were exporting more seahorses.

It is vital to conduct field surveys to understand the full scale and impact of trade. A few governments began keeping been formal records of exports and imports as far back as 1983, and most countries have been regulating export trade since 2004. However, such official records only represent legal trade and are filled with gaps and discrepancies, severely misrepresenting trade.

Ongoing need for surveys

Trade surveys are the backbone of wildlife trade regulation, and need to be undertaken in all key source countries if we are to understand the real scale and importance of extraction from the wild. Project Seahorse is currently poised to launch into another series of trade surveys, as soon as funding can be secured. It is vitally important to understand extraction and sales in a number of countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Such detective work is particularly significant in light of official bans on seahorse export in a number of countries, bans that have driven trade underground into the black market.