Dried seahorse trade

International trade in dried seahorses

The international trade in seahorses is vast, involving many millions of moving among tens of countries, most of which are traded dried for use in traditional medicines and as curios. We here summarise findings from almost three decades of work tracking the international trade in dried seahorses.

Information on trade in dried seahorses has been gathered from:

The first investigation into the international trade in syngnathids in 1993 and 1995 covered eight countries in Asia.

This was the very first survey of the rapidly growing trade in seahorses for medicines, aquaria and curios – it had not hitherto been investigated.

The survey found that at least 32 nations around the world were involved in trading dried seahorse. The largest known net importers of dried seahorses were mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The largest known exporters of dried seahorses were India, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Information obtained during interviews in combination with the few published Customs statistics available, suggested that annual consumption just within Asian nations amounted to 45t of dried seahorses annually (about 16 million individuals).

Total global consumption of dried seahorses was considered to be much greater because (i) domestic consumption could not be calculated for most countries, and (ii) many nations outside Asia also absorbed dried seahorses for medicines and curios. Extracting seahorses appeared to be having a serious effect on their populations. Most participants in established seahorse fisheries reported that catches were dwindling markedly.

Fishery-dependent data and interviews with fishers collected between 1990 and 1995 estimated populations to have declined by 15-75% over a period of 3-10 years in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

The second investigation into seahorse fisheries and trades from 1999-2002 covered 48 countries on 6 continents.

Project Seahorse conducted surveys of both the live and dried seahorse trade in 48 countries from 1998 to 2002. Through the surveys, researchers identified a further 17 countries involved in international trade that were not directly surveyed. Data from these historic surveys has been presented in the form of primary publications and/or reports – most of which are publicly available but some of which remain unpublished (links below).

When compared to the first surveys, these second surveys revealed that ever more countries were trading ever more seahorses. Indeed, the number of seahorses in trade had doubled, involving 70 tonnes (~24 million animals) across 23 species, and there had been substantial geographic expansion of the trade to involve at least 75 countries.

The trade in dried specimens dominated exports. Most dried seahorses were caught as bycatch in non-selective fishing gears such as bottom trawls and gillnets.

The majority of dried seahorses were exported from Thailand, India, Mexico, the Philippines and Viet Nam and sent to mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan for use as traditional medicines. Reports of population declines also continued after the inclusion of seahorses in Appendix II of CITES. Of fishers interviewed who commented on changes in seahorse catch over time, almost 70% reported declines. Declines were reported by the majority of fishers in all regions, except Africa.

Countries we have surveyed include:

Argentina     Australia     Austria     Bangladesh     Belgium     Belize     Brazil     Canada     China     Cook Islands     Costa Rica     Denmark     Ecuador     France     Germany     Guatemala     Honduras     Hong Kong     India     Indonesia     Ireland     Italy     Japan     Kenya     Korea     Malaysia     Mexico     Mozambique     Netherlands     New Zealand     Nicaragua     Pakistan     Panama     Peru     Philippines     Portugal     Singapore     Solomon Islands     South Africa     Spain     Sweden     Switzerland     Taiwan     Tanzania     Thailand     United Kingdom     United States of America     Viet Nam

Visit Our Trade Projects for associated reports.

Trade in seahorses reported to the CITES trade database.

The international trade in dried seahorses appears not to have changed after the inclusion of seahorses in Appendix II of CITES and up until seahorses were included in the CITES Review of Significant Trade (RST). International trade remained large, multi-species and global.

Annual seahorse exports – as reported to CITES from 2004-2011 – comprised many millions of animals of a reported 31 species traded among at least 87 countries. The vast majority of the trade was in dried seahorses, which was documented to involve 23 species, 45 source countries and 29 destination countries. The vast majority of reported dried exports was from Southeast Asia and West Africa to China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) and involved wild seahorses sourced from non-selective fishing practices. A smaller live trade was reported from Southeast Asia to Europe and North America.

The RST process led to notable changes in reported seahorse exports. As of November 2018, the RST had led to the end of legal exports from range State-species combinations that together comprised 98% of reported wild seahorse exports in the CITES database from 2004 to 2018 (China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand – all species; Guinea, Senegal – H. algiricus; Viet Nam – H. kuda).

CITES data, across all sources (wild and captive bred), reveal a massive drop in trade volumes reported to CITES since 2011 when Parties first started responding to RST with trade suspensions. The average annual reported trade volume from 2012 to 2018 was just 8% of the annual average reported from 2004 to 2011 for dried trade.

There is now very little dried trade reported to CITES, although on the ground trade research reveals high volume trade continues (see post-CITES surveys).

Volume of seahorses (in number of individuals), both wild and captive bred, reported in the CITES trade database from 2004 to 2018. As the CITES listing of seahorse species took effect in May 2004, 2004 data represents only a partial year of reporting.

Investigation into seahorse fisheries and trades carried out after implementation of the CITES Appendix II listing for seahorses.

Importers

We executed our first study of illegal seahorse trade (since most bans took effect) in 2017 in Hong Kong, a huge global trade centre for seahorses.  Our long-standing relationship with the Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Merchants Association allowed us to (i) interview them about putative sources for seahorses and to (ii) explore seahorse imports to Hong Kong in their warehouses.  Traders reported obtaining dried seahorses from many countries with bans on seahorse exports, most notably Thailand and the Philippines. Indeed, it is estimated that

almost all dried seahorses in Hong Kong (95%) were reportedly imported from source countries despite export bans being in place, indicating a widespread lack of enforcement.

Exporters

We have carried out extensive work in India, another country with huge exports. India banned capture and trade of seahorses in 2001, just before CITES voted to limit exports. Our national surveys from 2015-2017 revealed a huge ongoing trade in seahorses, primarily in the historically dominant area of Tamil Nadu. Almost 90% were caught by active non-selective fishing gear.

We have surveyed the seahorse trade of the Philippines, in collaboration with the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.  The Philippines had a national Fisheries Code that automatically banned use, capture and export of any species listed on any CITES Appendix, whatever its classification.  Our revelations of the ongoing capture and export of dried seahorses, documented in 2019, has been fed into an emerging national plan of action that we are developing for seahorses with BFAR.

We carried out a national trade survey in Thailand, in collaboration with the Thai Department of Fisheries. CITES data through 2011 documented Thailand as the main source of dried seahorses in international trade. Interviews in 2013-2014 suggested exports had declined but were still substantial, and a large discrepancy between declared export volumes and catch estimates suggested that trade was underreported. Even though most seahorses were incidentally caught, we estimated that dried seahorses could be worth US$26.5 million per year for Thai fishers. Thailand eventually banned dried seahorse exports (in 2016), but traders in Hong Kong reported Thailand as the main source of dried seahorses in the year that followed.

We led on seahorse trade surveys in Viet Nam in 2016 at the invitation of the Research Institute for Marine Fisheries, again revealing a large illegal trade.  CITES suspended exports of H. kuda from Viet Nam because of the country’s failure to meet its RST recommendations in a timely manner.  However, CITES lifted this measure when the country volunteered to ban exports of all seahorses. Our research revealed that Viet Nam was not fully implementing CITES regulations: large exports of dried seahorses were either exported illegally without CITES permits or exported with permits that Viet Nam did not report to CITES, and the purported switch in exports of cultured seahorses from H. kuda to H. comes after CITES banned exports needed probing.