Live seahorse trade
International trade in live seahorses
The international trade in seahorses is dominated by trade in dried individuals, for use in traditional medicines and as curios, but the live trade for aquarium display is the main pressure on some populations in some places. We here summarise findings from almost three decades of work tracking the international trade in live seahorses.
Information on trade in live seahorses has been gathered from:
The first investigation into the international trade in syngnathids in 1993 and 1995 covered eight countries in Asia.
First surveys suggested that aquarium seahorses were usually one of five species and that virtually all came directly from the wild. At least 16 countries exported live seahorses to more than 10 countries or territories.
Many live seahorses went to North America and Europe, but also to Japan and Taiwan. Calculations from Indonesian and Philippines’ exports alone indicated that many hundreds of thousands of live animals may have been taken for aquarium trade each year.
The second investigation into seahorse fisheries and trades from 1999-2002 covered 48 countries on 6 continents.
Global pre-CITES surveys conducted by Project Seahorse from 1998–2002 estimated the international trade in live seahorses at hundreds of thousands of individuals per year. The minimum annual export volume was calculated to be almost 600,000 live seahorses. The trade was reported to consist almost entirely of wild caught individuals of about 20 species.
Live trade was noted to occur among at least 40 countries/jurisdictions; 25 countries/jurisdictions were documented as exporters of live seahorses and 32 countries as importers.
Pre-CITES surveys documented most trade to originate in the Philippines, Indonesia and the United States. A majority of live seahorses were documented to end up in just a handful of mostly developed countries, as they were almost entirely imported for the home aquarium trade (with scant numbers recorded as being imported for public aquaria).
Pre-CITES surveys documented the United States and the European Union to be by far the largest markets for imported live seahorses.
CITES data: trade in seahorses reported to the CITES trade database (trade.cites.org).
Recent surveys: investigation into the live seahorse trade carried out in the European Union and the United States in 2020/2021.
Our analysis of CITES trade data from 2004-2018 has revealed that the international trade in live seahorses has very clearly changed in two significant ways since all seahorses were added to CITES Appendix II in 2002, with implementation in 2004.
First, overall export trade volumes have declined considerably over time. Second, there has been a shift from wild (source code W) to tank raised seahorses (source codes F – captive born = young born to wild parents, and C – captive bred = young born to parents also born in captivity), particularly to individuals that are declared as captive bred. These changes are reflected in CITES data but also, importantly, in our 2020/2021 interviews with importers and wholesalers in the main destination jurisdictions for the live trade (the European Union and the United States).
It seems that trade data reported to CITES do appear to offer a reasonable means of tracking trends in live seahorse trade over time. This is in sharp contrast to the trade in dried seahorses where CITES data do not reflect what is happening with international trade on the ground. The decline in overall volumes in international trade and the switch to tank raised seahorses are not independent of one another. Rather, the first finding is probably largely explained by the second. Changes were initially precipitated by the CITES listing in 2004, and then by Review of Significant Trade engagement with seahorses that started in 2009.
[Updated 10 June 2021]
[Updated 7 February 2023]