Regulating legal trade

Project Seahorse work on seahorse trade has driven policy decisions to monitor and regulate their extraction and sale, at regional and global scales.

In 1998, our findings led Hong Kong and the European Union to begin monitoring their international trade in seahorses. Four years later, in 2002, our research and advocacy prompted global restrictions on export trade in seahorses, the first for any fully marine fishes.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES ) – a United Nations agreement of 184 countries – regulates exports of animals and plants that are, or may become, threatened because of international trade. All seahorses are listed on Appendix II which means exports must be sustainable, legal and monitored, and transport of live animals must be humane. CITES lists tens of thousands of species on Appendix II but, until seahorses, had refused to list any marine fishes, arguing that they should be left to fisheries management organizations.

Seahorse listing

Project Seahorse knowledge drove the listing of seahorses and remain pivotal to its implementation. We have contributed research on taxonomy, ecology, fisheries, trade and conservation status of seahorses. We have also offered management proposals – such as a universal minimum size for species in trade – that guide countries in implementing the listing.

Before the seahorses, CITES had never agreed to restrict exports of any marine fishes to sustainable levels.

Setting precedent

In voting to add all seahorse species to Appendix II, CITES set precedent and created a new instrument to inform exploitation of marine fishes globally. Since that vote, 100 species of sharks, rays, eels, and reef fishes have been added to Appendix II, such that marine fish listings are now normal for CITES.

Our work with seahorses has repeatedly set precedent for marine fish species across CITES implementation and remedial processes. In particular, we developed the first framework for countries to assess exports of marine fishes for sustainability, called making Non-Detriment Findings. We also supported the first Review of Significant Trade for marine fishes, which asks countries to justify their exports of seahorses as sustainable, and drafted the first Recommendations to help countries meet their obligations for any marine fishes. We recently united resources into a toolkit to help support CITES member countries.

We continue to lead on seahorse issues at CITES, particularly in identifying and addressing illegal trade. Another key focus is the live (aquarium) trade in seahorses and how it has changed under CITES. We also led a study on CITES implementation of Appendix listings for marine fishes in general.

[Updated 6 July 2021]

[Updated 10 June 2021]