Seahorses drying, Viet Nam. Photo by Allison Stocks / Project Seahorse

Ending Illegal Trade

Project Seahorse is deeply committed to helping countries achieve sustainable legal trade of marine life.

While seeking sustainability is difficult, it is a lot more tractable than chasing smugglers in the dark. Moreover, local communities that benefit from trade are more likely to steward the resource.

Illegal wildlife trade

Countries’ challenges in meeting obligations to CITES largely led to the vast illegal trade in dried seahorses. When we first discovered the huge and global trade in seahorses in the 1990s, it was legal and unregulated in all countries. The unsustainable level of such trade led us, eventually, to push for CITES restrictions, which now require 184 countries to limit their exports to sustainable levels, and only trade legally acquired specimens.

Compliance with CITES

From 2009, we advised CITES in a process called the Review of Sustainable Trade that investigates countries’ compliance with the CITES Convention. Some countries escaped this RST process by declaring an end to exports. Other countries failed to meet RST recommendations and ended up having trade bans imposed upon them by CITES. And a few countries imposed their trade suspensions outside the RST process.

Our research has revealed that bans on seahorse trade have largely driven it underground, rather than ending it.

Approximately 98% of the dried seahorses that were traded pre-CITES would now be illegal, sent from countries that have set bans on export of seahorses. The corollary is that about 95% of the dried seahorses traded through Hong Kong in 2016-2017 came from countries with trade suspensions, so were illegal.

Bans led to illegal trade

Illegal trade under bans and suspensions was predictable. Most seahorses are caught by non-selective fishing gear, primarily bottom trawls. As long as such fisheries persist, seahorses will be caught and available for trade. The bans merely mean that seahorses are now exploited without oversight, monitoring or management, leaving us in the dark about the fate of wild populations.

Moving towards sustainability

Our current work focuses on how countries are implementing CITES regulations, and how their exports might be moved toward sustainability. In this, as in so much else, we are setting vital precedent for other marine fishes listed on CITES; many of them will enter the RST process soon. Indeed, we actively contribute to colleagues’ work on CITES regulation of sharks, rays, eels, and other marine fishes.

E-commerce and trade seizures

Beyond CITES, we are also engaged with documentation of e-commerce and trade seizures, along with advising on the regulation of e-commerce.

[Updated 10 June 2021]