The live seahorse trade in Los Angeles

Global seahorse populations (Hippocampus spp.) are under pressure from habitat degradation, accidental capture (bycatch), and direct exploitation. Seahorses are primarily traded for use in traditional Chinese medicine and its derivatives, but they are also sold as dried curiosities and live for ornamental display in aquariums. In 2002, all seahorse species were included on Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The listing came into effect in May 2004.

This 2005 survey carried out in Los Angeles (LA), California, a major destination for the ornamental aquarium market, suggests that the CITES listing of seahorses affected the live trade of seahorses into the United States. In establishing relationships with eight LA area marine wholesalers, the researchers learned that the CITES listing implementation resulted in a number of changes in the Los Angeles live trade. A de facto moratorium on live seahorse imports occurred for nearly a year in response to the listing taking effect – apparently because Parties (CITES member governments) were devising export controls.

After trade resumed, the dominant source countries for live seahorses had changed as the two main pre-CITES sources, Brazil and the Philippines, had ceased export. Wild seahorses post-CITES at the participating wholesalers hailed mainly from Indonesia and Vietnam while tank-raised seahorses came mainly from Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Post-CITES trade volumes were depressed by 45-59% and species compositions changed at the participating wholesalers. Aquacultured animals became more prevalent in trade. The wholesaler operations that carried cultured seahorses noted that the cultured stock produced fewer husbandry concerns, which had historically been a major barrier to keeping seahorses in aquariums. Changes in source regions for wild seahorses and the growing role of aquaculture led to decreases in the size of the animals in trade. Further responses to the CITES listing included the end of the LA traders’ previously minimal re-export of seahorses from the USA, and a doubling in prices of live seahorses.

The results of this live trade case study in LA suggested that the live seahorse trade was responsive to regulation under CITES, and that aquarium wholesalers were generally receptive to future collaboration on research into the live seahorse trade.

Magera, A.M., Morgan, S., Koldewey, H.J. & A.C.J. Vincent (2005) The live seahorse trade in Los Angeles. Project Seahorse, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, The University of British Columbia. 35 pp