Seahorse exploitation and trade in Viet Nam

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) decided to implement export controls for all seahorses in 2002, the first such controls for any marine fishes. Viet Nam had difficulties implementing CITES regulations and was eventually subject to an export trade suspension in 2013. To help address gaps in knowledge and capacity, we gathered information on the biology, fisheries, aquaculture, and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam, conducting 146 interviews in eight provinces.

Fishers reported catching seahorses from seven different types of fishing gear with two-thirds of the respondents reporting use of single trawls. Some divers and single trawls reported targeting seahorses directly, but most catch was incidental. Mean catch varied among gear types from fewer than one seahorse per day per seine net, to as high as 15 seahorses per day per pair trawler. The southernmost province, Kien Giang, obtained 85% of the total national catch estimate of about ~16.7 million individual seahorses per annum. The large number of vessels means that pair trawls land approximately 12.5 million seahorses per annum (75% of Viet Nam’s total catch), four times more than single trawls (around 20%).

Landed seahorses enter a complex trade, with large domestic consumption of seahorses in Viet Nam for seahorse wine and tonics and considerable export; we could not discern the ratios that enter each. The reported purchase volume of dry seahorses was more than three times that of wet seahorses, with buyers in Kien Giang purchasing the largest number of seahorses per annum. Five different seahorse species were identified in trade with Hippocampus trimaculatus comprising nearly two-thirds of specimens surveyed from seahorse buyers.

Seahorses born in captivity to wild parents – and traded live – made up 90% of reported wild exports in the CITES database for 2008-2014. Aquaculture facilities, all focused on H. kuda, reportedly struggled to close the life cycle on breeding – thus retaining dependence on wild broodstock, obtained from fishers – and extracted food for their seahorses from the wild. According to CITES data, two-thirds of live trade from 2005-2014 apparently went to the USA and 11% to France.

Ninety-five per cent of fishers from all provinces reported a decline in seahorse CPUE over a ten-year period with a mean 59% decline. Most fishers also reported inferred decline in body height (down 44%) and an increase in price of seahorses over the same time period (up 42%). A minority of buyers and two culturists also reported declines in supply.

Given that seahorses are pioneers in implementation of CITES for marine fishes, our work is of broad importance. We indicate that Viet Nam is not fully implementing CITES regulations: none of the seahorse catch was being monitored or regulated to any extent to assess sustainability; 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. comes to H. kuda after CITES banned exports of the latter in 2013 needs probing.

Foster, S.J., Aylesworth, L., Do, H.H., Bat, N.K. & A.C.J. Vincent (2017). Seahorse exploitation and trade in Viet Nam. Fisheries Centre Research Reports 25(2): 50pp.