The catch and trade of seahorses in India pre-ban


The first extensive seahorse trade surveys undertaken in India, during 1999, take on tremendous importance in light of subsequent changes in management of seahorse fisheries and trade. As these early surveys have never been published, we now present our findings.

We gathered information from 325 interviews on the biology, fisheries, and trade of seahorses, from seven states and one Union Territory of India. At the time of this work, no legal protection existed for seahorses. When this field research was conducted, India was a major global supplier of dried seahorses for traditional medicine; estimates from our surveys suggest that a median of 41.9 tonnes or 16.76 million individual seahorses were caught every year from all across India. The targeted seahorse fishery had originally developed in 1992 along the southeastern part of the country in response to the declining sea cucumber fishery.

Our 1999-2000 surveys ascertained that divers in the region caught a median of 3,746,700 seahorses annually for the dried seahorse trade. However, we found that seahorses were primarily caught incidentally in trawl fisheries (58% of the total median catch). While incidental catches of seahorses occurred in many regions of the country, we found that the catches by trawlers were greatest in the southern state of Tamil Nadu (including Puducherry) which accounted for 84% of all trawl catches.

Seahorse populations were facing increased pressure because of the expanding trade in dried seahorses. Four species of seahorses were found in the dried seahorse trade, and the seahorse trade was primarily found to operate in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The trade network was revealed to be complicated and traders often acted at multiple levels of the trade chain. From our surveys, we were able to account for median annual export estimates of 12.58 tonnes, or 5.03 million seahorses, based on the reported values of just five major exporters. However, based on information from our respondents we expect that this value was much higher. The major exporters primarily operated out of two cities in Tamil Nadu, and seahorses were exported to Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. Official Indian export figures for the same time period combined pipefish and seahorse exports (1.27 tonnes) and considerably underestimated export volumes and values of seahorses exported.

Domestic consumption of live seahorses for marine aquaria and of dried seahorses for curios was negligible relative to exports. In 2001, almost immediately after these surveys, all seahorse species (genus Hippocampus) in India were placed on Schedule I of India’s Wild Life Protection Act of 1972. This meant that all seahorse extraction
and trade was banned throughout the country. In 2002, seahorses were added to CITES Appendix II, requiring that all exports be sourced legally and without detriment to wild populations. Such restrictions make historic baseline trade assessments such as this one particularly valuable.

Perry, A.L., Vaidyanathan, T., Giles, B., Moreau, M-A., Picco, C.M. & A.C.J. Vincent (2020). The catch and trade of seahorses in India pre-ban. Fisheries Centre Research Reports 28 (3): 55pp.