The catch and trade of seahorses in the Philippines post-CITES
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora decided to implement export controls for all seahorses in 2002 to ensure international trade is sustainable, legal and monitored. The Philippines, however, has not implemented the listing because their domestic Fisheries Code banned the extraction of any CITES listed marine species, including seahorses, since 1998. Exploitation continued nonetheless – field visits and surveys among importers in other countries revealed that fisheries and trade for seahorses continued illegally without monitoring or regulation. The revision of the Fisheries Code four years ago has provided renewed opportunity, however, to manage seahorse fisheries and trade for sustainability. Filipino Authorities are now in need of information that would allow them to develop a seahorse management plan, re-open legal fisheries and trades in a precautionary manner, and subsequently monitor and manage them in support of sustainable populations. In order to generate vital knowledge in support of this plan, we gathered information on the biology, fisheries, and trade of seahorses in the Philippines by conducting 268 interviews with fishers and traders across seventeen coastal provinces from May to July 2019.
Fishers reported catching seahorses from ten different types of fishing gear, some of which targeted seahorses (spear/skin divers, compressor divers, micro-trawls, push nets, and gleaners) and others which captured them incidentally in pursuit of other targets (gill nets (bottom), gill nets (floating), otter trawls, fish traps, and seines). The most commonly reported gear type was spear/skin diving. Mean catch per unit effort varied among gear types from fewer than one seahorse per day per gill net (bottom and floating), otter trawl and fish trap, to between one and ten seahorses per day for gleaners, spear/skin divers, compressor divers and fish nets, to as high as 100 seahorses per day per micro-trawler.
Scaling up catch rates (CPUE) to annual catch estimated a total national catch of ~1.7 million individual seahorses per year across the gear type/province combinations for which we had sufficient data. Compressor fishers were estimated to catch more than all other gear types combined, landing approximately 913,000 seahorses per year (54% of the total estimated catch), more than micro-trawls (~260,000 individuals), push nets (217,000 individuals) and spear/skin divers (~214,000 individuals) combined. The provinces of Iloilo, Masbate, Sulu, Bohol and Palawan together accounted for over 80% of our total national catch estimate, each landing between ~222,000 and ~359,000 individuals per year.
Our interviews with 31 buyers across ten provinces produced only limited quantitative information on purchase and sale volumes of seahorses in trade, but can infer that the majority of seahorse catches were dried and destined for export – we found very little evidence of live trade or domestic use. Buyers in the northern province of Pangasinan reported purchasing the largest number of seahorses per year. Seven different seahorse species were identified in trade (Hippocampus barbouri, H. comes, H. histrix, H. kelloggi, H. kuda, H. spinosissimus and H. trimaculatus), with H. comes and H. kuda comprising nearly two-thirds of specimens we surveyed. Buyers reported selling seahorses for between three and five times the price they paid fishers to acquire them; the median buying price per seahorses was USD 0.58, and the median selling price was USD 460 per kilogram or USD 2.30 per individual.
Ninety-eight percent of fishers reported a decline in seahorse catch over time, and spear/skin divers in Bohol and Surigao del Norte reported a decline in seahorse CPUE of 86% over a twenty-year period and 98% over a thirty-year period, respectively. Other indicators of conservation concern included highly skewed sex ratios across all species (more females than males); the proportion of males observed to be pregnant (about half of H. barbouri and more than half H. kuda males); and, for H. kuda, the mean size of sampled individuals was smaller than the species size at maturity.
Our surveys indicate that the Philippines is not fully implementing CITES regulations: none of the seahorse catch was being monitored or regulated to any extent to assess sustainability, and exports of dried seahorses were occurring illegally without CITES permits. For the Philippines to make progress in conserving seahorses it needs to pay attention to their fisheries, trade and conservation. The results of this study can be used to set the initial terms for sustainable exploitation under the revised Fisheries Code, terms which can be revised as more is learned in an adaptive management framework. The road map is there, the tools are in place, and the protocols are available to make considerable progress.
Foster, S.J., Stanton, L.M., Nellas, A.C., Arias, M.M. & A.C.J. Vincent (2019). The catch and trade of seahorses in the Philippines post-CITES. Fisheries Centre Research Reports 27(2): 45pp.