Tracking the international trade of seahorses (Hippocampus species)

The database generated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( offers an unparalleled opportunity to analyse trade in species of conservation concern. We here evaluate its value and challenges in the context of trade in seahorses (Hippocampus spp), with a view to enhancing the CITES database to its full potential. All seahorses are included on Appendix II of the Convention, requiring that all 176 Parties to CITES (signatory countries) limit exports to levels that do not damage wild populations, and report their trade to CITES. This is the first examination of CITES data for any marine fish of commercial importance; seahorses are traded for traditional medicine, aquarium display and curiosities.

We analysed the records of seahorse trade submitted by Parties to CITES in the four years after implementation of the listing, which occurred in 2004, and compared reported trends to historical data sets collected in global trade surveys between 1998 and 2001. This allowed us to 1) see what CITES data can tell us about trends in the global trade of seahorse, 2) compare recent CITES data to historical prelisting survey data, and 3) highlight the benefits and pitfalls of using the CITES Trade Database for analysing trade in threatened species.

Our evaluation indicated that Parties need to improve their entries by identifying the exports to species (23% of records were reported only to the level of genus), providing units for exports (e.g. individuals, kgs), and recording all trade shipments. In particular, the substantial mismatch in species and volumes between (i) mandatory export records for all Parties and (ii) voluntary import records by particular Parties emphasises the value of the latter and argues a need for greater universal compliance with CITES reporting requirements. The discrepancies among export and import data also suggested under-reporting to be a major problem with CITES data for seahorses. The challenges with the CITES database were more evident for the global trade in dried seahorses than the smaller and more discrete trade in live seahorses.

For all the limitations of the CITES data, they indicated that seven years after implementing CITES for seahorses, the trade in these marine fishes continues to involve tens of species, scores of countries and millions of animals – the vast majority of which were reportedly traded dried and from the wild. The CITES database reports more species in trade and lower volumes of trade than had been estimated historically, but the evident data gaps mean that we cannot deduce where the correct estimate lies. Asian countries were both the main exporters and importers for seahorses over time, with Thailand as the primary source for seahorses in dried trade, and Hong Kong SAR, Taiwan and mainland China as the major consumers. The inferences we were forced to make from CITES data suggested substantial new exports from Guinea. These patterns in source and consumption of dried seahorses were reflected in the species reported to CITES – with the vast majority of the dried trade by volume reported as one of three Asian (Hippocampus trimaculatus, H. spinosissimus, H. kelloggi) or one West African (H. algiricus) species. CITES data reported a level of export of live seahorses from 2004-2008 that was rather lower than that deduced pre-CITES, and indicated an increasing reliance on captive-breeding operations to supply the live trade. Southeast Asian countries declared most of the trade in live seahorses, a finding consistent with historic trade patterns, and the USA remained the primary destination for live trade.

As with the dried trade, the live trade reported to CITES was focused on a few species. Two species, H. kuda and H. reidi, were reported to make up more than three-quarters of live trade volumes in CITES data. Despite the challenges faced in using CITES data to analyse trade in seahorses, the CITES Trade Database gives us an unparalleled tool to investigate the trade in seahorses and other listed species. There is, however, a clear need to improve the reliability and thus increase the utility of the database.

Some suggested improvements include: 1) automate record validation to help eliminate common sources of reporting discrepancies; 2) increased capacity to improve species identification and emphasize the importance of accuracy in volumes and units; 3) allowances for easier submission of records of derivatives (including species content); and 4) implement a system to cross-validate data through field and trade sampling. It is important to realise that even perfect CITES data would leave many questions unanswered. For example, for all Parties there is a great need to understand any domestic consumption of seahorses (which is sometimes very large) and the additional pressure it may apply.

Evanson, M., Foster, S.J., Wiswedel S., & A.C.J. Vincent (2011). Tracking the international trade of seahorses (Hippocampus species). Fisheries Centre Research Reports 19(2). Fisheries Centre, The University of British Columbia. 104 pp.