Demand for seahorses is high and seemingly insatiable.
That said, it is becoming clear that non-selective fisheries are responsible for the high seahorse catch in most regions, regardless of what the markets seek. In other regions, demand does drive extraction, with problematic consequences. For example, a trawl fishery in southern Vietnam now explicitly targets seahorses to meet demand for traditional medicine while the aquarium trade is often driven by demand.
The global trade in seahorses involves tens of millions of seahorses each year, from about 30 species, moving among about 80 countries globally.
Seahorses enter at least three markets: traditional medicine (dried), ornamental display (live) and curiosities (dried). Essentially, dried seahorses – which constitute about 95% of the trade – come from all types of fishing. All dried trade is wild sourced. In comparison, live seahorses that come from the wild are mostly extracted by small-scale selective fishing. However, nowadays, most of the aquarium trade comes from culturing.
Seahorses are sourced from fisheries all over the world, from six continents. Historically, the biggest source regions were South and Southeast Asia… and particularly India, Thailand, and the Philippines. Over time, however, trade has grown globally, particularly in association with expansion of China’s economic interests. There has been notable seahorse extraction in West Africa, Central and South America and the Mediterranean.
The vast majority of dried seahorses go to mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, where they are used as traditional medicine. There is also quite a large domestic trade in dried seahorses in Indonesia, for use in traditional jamu medicine. In contrast, the largest aquarium markets (hobby and public institutions) are in Europe and the USA.
Trade dynamics have changed hugely as a result of Project Seahorse work. In particular, many countries have banned exports, with uneasy consequences.
Approximately 95% of formal exports of dried seahorses have become illegal, as source countries eschew the challenge of regulating trade for sustainability.
Since 2004, when CITES export controls were implemented, the live trade has moved away from wild sourcing and towards animals born or bred in captivity.
Read more about seahorse trade.