The “amazing race” to uncover seahorse trade and exploitation in the Philippines

We recently set out on an amazing race, criss-crossing the Philippines by plane, boat, bus and car in less than 3 months, to uncover seahorse trade and exploitation. We discovered that 1.7+ million seahorses are caught per year in the Philippines, compared to over 4 million per year 20 years ago.

Despite international trade (CITES1) regulations, countries are still illegally trading and exporting seahorses – and this includes the Philippines. CITES Authorities in the Philippines asked for our collaboration. They asked us to provide them with the information needed to achieve and strive for legal, sustainable exploitation of seahorses in the Philippines. So we happily set up a partnership with their willing fisheries management agency, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). The latest news of seahorse seizures happening around the world, and in the Philippines, also added urgency to our quest. With limited time to complete a round-the-country survey and talk to as many fishers and traders in the Philippines as possible we knew it had to be done in a timely fashion but it also had to be done well. There was a lot at stake.

Of course, we’ve been down this road before, indeed many times. Similar to our trade research in Viet Nam in 2017, we returned to the Philippines to see how much had changed in seahorse catch and trade since our initial surveys in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Fishers in San Salvador. Photo by Myrtle Arias/ZSL-Philippines

Many Filipino fishers rely on seahorses to supplement their incomes in a world with an ever-decreasing supply of fish. In fact, seahorses have long been an important source of income for the many small-scale fishers in the Philippines, and elsewhere. We want to ensure that fishers can continue to catch seahorses but in a way that is sustainable without compromising future generations of seahorse populations or future livelihoods. The government of the Philippines wants to get this right, and, of course, we want that too! Our aim is to ensure seahorse populations flourish and to support countries in meeting their national CITES obligations.

But, how do we help them achieve these goals? How does our research help? And, what can be done once we have all the new information?

First, let’s step back in time. Over twenty years ago, our research confirmed that the Philippines was a major exporter of dried and live seahorses – estimates ranged from 10, 000 kilograms of dried seahorses to approximately 4 million individuals annually. Most seahorses were targeted by free divers or compressor diving using their bare hands, spears or lanterns. They were also targeted by gleaners along the shoreline with push or scoop nets. The Philippines was the second largest supplier of dried seahorses to Hong Kong and Taiwan, after Thailand – who claimed the number one spot. Reports of declining seahorse catches swiftly followed.

Then in 1998, the Philippines government banned the capture and trade of all CITES listed species – this included seahorses. What happened since the ban is what we were aiming to uncover. We know, from field visits and surveys among traders in other countries that catch and trade for seahorses continued illegally without monitoring or regulation. Our recent paper in Marine Policy revealed that the extraction and trade of seahorses continues illegally, despite trade bans in a number of countries including the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Viet Nam.

The research team: Lily Stanton, Sarah Foster, Angie Nellas, Amanda Vincent and Myrtle Arias.

We embarked on this amazing race with our ZSL–Philippines colleagues, biologists Angelie Nellas and Myrtle Arais. Angie and Myrtle have over 20 years of experience working with ZSL and they were the perfect fit for the job. Trade research can be complicated. You need to put on your detective hat and ask the right questions in order to obtain the information required to estimate seahorse catch. We needed to know how fishers were catching seahorses (what gear they were using), how often they fished (i.e. how many days in a week, month, year) and how many seahorses they caught. Without these three key pieces of information we cannot come up with an estimate.

In just three months (March – May), our hard-working colleagues interviewed over 280 fishers across 17 provinces and 29 municipalities in the Philippines. They found, measured and photographed over 200 dried seahorses from fishers and buyers, and documented new gear types designed specifically to target seahorses. From their interviews, we identified seahorse fishery hotspots in the Philippines and recorded the gears types that caught the greatest number of seahorses. For example, compressor divers caught more seahorses than the other nine gear types combined. Particularly concerning was the use of micro-trawls in the island province of Sulu, where seaweed farmers supplemented their income using specially modified nets attached to small boats to target and catch over 100 seahorses per fisher per day. Thankfully, they only reported fishing four times a month but if they were to increase their effort or if other locations and provinces in the Philippines started using this gear type the seahorses could be in a lot of trouble.

Seahorses drying in Bohol. Photo by Myrtle Arias/ZSL-Philippines.

In the end, we found that fewer seahorses were caught and traded in the Philippines than twenty years ago. But, is it because capturing seahorses is (and has been for a long time) considered illegal in the Philippines? Is it because there are now fewer seahorses left in the ocean? Or, is it that not everyone is completely honest about their illegal activities? Whatever the case may be, we discovered one very important thing, seahorses are still captured and sold in great numbers in the Philippines. Over 1.7 million seahorses are landed every year in the Philippines compared to over 4 million some 20 years ago. We also found that gears specifically targeting seahorses such as micro-trawls, push nets, compressor divers, and spear and skin divers caught the greatest number of seahorses. And, although this may sound bad at first glance, for management purposes this type of fishing activity should theoretically be easier to manage than those fishing gears that catch seahorses incidentally like bottom trawls. For targeted fisheries we can introduce minimum size limits, implement daily quotas on catch and improve Marine Protected Area enforcement.

So, what happens next? What did we do with this information? We held a feedback meeting with government officials from the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute (NFRDI) to share our results and findings. The Philippines revised their Fisheries Code four years ago and this provided them with a new opportunity to manage seahorse fisheries and trade for sustainability. Our results provided them with the information needed to develop and implement a seahorse management plan, to potentially re-open legal seahorse fisheries and trade in a precautionary manner, and monitor and manage their seahorse populations sustainably. We want to help the Philippine government make the necessary changes and take steps towards sustainable exploitation and we are there to support them along the way. We need the Philippines government to take action now. The road map is there, the tools are in place, and the protocols are available to make considerable progress. Now, we just need to get moving.

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  1. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.