The seahorse leads the way to sustainable trade in aquatic species

Having laws to conserve nature and knowing how to use them are two different things – if done well, seahorse conservation in the Philippines could pave the way for other species, writes Dr. Amanda Vincent  on World Wildlife Day.

By Amanda Vincent, Chair of the IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group and Director of Project Seahorse

(originally posted on IUCN blog)

Project Seahorse, the marine conservation group I lead, is just about to plunge into new seahorse conservation work in the Philippines. Which is very fitting because that’s really where seahorse conservation began, in the 1990s. It’s also an island country where many seahorse species – ten, to be precise – are found in a great variety of habitats. And a land where people have already made some important changes for the ocean. To bring all this together, we are now working to create a leap forward in management for sustainability, focused on the funky seahorse.

I have a love affair with the Philippines. It all started 23 years ago when, as an aspiring seahorse biologist, I saw an electronic billboard in Berlin that proclaimed seahorses were the “most valuable fisheries export from the Philippines.” Mesmerised, I soon found myself doing detective work, island hopping in this archipelagic nation to interview seahorse fishers and traders.

As a consequence, we were soon helping to set up a marine reserve on a small island called Jandayan, which quickly multiplied to be 35 marine reserves covering the whole region as one part of our national work on seahorse conservation. By that time I had learned some of the local language and Jandayan felt like a second home, so much so that I named my daughter Andaya after the island. As I say, I have a love affair with the Philippines.

I have more mixed sentiments about a UN Convention called CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This is the framework for regulating exports of animals and plants that are – or may become – threatened because of international trade.

I led efforts that generated CITES export controls for seahorse species under a listing called Appendix II, the first such regulation for any fully marine fishes. For species on Appendix II, member countries have to limit exports to levels that are not detrimental to wild populations and have to ensure that specimens are legally sourced. Now my team and I are trying to make those controls stick, so that the wild populations really are supported and rebuilt. It can be an uphill battle and depends heavily on national good will and commitment.Our current SOS Rapid Action Grant is building on our many years of effective work in the Philippines and with CITES by linking the two.

By the time seahorses were added to CITES Appendix II, the Philippines had a Fisheries Code that forbade fishing or domestic use of any aquatic species listed by CITES. This seemed like overkill to us – given that CITES controls are solely directed at export trade and only employ bans judiciously – especially given the number of very poor people who had been earning valuable income from seahorses.

So we were pleased when the Philippines adjusted its legislation last year to facilitate sustainable exports of seahorses and other aquatic species listed under Appendix II. That said, there were some worrying aspects to the wording. In particular, the Philippines law allows free trade of aquatic species on Appendix II unless scientists advise against it, whereas CITES actually takes the precautionary approach of requiring declarations of sustainability before permitting export.

We realized that the Philippines would immediately need expert advice on applying CITES to aquatic species, especially given its lack of recent experience. As CITES mandates, trade in these species is fine but only if it does not damage wild populations!

The SOS project is letting us lay the groundwork for the Philippines’ CITES Authorities to get it right for seahorses, as a trial run for other aquatic species. So we have gathered together everything known about seahorse biology, fisheries and trade in the Philippines and distilled it all into briefings for government and NGOs. The next step is to use all that material, leavened with a hefty dose of common sense and realism, to create a plan for regulating exports at sustainable levels, as CITES requires.

As I write this, we are getting ready for the Consultation Forum in Support of the Philippines Eventual Implementation of CITES for Seahorses and Other Aquatic Species. It’s a heavy title for discussions about quirky small fishes, but does reflect the enormous importance of getting this right.

The Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources – which has to look after CITES for aquatic species – is co-hosting this gathering. With the input of lots of other national experts, we will sow the seeds to grow serious support for marine life that the Philippines exports under CITES. In so doing, the Philippines will become one of the world leaders in seahorse conservation… and add yet further to my devotion to the country.