Endangered Seahorses: Chinese Medicine, Fishing and Efforts to Help Them

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Seahorse soup

Seahorses have disappeared from sea grass beds and mangroves from Florida to Ecuador, and on coral reefs from India to Vietnam. Reefs in the Philippines that were once teeming with seahorses are now almost void of them. So many seahorses have been caught that many species are regarded threatened or endangered. Nearly one-fourth of the 36 sea-horse species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are threatened with extinction.

Jennifer Holland wrote in National Geographic: It wasn’t long ago that Ria Formosa, in the Algarve region of Portugal, was home to as many as two million seahorses, says Correia, a biologist at the University of the Algarve’s Center for Marine Sciences. He and colleagues breed and study the animals in a small waterfront facility, and they’ve seen populations of both species decline dramatically. “We’ve lost up to 90 percent in less than 20 years,” he says. Such falloff appears widespread, in part because seahorses live in the most hammered marine habitats in the world — including estuaries, mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. In Ria Formosa, for example, human activity — from farming of clams to illegal bottom trawling — buries or rips up the seagrass beds that seahorses prefer. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, March 15, 2022]

According to research by Project Seahorse, which is based at the University of British Columbia in Canada, carried out around the world shows that populations of at least 11 species have dropped by between 30 percent and 50 percent over the past 15 years.

In 2003 seahorses were declared an endangered species by The United Nations Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES). An international ban on seahorse trade was imposed unless the captive-bred or used for scientific purposes. In no-fishing zones seahorses have rebounded. Yet, Sarah Foster, program manager of Project Seahorse, said that about 37 million seahorses are caught in the wild every year. And despite regulations designed to protect them, smuggling is rampant. [Source: Sarah Lazarus, CNN, June 6, 2019]

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se ; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute whoi.edu ; Cousteau Society cousteau.org ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Reasons for Endangered Seahorses

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dried seahorse
Seahorse populations are being squeezed by overfishing and habitat loss. Seahorse habitats — coral reefs, grass beds and mangroves — are increasingly under stress from dredges, overfishing, coral dynamiting and pollution. The fish are scooped up in fishing trawls from the seabed as bycatch and are sold around the world as traditional Chinese medicine and souvenirs.[Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, March 15, 2022]

Holland wrote: The hardest hitter globally is unregulated fishing, which fuels a wide-reaching trade in dried seahorses. Stripped from the seabed as bycatch — the incidental capture in bottom trawlers and other catchall gear — the fish are sold around the world for traditional Chinese medicine and for trinkets. A much smaller number are sold live for the aquarium trade, mostly to U.S. consumers.

To get a sense of the pressures on seahorses, I visited a warehouse at the California Academy of Sciences, where Hamilton rummaged through one of many boxes of plastic bags bulging with brittle skeletons that had been confiscated at San Francisco International Airport. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of fish, “representing just a year’s worth of what was stopped at a single port,” she told me.

.In the early 2010s, according to The Times, 20 million seahorses were sold every year, more than any other wildlife commodity, in a trade worth around US$40 million. In 2019 in Lima, Peru, more than 12 million dried seahorses — a load worth some $6 million on the black market — were confiscated from a single Asia-bound ship . In August 2013, more than 16,000 dried seahorses destined for illegal export to Asia were seized in Lima. “We managed to seize… 16,280 seahorses destined to be sold illegally on the Asian continent,” Colonel Victor Fernandez, from the police unit tasked with confiscating such goods, told AFP. Police uncovered the cargo, weighing around 160 kilograms (350 pounds), in three cases in a search operation near Lima’s airport. Seahorse fishing has been banned in Peru since 2004, and is punishable by two to five years in prison. In 2012, Peruvian authorities seized a total of two tonnes of seahorses destined for export. [Source: Agence France-Presse, National Geographic, The Times]

Seahorses and Chinese Medicine

In Asia, particularly in China, and to a lesser degree South Korea and Japan, seahorses have traditionally been coveted for their alleged medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. In China, seahorses are prescribed from ailments such as asthma, arteosclerosis, dizziness, joint pain, impotence and incontinence. Some believe seahorses have Viagra-like powers. In China, medicinal seahorses are usually ground and mixed with herbs and other ingredients a made into a tea. The fact that dried seahorses are consumed for virility is ironic because seahorse are a species in which the males get pregnant.

"North is ginseng and south is seahorse" is a Chinese adage from the Divine Peasant’s Herbal Compendium. But Chinese have not been the only ones who consumed seahorses as a medicine. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder reported that "ashes of seahorse...mixed with soda and pig's large" cured baldness. The World Wildlife Fund has reported that the popularity of seahorses as medicine is driving sales in Taiwan and Indonesia.

seahorse being sold in Beijing on Dong'anmen Dajie

According to traders, TCM books, and recent pharmacological studies, seahorses can regulate urinogenital, reproductive, nervous, endocrine, and immune systems as well as mimic certain hormones related to aging, tumor development, and fatigue. None of these uses, however, have been tested. The global consumption of seahorses for medicinal purposes during the year 2001 alone has been estimated at 25 million seahorses or 70 metric tones [Source: Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

According to one study: “It is believed that seahorses have the potential to cure infertility, baldness, asthma and arthritis. An authentic research work on the biomedical validation of seahorses proved that they have the ability to cure arthritis and its associated inflammation. A Cathepsin-derived peptide from the seahorse species of Hippocampus kuda proved to be effective in chondrocyte cells and its associated impaired arthritis inflammation. Apart from this, seahorses have a putative free radical scavenging effect in controlling the ageing process. More authentic research is needed in order to validate the biomedical potential.[Source: “Seahorses — a source of traditional medicine” by K Kumaravel 1, S Ravichandran, T Balasubramanian, Leonard Sonnesche, PMID, February 24, 2012].

Seahorses were first mentioned in Chinese medical literature in A.D. 700 but their use probably goes back much further, Lixing Lao, director of the School of Chinese Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, told CNN. “According to Chinese medicine theory, seahorse is nourishing … and gives the body more energy,” he said. Mixed with herbs and boiled as a tea, dried seahorses are most commonly used to treat asthma and male sexual dysfunction, including impotence and premature ejaculation, he said. Lao said there isn’t there any scientific evidence that seahorses could relieve asthma or boost sexual performance, adding that there had not been any clinical trials carried out on humans in this area. [Source: Sarah Lazarus, CNN, June 6, 2019]

Seahorses and Chinese Medicine Market in Hong Kong

Seahorse powder sells for about $6,000 per kilo in the early 2010s. In Hong Kong, "inferior" seahorses sold for about $220 a kilo in the 1990s. Higher quality ones went for around $1,000 a kilo. Higher prices are charged for seahorses which are large, pale and smooth-skinned. Dried wild sea horses fetch higher prices than cultured ones.

Sarah Lazarus of CNN wrote: In a row of shops in Sheung Wan, on the western side of Hong Kong Island, the seahorses are stored in plastic boxes and glass jars, their elongated, S-shaped bodies stacked like spoons. In Hong Kong, this district is the center of the trade in traditional Chinese medicine.... Its narrow streets are crammed with delivery trucks and men pushing trolleys loaded with crates of dried fungi, herbs, berries — and seahorses. [Source: Sarah Lazarus, CNN, June 6, 2019]

“A shop assistant in Sheung Wan, who declined to give his name, said that from what he has seen, seahorses are mostly bought by men over the age of 50. Hong Kong is the world’s largest trading hub for the dried animal, Foster said, and analysis of global trade data shows that Hong Kong was responsible for around two thirds of all seahorse imports from 2004 to 2017.

Seahorses and the Chinese Medicine Trade

Over 51 nations and territories are involved in buying and selling seahorses and its relatives. The largest known exporters of seahorses are Thailand, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines, and the bulk of seahorses are fished from the Indo-Pacific region. [Source: Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

According to National Geographic: Field surveys and CITES records have exposed Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, as the main supplier of seahorses, and indicate that two West African countries, Guinea and Senegal, have increased their exports. Hong Kong is by far the top importer, with heavy shipments also to Taiwan and mainland China. Most of the demand for seahorses reflects their use in traditional medicines. Vendors promise, for example, that dried seahorses boost virility, have anti-inflammatory properties, and can treat everything from asthma to incontinence. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, March 15, 2022]

About 25 million of seahorses were harvested every year in the 1990s. About 95 percent of them were sold in Asia for medicines and aphrodisiacs. They are also collected alive for salt water aquarium and sold dried at souvenir shops. Seahorse sales took off in China when the country began opening up in the 1990s. An estimated 2 million seahorse were consumed in China in 1992, a tenfold increase from the previous decade. Three million were consumed in Taiwan the same year.

At that time wild seahorses were caught by hand, with dip nets or as bycatch from shrimp trawlers. Seahorse hunters generally went after their prey at low tide at night, A good hunter could catch 60 a night. Most were dried and sold to middlemen for the Chinese medicine for about 60 cents a piece.

Seahorses and Fishing

Project Seahorse estimates that commercial fishing operations pull up at least 76 million seahorses a year; some 80 countries are involved in trading them. “Fishermen used to throw them back,” Healy Hamilton, chief scientist of NatureServe, a Virginia-based conservation group, told National Geographic “but now in many places you’ll see a [buyer] on the dock just waiting to take them.”[Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, March 15, 2022]

While some fishermen target seahorses, it’s bycatch that’s devastating seahorse populations. Foster told CNN that as relatively rare animals, seahorses are not usually targeted by fishing boats. However, when indiscriminate fishing gear is used, they get scooped up in the nets along with everything else. [Source: Sarah Lazarus, CNN, June 6, 2019]

Trawl nets — large nets that are dragged along the seabed, catching everything in their path — are the worst offenders. According to Project Seahorse, trawlers drag an area of seabed twice the size of the continental United States, every year. Trawl fishing is widespread in Africa, Latin America, east Asia and southeast Asia, said Foster, and southeast Asia is a hotspot for seahorses.

Helping Endangered Seahorses

Sarah Lazarus of CNN reported: In theory, seahorses are protected animals. In 2002, all species were listed under Appendix II of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty designed to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. With this listing, seahorses can be exported only if they have been sourced sustainably and legally, and there is paperwork to prove it. Some countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, went further and imposed blanket bans on seahorse exports. [Source: Sarah Lazarus, CNN, June 6, 2019]

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic: On a positive note, in 2020 the Portuguese government created two small marine protected areas within Ria Formosa to act as seahorse sanctuaries. It’s good news, but experts say the key to maintaining seahorse numbers is better fisheries management, with severe limits and even bans on trawling. Market demand doesn’t have to be a death sentence for Hippocampus, Foster says — “if we can get Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) rules to work as intended to support sustainable legal trade.”[Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, March 15, 2022]

“Meanwhile, Asia’s consumption of seahorse products could shrink on its own “as younger, more progressive-minded people move away from using wildlife in traditional ways,” Foster says. The traditional-medicine community ultimately shares a goal with conservationists, she says. Traders and users often are vilified, “but in the end we all have incentives to keep seahorses from disappearing.” Acting on those incentives matters because “there is absolutely no way seahorses can sustain today’s level of exploitation,” Hamilton said from her perch overlooking the warehouse shelves. “And people need to know: We are headed towards a world bereft of too many of these extraordinary fishes.”

Ineffectiveness of Effort to Combat the Seahorse Trade

According to National Geographic: Global exports should have edged toward sustainability after 2004, when worries about extensive international trade prompted new regulations under CITES. “Unfortunately, it seems that most trade in dried seahorses has just moved underground,” Vincent says. The good news is that the live trade is relying more on captive breeding, reducing pressure on wild populations, she says. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, March 15, 2022]

Sarah Lazarus of CNN wrote: In 2019, Foster participated in a research project in Hong Kong. Investigators questioned 220 traders about the origin of their seahorse stocks during 2016 and 2017 and found that an estimated 95 percent were imported from countries with export bans. The traders revealed that Thailand is the number one supplier of Hong Kong’s Chinese medicine shops — despite that country officially suspending exports in January 2016. [Source: Sarah Lazarus, CNN, June 6, 2019]

Small and non-perishable, dried seahorses are easily smuggled across borders, sometimes in mixed consignments with other dried seafood. Several of the traders in Foster’s project admitted to carrying them in to Hong Kong in suitcases. With the trade now operating in the shadows, “it’s a lot harder for us to monitor, track and manage it,” said Foster.

The Chinese medicine shops in Sheung Wan are not breaking the law in selling seahorses. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said that Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) measures for seahorses are designed to control import and export, but Hong Kong law does not ban trade within the territory.

The AFCD has been trying to stop the illegal imports. In 2018, Hong Kong authorities seized 45 shipments of incoming dried seahorses weighing a total of 470 kilograms — approximately 175,000 seahorses. The heaviest penalty handed to a smuggler was a four-month prison sentence, said the spokesperson.

Even if the trade disappeared, seahorses would still be caught in the nets, said Foster — which would almost certainly kill them. “Either way, they would be dying,” she added. Foster said the only way to save seahorses is to better manage fisheries — reducing the size of fishing fleets, closing large areas of ocean to trawlers and making greater efforts to keep trawlers out of existing exclusion zones. Foster would also like to see trade bans properly enforced with more rigorous checking of dried seafood shipments. “Without greater political will, it won’t be possible to stamp out the problem,” she said, adding that she fears that seahorses will be wiped out in some parts of the world. The traditional Chinese medicine market might be fueling demand for seahorses, but if the trade was stopped it would not save them, said Foster. That’s because the underlying problem isn’t Chinese medicine — “it’s the fishing industry,” she said.

Efforts to Save Seahorses in the Philippines

The Danajon Bank, Philippines — one of only six “double barrier reefs” in the world — has traditionally been well known for seahorses — both in terms of numbers and species diversity. Numbers plummted though as a result overfishing and dynamite fishing, in some cases using explosives left over from World War II. “I used to easily catch 20 kilos in a night. Now I catch only two,” Jelson Inoc, 31, a squid fisherman, told The Times in 2012.

Frank Pope wrote in The Times: Under a starlit sky Eduardo Alivo swims slowly across the surface of the sea, face down as he peers into the corals beneath. In the time-honoured fashion of Filipino seahorse hunters, he tows a canoe, on which is mounted a home-made kerosene searchlight. After 15 minutes in the water he stops and duck-dives. Delicately clasping a finger of coral on the seabed is his quarry. The seahorse, the length of a pen, makes no attempt to escape, relying instead on its camouflage. [Source: Frank Pope, The Times, April 28, 2012]

Seahorse numbers on the Danajon Bank in the Philippines, where Mr Alivo works, plummeted by 90 percent between 1998 and 2005. Luckily for Mr Alivo’s find, after 15 years of catching seahorses destined for western collectors and eastern medicine chests, he now uses his hunting skills to protect them. In doing so, he is helping to restore a rare coral reef driven to the brink by decades of dynamite fishing, and to revitalise a seafaring community that has found itself short of fish.

In 1996 two of the researchers who had identified Danajon Bank as the main source for the seahorse trade began Project Seahorse, an NGO that aimed to secure a future for the creatures in the area by persuading local fishing communities to create sanctuaries where they could safely breed. Heavy-handed attempts by the Filipino Government to control the seahorse plunder have made the trade more valuable and have driven it underground. A total ban on fishing for them was implemented in 2004, causing the price to rise. Fishermen can now sell a single specimen for almost a pound.

According to Heather Koldewey, co-founder of Project Seahorse and a biologist with the Zoological Society of London, seahorses produce few young and those young do not disperse far, making their populations slow to recover. “The protected areas have helped, but seahorses naturally occur at low densities. We haven’t seen big increases in their numbers, but they are bigger inside the protected areas, and bigger seahorses produce more babies,” she said.

Guard houses are mounted on stilts over the sanctuaries to help keep raiders away, and when such policing is successful the reserves help fish stocks and corals to recover as well. There are 39 protected areas on the Danajon Bank, the most recent of which was funded by the department store Selfridges with money raised during a month-long campaign last summer. Across the Philippines more than 1,000 protected areas have been established, but they cover just 3 percent of national waters (against a national target of 15 per cent). “There are more fish in the sea now and communities are actively supporting the protected areas. We can now look at expanding into other habitats like the outer reef,” said Dr Koldewey.

Seahorse Fish Farming

Seahorse farming has been developed as an way to conserve native seahorse populations while helping fishers earn a sustainable income. Already a significant number of sea horses are being produced in fish farms. Captive breeding techniques are available only for some species. Initial research of spotted seahorse’s ability to grow has been promising but there are issues as to whether it is economically viable and if will prevent the depletion of wild populations.

Seahorses are difficult to raise in captivity. They are picky eaters susceptible to disease and die easily. Thus they are difficult to raise commercially and this is why they have traditionally been harvested in the wild. Their monogamy doesn’t serve them well. If one loses a partner he or she doesn’t chose another. In early 2000s the company Seahorse Ireland raised seahorses from birth and has had success getting them to mate and breed in captivity. The company sold seahorses for $2.50 a piece over the Internet.

Juliet Eilperin wrote in the Washington Post: Shawn Garner watches over 18 tanks of hundreds of tiny sea horses, bobbing among the artificial sea grasses and plastic zip ties provided to give their tails a hitching post. Garner, supervisor of the Mote Marine Laboratory’s sea-horse conservation lab, is one of several experts trying to raise seahorses in captivity. These researchers, many working at aquariums and zoos, are engaging in the kinds of farming operations once reserved for fish sold in food markets and restaurants.[Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post April 15, 2012]

Before the 1990s, sea-horse farming was plagued by problems. Sea horses live in low densities in the wild — in many parts of the world, including the western Atlantic from Canada to South America and in Southeast Asia — so crowding them into a tank can stress them and lead to disease. Researchers in several countries — primarily the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia — have made strides in the past couple of decades, though reproducing the animals remains challenging.

The staff at the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., which has raised 12 sea-horse species, found that a tank usually used for jellyfish worked better than rectangular ones. The tank contains a slice of cylinder sandwiched between the two sides, and the baby sea horses were inside the cylinder, which kept them from getting trapped at the top edges because of poor water circulation. “That really changed things for us,” said the aquarium’s co-curator Leslee Matsushige.

Garner has already developed several innovations to boost sea-horse breeding and survival rates, using plastic funnel cone feeders with a tiny hole at the bottom that slowly releases the brine shrimp sea horses need. He also exposes baby sea horses to light 20 hours a day, to keep them feeding. He hopes to publish a book about his farming techniques so that others can copy them and has contemplated trying to break into the Asian medicinal market.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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