Stop horsing around: The debate over seahorse trade and conservation
Unlike any other animal that resembles a horse, the seahorse (family Syngnathidae, genus Hippocampus) is one of the slowest-moving creatures in the world. This family of fish includes the dwarf seahorse, considered by many as the slowest fish, with a top speed of 5 feet per hour (Breverton, 2012). Nothing about the seahorse is quick, except perhaps, the rate at which its populations are declining. Unfortunately, the only thing akin to the speed of seahorses is the rate by which conservation efforts are taking place to protect these fascinating creatures.
Leafy seadragon in SEA Aquarium (Photo by Theodore Pung)
Current threats to seahorse populations
Today, seahorses may be in mortal danger as they are vulnerable to a host of threats. Habitat destruction is a major cause of concern: seagrass patches and coral reefs are cleared for land reclamation, sedimentation occurs as a result of erosion from rapid deforestation and whatever remains is often subject to various forms of pollution. In addition, seahorses are often caught as bycatch in shrimp trawling nets or other fishing nets. Accidental capture is a severe problem, but overfishing is an even greater one. In the year 2002 alone, 25 million seahorses were traded internationally in up to 80 different countries (Doogue, 2004). Seahorses are highly sought after for use as curios, the aquarium trade and as ingredients in traditional medicine.
The trade in seahorses is the most key factor that needs to be controlled in order for sustainable consumption to take place. This essay aims to examine the issue of seahorse trade using the precautionary principle and to examine arguments for a precautionary approach to ensure sustainable consumption. In view of the plausible evidence of harm to the seahorse population, this essay argues for the enhancement of existing legislation and monitoring practices to further protect and limit the seahorse trade.
Current protection for seahorses
Currently, measures have been put in place to conserve seahorses. Seahorses are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which is considered a huge milestone in seahorse conservation (Turner, 2005). As part of CITES guidelines, countries are required to prove that exports are sustainable and do not threaten wild populations before they have the license to export seahorses for trade. This involves limited measures such as the implementation of a minimum size limit (10cm for most species) and heightening the awareness of the negative impacts that result from collecting pregnant males (CITES, 2002). Other measures cannot be put in place until assessments on areas such as international trade levels and its impacts on local populations are improved (Koldewey, 2005). In addition to the size limits, CITES has also advised countries on recommended export quotas of seahorses, and is encouraging research on seahorse trade and populations, especially around Southeast Asia.
Concerns about severe and irreversible damage on seahorse populations
The exploitation of seahorses is so severe that fishermen “cannot find them anymore, sadly not due to a reduction in trade but because they are disappearing from so many areas now”
The listing of seahorses in Appendix II may not ensure sufficient protection for seahorses. Scientists argue that if conservation efforts are not improved, seahorse populations are subject to severe and irreversible damage. Seahorse populations are currently overfished (Martin-Smith, Samoilysc, Meeuwiga, & Vincenta, 2004) and scientists claim that there are severe repercussions of continuing trade at unsustainable rates. Apparently, the exploitation of seahorses is so severe that numbers caught for trade are falling because fishermen “cannot find them anymore, sadly not due to a reduction in trade but because they are disappearing from so many areas now” (Garrick-Maidment, 2013, p.1). It is no wonder that according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are at least two endangered or critically endangered species and several vulnerable species of seahorses (Young, 2011). The threat to seahorses is definitely real, severe and irreversible, with a decline by 25-50% within just two to five years and they may be on the verge of extinction in as little as 20 years (Vincent, 1996; Radió Teilifís Éireann, 2013).
This decline is a major issue especially since we are dependent on seahorses for a plethora of reasons, including medicinal use. In traditional Chinese medicine, seahorses are needed to cure a variety of ailments such as impotence, asthma, hemorrhage and kidney disorders. In other traditional forms, they are known to cure stomach pains, incontinence and coughs (Moreau, Hall, & Vincent, 2000). Should seahorses face extinction, we not only lose an important commodity, but an organism that is irreplaceable in an interconnected web of biodiversity. This can eventually have grave repercussions currently unknown to the human race.
The problem with insufficient scientific research and data
While it is known that seahorse populations are in danger, there is a lack of reliable scientific research to understand the magnitude of the problem. This is not only necessary to justify the need for better protection of seahorses species, but is also vital in guiding conservation efforts. Some key areas of this lack of understanding include the basic biology of seahorses (e.g. species identification, distribution, population, habitat, reproductive seasons). Also, there is insufficient data to estimate rates at which seahorse species are harvested and scarce records of both current and historical trade levels (Foster, 2008). As genetic research for taxonomy is still relatively new, even taxonomic definitions are inadequate. This results in high levels of synonymy in trade data as well (Wabnitz, 2003). Based on research compiled from the IUCN, out of the 52 species of seahorses identified, 26 of the species are data deficient and 16 are not even evaluated.
Because of limited research, only restricted amounts of conservation efforts are justifiable. However, the precautionary principle as stated in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration can be used to argue that despite the lack of scientific certainty, more rigorous precautionary measures should be taken to protect seahorses if plausible evidence of harm is indicated.
Debating on the application of the Precautionary Principle
Currently, the evidence of harm to the seahorse population is recognized as evidenced by listing of seahorses under Appendix II; but this is inadequate and there should be concerted effort to improve conservation efforts. In an interview conducted with Neil Garrick-Maidment, executive director of The Seahorse Trust, he argues that the “current level of protection is insufficient and should be considerably higher, with a total ban on trade and fishing for seahorses for at least 10 years to allow numbers to recover” (2013). Signatory parties of CITES are legally bound to follow recommended courses of action to conserve wildlife, but how such action is carried out is still determined by national laws. (Everard, 2009). Furthermore, there are usually problems with the implementation of national laws within countries where overfishing is rampant.
A limited ban for 10 years seems extreme, especially without full scientific evidence of the impending extinction of seahorse species, but it is justifiable if scientists can show that benefits of allowing seahorse populations to recover far outweigh temporary loss of economic profit from the trade. However, it is recognized that imposing a ban risks worsening the exploitation of seahorses, as it could give rise to illicit forms of trade along a black market, making it harder to keep record of unauthorized fishing for stocks.
Many oppose a complete ban over the trade in seahorse species, largely due to its economic disadvantages. Those who are pro-trade understand the importance of sustainable consumption to maximize long-term profit, but they question the necessity of the strict implementation of the precautionary approach in an immediate suspension of trade. Instead, most prefer to espouse the concept of the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) to direct decisions about the listing of species in the various appendices. (ICTSD, 2000) The precautionary approach is about ensuring that preventive measures are set in place before problems worsen into dire situations whereas the MSY is more about maintaining the highest level of fishing before populations become unsustainable and collapse. Following the MSY, fishermen need only rectify the problem of unsustainable populations when the rate at which seahorse populations decreases exceeds the time taken for each species to reach maturity.
Availability of cost-effective methods to prevent decline in seahorse populations
Taking these opposing viewpoints into consideration, a compromise must be made. It is not acceptable to be complacent with current conservation efforts, but neither does it seem reasonable to impose a total ban on the seahorse trade since there are existing efforts at protecting the seahorse; albeit rather limited in effectiveness. Instead, other cost-effective solutions need to be found to balance sustainable trade practices and conservation. Therefore, methods are being explored to replenish populations of seahorses lost as a result of overfishing and to reduce the reliance of fishermen on wild populations for seahorses.
One solution proposed to curb this unsustainable trade is to increase dependence on the aquaculture of seahorses. Unfortunately, this method is not cost-effective. According to a study done by Project Seahorse, at least 13 species of seahorses are under research for commercial culture, but this method of supplying seahorses is less economically competitive than individuals captured from the wild. Therefore, large-scale aquaculture has not been demonstrated to be commercially viable though possibilities are still being researched (Koldewey & Martin-Smith, 2010). Another proposed solution is the setting up of marine protected areas (MPAs) within key habitats of seahorse species in tropical waters to prohibit the fishing of seahorses. Such projects have been launched in areas such as Bohol, Philippines where marine sanctuaries were set up. The fishermen are encouraged to develop traditional handicraft skills as an alternative source of income. In addition, scholarships are given to village children participating in conservation programs (RAE, 2012).
However, these alternatives may not be as profitable and beneficial in most regions where seahorses are caught for exports. It is likely to have limited success, as it is difficult to justify the conservation of seahorse species at the expense of a market that many rely on for their own livelihood. Especially for individuals living within fishing communities of developing countries, an alternative source of income must be provided for them if the conservation of seahorses is to take place.
Where do we go from here?
Despite these various concerns, it is argued that a more rigorous precautionary approach is required to ensure the sustainability of the seahorse population. I think it is necessary to invoke the precautionary principle by modifying and enhancing current practices to better control the seahorse trade within sustainable levels. Conservation efforts must be enhanced by added efforts in data collection and scientific research and also by stricter monitoring of guidelines in the seahorse trade.
An improvement in data collection and scientific research is vital as it can develop technology for aquaculture, create accurate evidence-based quotas on seahorse catch and help fishermen in determining characteristics of seahorses that should be caught (e.g. type of species, size limits, avoidance of brooding males). This way, fishermen can make informed decisions about fishing gear that should be used, such as by restricting the size of fishing gear to minimize the catch of juvenile seahorses. In addition, more knowledge on reproductive patterns and the distribution of seahorses can help conservationists with the setting up of MPAs to ban fishing in breeding grounds and during breeding periods of seahorses. More studies are needed to ensure that conservationists know exactly where hotspots of protection should be and where seahorse products originate from in order to troubleshoot the issue more efficiently.
Creating more restrictions on trade in seahorses is only useful if there is better implementation of guidelines. Companies and governmental organizations must manage trade and incur penalties for those who do not abide by stipulated legislations.
My first wild seahorse sighted in Ko Tao, Thailand (Photo by Theodore Pung)
In conclusion, the current evidence of severe risk to the seahorse justifies a more rigorous application of the precautionary principle. In order to have sustainable consumption, we need to advocate for a more research-based approach to further understand the situation. Hopefully, such scientific research can enable traders and conservationists to work together towards their common goal of long-term sustainability of seahorse populations and they can succeed in protecting the seahorses together.
1. Breverton, T. (2012). Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities: A Book of the Sea. London: Quercus Publishing
2. CITES. (2002). Twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties. Conservation of seahorses and other members of the family Syngnathidae (pp. 1-18). Santiago: CITES.
3. Doogue, E. (2004). Rolex Awards for Enterprise: Amanda Vincent Project. Retrieved 09 23, 2013, from Saving the Seas: http://www.rolexawards.com/profiles/laureates/amanda_vincent/project
4. Everard, M. (2009). The Business of Biodiversity. Southampton, UK: WIT Press.
5. Foster, S. (2008). Case Study: Hippocampus spp. Project Seahorse. Non- Detriment Findings Workshop Case Studies (p. 19). Vancouver: University of British Columbia.
6. Garrick-Maidment, N. (2013, 09 11). Enquiries about current status of conservation efforts. (C. Wee, Interviewer)
7. ICTSD. (2000, 12 18). Summary of the CITES Technical Committees Meetings: 7-15 December 2000. Retrieved 09 24, 2013, from Delegates tackle heavy workload at CITES plants and animals committees (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development): http://ictsd.org/i/news/bridgesweekly/90156/
8. Koldewey, H. (2005, 01). Seahorses take to the world stage. (T. Graham, Ed.) SPC Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin (13), pp. 33-34.
9. Koldewey, H. J., & Martin-Smith, K. M. (2010). A global review of seahorse aquaculture. Aquaculture , 302 (3-4), 131-152.
10. Martin-Smith, K. M., Samoilysc, M. A., Meeuwiga, J. J., & Vincenta, A. C. (2004). Collaborative development of management options for an artisanal fishery for seahorses in the central Philippines. Ocean & Coastal Management , 47 (3-4), 165-193.
11. Moreau, M. A., Hall, H. J., & Vincent, A. C. (2000). Proceedings of the First International Workshop on The Management and Culture of Marine Species Used in Traditional Medicines. Montreal: Project Seahorse.
Wee Shi Yi Crystle Written Assignment (Final Submission) A0116739X 4th November 2013 ENV1202
12. Radió Teilifís Éireann. (2013, 05 20). The plight of the seahorse: Kealan Doyle on Morning Edition, RTE goes wild. Dublin, Ireland, Ireland.
13. The Rolex Awards for Enterprise (RAE). (2012, 03 06). Amanda Vincent, 1998 Rolex Laureate. Geneva, Switzerland.
14. Turner, P. S. (2005, 01 06). Struggling to save the seahorse. Retrieved 09 24, 2013, from National Wildlife Federation: https://www.nwf.org/News-and- Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/2005/Struggling-to-Save-the- Seahorse.aspx
15. United Nations Environment Programme. (1992, 06 14). Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UNEP). Retrieved 09 23, 2013, from United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro: http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=78&ar ticleid=1163
16. Vincent, A. C. (1996). The international trade in seahorses. Species in danger: A Traffic Network report. California: Traffic International.
17. Wabnitz, C. (2003). From Ocean to Aquarium: The Global Trade in Marine Ornamental Species, Issue 17 of UNEP-WCMC biodiversity series. Hertfordshire, England: UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre Earthprint.
18. Young, M. A. (2011). Trading Fish, Saving Fish: The Interaction Between Regimes in International Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.