Endangered Species Handbook

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Traditional Medicine Trade: Seahorses

     Among the most unusual and delicate of marine creatures, seahorses have been admired for centuries by naturalists.  They have been harvested since the 14th century Ming Dynasty in China, and their bodies dried and ground to a powder used to cure a variety of ills, including asthma; broken bones; impotence; kidney disorders; heart, skin and thyroid ailments; and as an aphrodisiac (Vincent 1995).  About 35 species of seahorses are found in both tropical and temperate oceans, all of the genus Hippocampus.  They vary greatly in size and form.  The smallest is about 10 millimeters (0.39 inches) long, and the largest, 300 millimeters (11.7 inches); they weigh from about 3 grams up to 25 grams (Vincent 1995).  Some seahorses have evolved elaborate lacey fins resembling seaweed, but most have a distinctive armored body with an extended abdomen and long, tapered snout evoking the profile of a horse; their tails wind forward into a spiral.  They swim in an erect posture, moving tiny, spineless fins at great speed.  Their method of reproduction is highly unusual.  The female deposits fertilized eggs in the male's abdominal pouch, and after gestation, he thrusts the young seahorses out of his belly.  Seahorses mate for life, and if one of the pair is killed, the remaining one does not readily remate (Vincent 1995).  Wherever they occur, seahorses tend to be sparsely distributed in their seagrass, coral and mangrove habitats (Vincent 1995). 
     A two-year study (1993 to 1995) by biologist Amanda Vincent in Southeast Asia, found an extensive trade in seahorses for Traditional Medicine, aquariums and the curio trade (Vincent 1995).  Collectors in the Philippines receive as little as 25 cents, while dried seahorses sell for up to $1,200 per kilogram at retail (Vincent 1995).  They are also ground up and sold in pill form, mixed with other ingredients.  By 1997, Vincent calculated that the worldwide trade consumes at least 20 million seahorses per year (quoted in “Kingdom of the Seahorse” film; see Video). 
     Hong Kong is the center of the trade, and Vincent’s research revealed that traders offered to buy 500 kilograms to a ton a month, far more than the supply of wild seahorses can support.  In Hong Kong, seven seahorses sell for $75.  They are shipped to China, which provides the largest market, followed by Taiwan, and Singapore.  The Chinese market in the United States is also substantial. Some 200,000 dried seahorses were imported from the Philippines in 1987 (Vincent 1995).  U.S. fishermen are now a source of seahorses.  In the mid-1990s, Florida supplied 100,000 seahorses a year to the market, mainly gleaned from nets set for shrimp.  Many of the seahorses caught in shrimp nets are injured, and the shrimp fishermen discard them, sweeping them overboard.  A large percentage consist of pregnant males, whose young do not survive, according to Vincent.  A single Japanese order for 100 kilograms involved the killing of 28,000 seahorses; Australia imported 140,000 dried animals in May 1995, and another million live ones for the aquarium trade (Vincent 1995). 
     The major capture method, scooping the seahorses in nets in shallow water, is used throughout Southeast Asia.  Vietnam and the Philippines are the largest suppliers (Vincent 1995).  Vincent interviewed many fishermen in widely divergent areas from India, where the fishery was state-sponsored, to Java, Bali and the Philippines.  In the Philippines, catches are half or one-third what they were in 1993, indicating how fast the decline has taken place (Vincent 1995).  With the high price offered, more fishermen are pursuing seahorses, causing declines.  Another sign of depletion is the decline in size of seahorses caught, most of which represent immature animals that never bred before capture. 
      The IUCN Red List included more than 30 species in 1996, all as Vulnerable, a sign of the widespread decline of these fish.  The majority were native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, although the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Seas also harbored threatened seahorses.  Without strong conservation programs, seahorses and their close relatives are likely to disappear from the wild.
     Vincent has helped set up programs, in close cooperation with Philippine fishermen, in which sanctuaries are set aside where no fishing is allowed.  They are patrolled by boat, and pregnant males are placed in these sanctuaries to have the young.  The villagers, at first suspicious of Vincent's motives, have realized that this is the only way to prevent the extinction of the seahorses, and the management program is now being copied in other coastal fishing villages.  The villagers, especially the children, are taken to the sanctuary to see these fascinating creatures in the wild, and have a new appreciation for them.

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