International Protection Kicks in for Seahorses

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, May 14, 2004 (ENS) - International trade rules enter into effect Saturday for seahorses, making them the first commercially valuable marine genus to be afforded protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

An estimated 24 million seahorses will be harvested this year, sold for aquariums or for use in Asian medicines.

The IUCN-World Conservation Union lists nine seahorse species as vulnerable and one as endangered. The organization lacks data to determine the status of the remaining 24 species.

Trade in recent years appears to be increasing at an annual rate of eight to 10 percent, largely fueled by demand for use in traditional medicines to treat everything from asthma to sexual dysfunction. seahorse

All seahorses belong to the genus Hippocampus, from the Greek words for horse (hippos) and sea monster (campus). (Photo courtesy Project Seahorse)
Survival rates for seahorses in captivity are low, meaning almost all seahorses in aquariums are caught in the wild.

Seahorses, which live in tropical and sub-tropical waters, are also often caught as by-catch and killed by pollution and coastal development.

The listing under Appendix II of CITES for seahorses is at the genus level - all 34 species will be protected.

Trade in species listed on Appendix II is regulated through the use of export permits.

The listing, which was approved in November 2002, means more than 160 countries must now ensure that commercial trade of seahorses is not detrimental to wild populations.

"At least 77 countries are involved in the seahorse trade, so regulations on the international level are needed to ensure their protection," said Dr. Amanda Vincent, director of Project Seahorse, an international conservation organization based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But four nations party to the treaty - Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Norway - have withdrawn from trade rules for seahorses. seahorse

Seahorses populations are suffering in part because of a large demand for their use in traditional Asian medicines. (Photo courtesy Project Seahorse)
Indonesia is a major exporter of seahorses, while Japan and South Korea are believed to be net importers - Norway plays no consequential role.

In recent years, Indonesia and the Philippines have been the dominant sources of live seahorses, with most going to North America, Europe and Japan.

The principal exporting nations for dried seahorses have been India, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Mexico

Most dried seahorses go to mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, but Japan and South Korea also import a considerable number.

Each country that has agreed to the seahorse listing can choose how to assess the impact of its international trade and regulate exports.

In April a CITES technical committee recommended a four inch (10 centimeter) minimum size limit as one way to determine whether or not a particular trade is detrimental to survival of the species.

Project Seahorse supports such a move in part because few countries have enough information on seahorses to set quotas that will ensure sustainable trade.

Most seahorses start breeding at four inches but grow to be longer than this length.

"We are trying to give seahorses a chance to reproduce before they are caught," Vincent said.

Protection for seahorses is critical because their biology may make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, experts say. seahorse

The Knysna seahorse, H. capensis, from South Africa, is formally recognized as endangered by the IUCN-The World Conservation Union. (Photo courtesy Project Seahorse)
Most species of seahorses are monogamous - widowed animals do not reproduce until they find a new partner and lost partners are not quickly replaced.

And the males play an integral and unique role in reproduction - the female supplies the eggs, but then transfers them to the male which gestates them.

Male pregnancy means that young depend on parental survival for far longer than in most fish.

In an attempt to aid the sustainability of the seahorse trade, Project Seahorse and the wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC have produced a new guide for customs agents and others to help identify the different species of seahorses in trade.

"We will be making copies available to customs agents and law enforcement officials in 165 countries to help them enforce the new rules through proper identification of the different species," said Ernie Cooper of TRAFFIC, a partnership of World Wildlife Fund and IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

North American aquariums and zoos will mark new protections for seahorses with public education events this weekend.

Aquariums and zoos celebrating Seahorse Day this weekend include the Houston Zoo; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California; and the New England Aquarium in Boston.