CITES: Failing to Protect Seahorses

AUG 20, 2019

Today OceansAsia found a large shipment of pipefish drying in the streets of Hong Kong, whilst not illegal more than often we find their close relative seahorses drying openly and in plain sight as well. In Hong Kong the relevant authorities are the HK Customs who are clearly not discovering these large shipments likely due to the shipments being mis-declared to avoid detection. However once in Hong Kong the AFCD (Agricultural, Fisheries & Conservation Department) have the remit on all wildlife trade. With such large volumes so openly visible, why are the traders not being questioned about their source and permits being checked? The blame does not lie solely on Hong Kong’s authorities, the exporting countries have bans in place, yet they are clearly being fished and shipped without the local authorities checking.

With the CITES CoP19 currently underway in Geneva, one item up for discussion is Seahorses. Although they were amongst the first marine species to ever receive protection status back in 2002, OceansAsia regularly find massive shipments of seahorses along with pipefish drying in the streets of Hong Kong.

The great majority of seahorses are obtained as bycatch in bottom trawls and other non-selective fishing methods. Such indiscriminate fishing obtains at least 37 million seahorses each year, a vast number that can easily enter trade. It is vital that such fisheries be constrained, even as trade is regulated. Most pipefish species are exploited for traditional medicines however some are sold in the aquarium tradeor  as  curios.  Pipehorses  of  the  genus  Solegnathus  are  the  most  valuable  syngnathids  in  Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Seahorses,  pipehorses,  and  pipefish  are  harvested  in  range  countries  through  directed  fisheries  and as bycatch. Bycatch currently accounts for the majority of specimens intended for the TCM and curiomarkets, whereas directed fisheries are usually the source of live specimens for the pet trade, as wellas  a  portion  of  the  dried  specimen  trade.  It  is  estimated  that  at  least  20  million  seahorses  are captured annually from the wild. Bycatch   of   Syngnathids   generally   occurs   in   commercial   fisheries   directed   at   food   fish   orshrimp/prawns.  The  associated  fishing  methods  are  not  conducive  to  the  survival  of  individualsyngnathids  with  long  net  deployment  times,  abrasion,  and  compression.  India,  Indonesia,  and  the Philippines exhibit significant bycatch fisheries for seahorses, which are almost entirely destined forexport  to  the  major  importing  TCM  jurisdictions  (China,  Hong  Kong,  Taiwan).  Although  catch  of seahorses  per  trip  may  be  low,  overall  harvest  by  local  fleets  is  significant.  In  terms  of  medicinal value, pipehorses rank above seahorses, which in turn outrank the smaller pipefish.

One of many of the Sheung Wan Dried Seafood warehouses in Hong Kong.

“Ongoing illegal, unregulated and unreported trade in dried seahorses
Despite the decline in reported exports of seahorses, there is evidence of illegal exports from at least some countries that have banned such exports. Fisheries surveys, trade surveys, or both in source countries with trade bans have revealed persistent illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) exports of dried seahorses, particularly from India, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.

Media reports of seahorse seizures provide further evidence of illegal international trade.The most recent evidence for ongoing trade comes from 220 interviews conducted with traders in Hong Kong SAR, the largest entrepôt for dried seahorses, in 2016-17.  In this study, traders reported obtaining dried seahorses from many countries with bans on seahorse exports, most notably Thailand and the Philippines – but also Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam.  It was estimated that almost all dried seahorses in Hong Kong SAR (95%) had been imported from source countries despite export bans being in place, indicating a widespread lack of enforcement.

Importing and exporting Parties and national CITES Authorities clearly must take action to implement the Convention for seahorses. The Hong Kong SAR study’s findings identify failures in export and import control as well as a need to involve TCM and dried seafood traders as agents in generating compliance with trade bans. Given that export bans were implemented in response to concerns about the state of seahorse populations, ongoing illegal trade poses threats to the long-term future of the species.

A huge shipment of pipefish drying on a street in Hong Kong. Photographed 20th August, 2019
Seahorse and pipefish openly for sale in most dried seafood shops in Hong Kong

Seahorses and pipefish are readily for sale online. A simple search on Facebook or Alibaba brings up many pages offering CITES listed seahorse species with the vendors whatsapp contact details, yet little action is being taken. The mere fact that a CITES Appendix 2 species can be ordered and shipped online across international borders from these online platforms shows how ineffective the CITES Appendices are currently being enforced.

Reference Sources: Project Seahorse, CITES, OCEANA