Seahorses to be protected from international trade

Posted on 12 May 2004

Starting 15 May, international trade rules kick in for seahorses - making them one of the first commercially valuable marine species to be managed by the world’s largest wildlife treaty.
Vancouver, Canada – A monogamous lifestyle and male pregnancy aren’t the only things that distinguish seahorses from other marine life. Starting May 15, international trade rules kick in for seahorses — making them one of the first commercially valuable marine species to be managed by the world’s largest wildlife treaty, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). 

A number of the world’s species of seahorses are threatened because of overfishing and unsustainable trade. At the last CITES Conference of the Parties, held in November 2002, WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, backed a successful US-led proposal to have all 33 seahorse species listed on CITES Appendix II. This listing regulates international trade in species that may be threatened with extinction without trade regulation.

To help countries keep their seahorse trade sustainable, Project Seahorse and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union, have produced a guide for customs agents and others to help identify the different species of seahorses in trade.
"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 estimated 24 million seahorses are taken from the wild every year, dried and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine, to treat everything from asthma to sexual dysfunction. Hundreds of thousands more are sold live for the aquarium trade."
The CITES listing means more than 160 countries must now ensure that commercial trade of seahorses is not detrimental to wild populations.
"TRAFFIC and Project Seahorse have published an ID manual to help ensure the seahorse regulations are successful in conserving these remarkable species," said Ernie Cooper of TRAFFIC. "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."

The biology of seahorses may make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Because most species of seahorses are monogamous, for example, widowed animals don’t reproduce until they find a new partner, and lost partners are not quickly replaced. Male pregnancy means that young depend on parental survival for far longer than in most fish. And small home ranges in many species may restrict recolonization of depleted areas.
Seahorses are traded internationally for use in aquariums, as curios and souvenirs, and in traditional Asian medicine. Trade in recent years appears to be increasing, with demand particularly high in China for use in traditional medicine. Survival rates for seahorses in captivity are low, meaning almost all seahorses in aquariums are wild-caught.
Aquariums and zoos celebrating Seahorse Day this week include the Houston Zoo; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; and Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.
The CITES regulations for seahorses were approved in November 2002 but delayed for 18 months — until May 2004 — to allow countries time to put in place policies to enforce them.
Project Seahorse is a marine conservation organization that undertakes research, fosters marine management and sustainable consumption, formulates policy and disseminates knowledge.
• TRAFFIC is the world’s leading wildlife trade monitoring network and is a joint project of WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union. 
 For further information:
Jan Vertefeuille
Senior Communications Officer, WWF-US
Tel: +1 202 861 8362

Dried seahorses for traditional Chinese medicine, Philippines.
© WWF / Jürgen Freund