The Last Roundup?

Seahorses Struggle for Survival

Seahorses may have the best love lives of any fish in the ocean. These delicate, swirled-tail members of the syngnathid family (pipefish, sea dragons) are frequently depicted in mythology, rapturously entwined.

Prized by aquarium hobbyists and used in Chinese medicine, the world"s seahorses©Photos to Go

Each morning just after dawn, seahorses participate in a courtship ritual in which the two mates intertwine their tails and "dance," and most species stay faithful to their partners for life. In their bizarre form of reproduction, the male is the one who gets pregnant, carrying the female’s eggs in a small brood pouch for weeks before giving birth. But this millennia-old dance may soon be over, as seahorses are increasingly endangered.

Sadly, seahorses" monogamous lifestyles, coupled with the fact that both mates must survive in order to produce offspring, actually count as a strike against them in terms of species survival. If a seahorse loses its mate, it will not reproduce until it finds a new one, and low population density suggests that lost mates are not easily replaced. Seahorse populations are on the decline, due to a variety of threats from habitat destruction to over-exploitation. They are unintentionally snagged as "bycatch" in huge shrimp trawler nets, and they inhabit some of the most endangered aquatic ecosystems—estuaries, coral reefs, mangrove stands, lagoons and seagrasses—which makes them subject to widespread habitat destruction.

Yet the most compelling threat facing seahorses is the ever-growing, unsustainable international seahorse trade, a force that has attracted the attention of marine conservationists worldwide and ultimately propelled an international collaboration to ensure their protection before it is too late.

In 2002, 32 species of seahorses were entered under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), signed by 166 nations. Under the treaty, which since last May protects all 34 known species, any country that engages in seahorse trade is required to show that the activity won’t put wild populations at risk. International seahorse traders now need permits, and a minimum size limit has been imposed to guarantee that juvenile members of populations can reproduce.

"It was a landmark meeting," says Sonja Fordham, who attended the 2002 CITES gathering. Fordham, the International Fish Conservation Program Manager at the Ocean Conservancy, says it’s always difficult to obtain CITES protections for fish. "Marine species are some of the most controversial species on CITES," she explains. A handful of countries took out reservations on the seahorse listing, which gives them the power to ignore the treaty regulations, undermining its provisions. Still, Fordham remains confident that the new measures will have an impact. "We all believe it will be a step in the right direction," she says.

The seahorse listing was largely the result of Project Seahorse, a Vancouver-based team of marine conservation scientists working with similar groups to make the measure possible. One co-collaborator of the effort was TRAFFIC, a division of the World Wildlife Fund. The CITES working group that recommended the listing was chaired by Amanda Vincent, the group’s co-founder and director.

According to Project Seahorse, international trade culminated in the annual exchange of 24 million individual seahorses for traditional medicinal purposes alone, with hundreds of thousands more taken for the growing aquarium trade. "CITES is not an attempt to close down trade," Vincent says. "But it is important that we do not over-consume. Any trade in seahorses can only be conducted if it does not threaten wild populations." Seahorses are in high demand, both living or dried. The principal importers are China and Singapore, where they are used in traditional medicine. A typical Chinese medicine practice is to grind dried seahorse into powder and combine it with herbs for the treatment of a large number of ailments, but most commonly impotence. "They have some other minor uses, but virtually all the supply used in Chinese medicine has gone to this one application," says Subhuti Dharmananda, director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Oregon.

There has been speculation that the increase in trade is linked to the release of Viagra onto the global market. The medicinal seahorse trade jumped from 45 to 75 metric tons annually between 1995 and 2001, coinciding with the introduction of Viagra in 1998. The popularity of this and other impotence drugs, according to a recent article in Independent Online, could be pushing Asian consumers to seek out seahorse remedies as safer, cheaper alternatives to these drugs in higher quantities than before.

Yet Dharmananda believes that "in China, most people are happy to use the drugs like Viagra. They are much more potent than the seahorse." Similarly, Vincent maintains that there is "no credible data showing a connection between increases of trade in Viagra and trade in traditional medicine." If anything, she says, the contrary would be expected. She sees the greater issue as having to do with the opening up of China and its overall economic growth, which has led to an increase in traditional Chinese medicine exports on the whole.

"We [at Project Seahorse] have respect for traditional medicine," says Vincent. Project Seahorse agrees with the World Health Organization that ancient Chinese herbal medicine is an effective form of treatment, and recognizes that it has been used for 600 years. Vincent and Dharmananda agree that there have been collaborations between conservationists and the traditional Chinese medicine community to raise awareness about endangered species.

The aquarium trade takes a smaller but still significant toll. The United States exports only about 1,000 seahorses annually, but it is a large importer of live specimens. According to a spokesperson from a wholesale tropical fish distributor based in the U.S., "Up until recently, all seahorses offered in pet stores were wild caught, because they could be obtained at a very low price." Wild-caught seahorses are sold without a minimum lifetime guarantee because they rarely survive captivity for long. There is also a demand for dried seahorses to be sold in souvenir shops around the world.

In addition to the fishing industries that target seahorses specifically, a large portion of them are unintentionally killed in shrimp trawls. Vincent says, "Ninety-five to 99 percent of the catch is non-shrimp."

??TES, seahorses may have a chance of bouncing back. Unchecked, the trade could have spelled doom for all 34 species, but the new listing could prove to be an important turning point. Activists urge consumers to protect seahorses by reducing their shrimp consumption, refusing to shop at stores that sell seahorses as souvenirs and keeping them out of their personal aquariums.