What has led to the decimation of the world”s seahorse populations

What has led to the decimation of the world”s seahorse populations, and is there any hope for saving them?

—Stefanie Young, Chappaqua, NY

Seahorse populations around the world have been in decline for decades due to habitat loss, the home aquarium trade, and unintentional capture by fishermen seeking shrimp and other seafood. More recently, though, their popularity as an ingredient in non-synthetic impotence formulas has pushed these tiny creatures with the spinning tales to the brink of extinction.

For centuries, practitioners of traditional medicine in Asia have recommended combining seahorse powder with herbs to treat impotence as well as respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and asthma. But during the late 1990s—perhaps not coincidentally following Pfizer”s introduction of Viagra—the international trade in seahorses jumped more than 75 percent. Indeed, millions of people throughout Asia and elsewhere are turning to compounds incorporating seahorse powder as a natural and inexpensive alternative to Viagra for curing impotence, despite mixed reports about its effectiveness.

Project Seahorse, which maintains offices in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, reports that more than 24 million seahorses are sold each year around the world for traditional medicinal purposes. The principal importers are China and Singapore. Meanwhile, millions of other seahorses continue to be bought and sold each year to stock aquariums around the world, further jeopardizing wild populations.

Currently all 34 known species of seahorses are listed as threatened under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty signed by 166 countries. Under the treaty, businesses that engage in the seahorse trade are required to show that their actions do not jeopardize 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.

Nonetheless, keeping tabs on the international seahorse trade and prosecuting violators is a major undertaking. Project Seahorse coordinates a network of marine conservation organizations—including Chicago”s Shedd Aquarium, the Zoological Society of London, the World Wildlife Fund”s TRAFFIC program, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Tasmania—to share findings and help police the trade. But researchers admit that only a reduction in demand through increased public awareness will save this unique and peculiar creature from extinction.

CONTACTS: Project Seahorse, www.projectseahorse.org ; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), www.cites.org .