Despite the government’s efforts to implement trade bans, some countries still participate in vast illegal international trade of seahorses.
The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement among governments to regulate international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants — CITES ensures that these practices do not threaten their survival.
Seahorses were the first marine fishes to be under such regulation; one of the aims of CITES is to prevent exports of seahorses and ensure its sustainability. Exporting seahorses are allowed if they have been sourced sustainably and legally — and necessary paperwork is required to prove it.
Co-author of the paper, Dr. Ting-Chun Kuo, said that “we found that 95% of dried seahorses in Hong Kong’s large market were reported as being imported from source countries that had export bans being in place, including Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, and Vietnam.”
“This is a remarkable discovery given the high proportion of global seahorse trade that goes through Hong Kong,” said Dr. Sarah Foster, who is the lead author. “Such illegal shipments lacked the required CITES records and permits. This means that many seahorse populations continue to be under heavy pressure without CITES oversight of sources and sustainability of the trade.”
Hong Kong is known as the world’s largest trading hub for dried seahorse. Foster added that analysis of global trade data from 2004 to 2017 revealed that Hong Kong was responsible for about two-thirds of all seahorse imports.
In a research project in Hong Kong earlier this year, investigators interrogated 220 traders about the origin of their seahorse stocks during 2016 and 2017. It was found that about 95% were imported from countries with export bans and that Thailand is the number one supplier — despite the country’s export ban status which started last January 2016.
Sheung Wan, which is located on the western side of Hong Kong Island, is the center of the trade in traditional Chinese medicine. In this ancient system that uses dried plants and animals for treatment of various illnesses, seahorses are popularly believed to have Viagra-like effects. In the district, seahorses are placed in boxes and glass jars and are sold in stores that line their streets. The retail price of each seahorse can be sold up to 40 Hong Kong dollars ($5).
Despite the lack of scientific studies or clinical trials, the consumption of seahorses is widespread in traditional Chinese medicine. Lixing Lao from the School of Chinese Medicine at the University of Hong Kong said that “according to Chinese medicine theory, the seahorse is nourishing … and gives the body more energy.” Dried seahorses are usually prepared as a tea and are commonly used to treat asthma, male sexual dysfunction, nocturnal enuresis, and pain, as well as labor induction.
The Chinese medicine shops in Sheung Wan are not breaking the law in selling seahorses. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said that CITES are designed to control import and export. However, the country’s law does not ban trade within its territory.
The AFCD has been taking measures to prevent illegal imports. Due to its size and appearance, these dried animals are easily smuggled across borders by camouflaging them with other dried seafood. In 2018, Hong Kong authorities seized 45 shipments of dried seahorses weighing a total of 470 kilograms — equivalent to about 175,000 seahorses.
Marine biologists and other experts say many species are under threat. The number of seahorses is decreasing every year since about 37 million seahorses are caught in the wild every year, and approximately 15-20 million are traded around the world. The rate of decline is exacerbated by the rampant smuggling of these dried animals due to its high demand. According to Project Seahorse, research carried out around the world shows that populations of at least 11 species have dropped by between 30% and 50% over the past 15 years.
The popular demand for seahorses can be linked to its importance in traditional Chinese medicine. But, even without the trade, methods of fishing alone could greatly affect the number of seahorses.