Seahorses Under Siege: When Trade Bans Don’t Work
Unsustainable trade in wildlife is a key driver of biodiversity loss from both land and marine ecosystems. A prime example is the seahorse trade. Along with two species of sharks, seahorses were the first marine fish to be subject to global trade restrictions by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Created in 1973, there are now 182 signatories to the agreement, which aims to ensure that trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Most of the demand for dried, wild seahorses comes from mainland China for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Smaller numbers of dried seahorses are used for curios and novelties. Both wild and captive-bred live seahorses are sold for aquarium display. CITES banned all trade in seahorses in 2004. Evidence suggested however that India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Thailand all continued to export seahorses. This study examined the scale of continuing illegal trade to assess how well the trade bans are being enforced.
Researchers surveyed traders in Hong Kong, the world’s largest importer of seahorses, to learn about their sources and volumes of dried seahorse in 2016 and 2017. Dried seahorses are easy to smuggle in because of their small size and light weight. Analysis of the survey data revealed that more than 95% of dried seahorses came from countries that ban exports. Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia continue to export significant volumes of dried seahorses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the official statistics reported by both Hong Kong trade authorities and CITES conflict with these findings.
The results point to a failure of controls on both exports and imports. CITES requires member countries to limit exports of listed species to levels that safeguard species’ populations. However, there is no requirement to report to the CITES secretariat if these levels are exceeded, making the agreement ultimately toothless. The researchers suggest that CITES mandate that countries notify them if authorities learn of imports from entities with export bans. CITES can then take up the violation with the exporter.
Reducing the supply of seahorses available to the market is the biggest challenge. Fisheries don’t target seahorses, but an estimated 37 million seahorses become bycatch each year when fishing boats employ non-selective methods such as seine nets, trawling and gillnets. Since seahorses are a non-target catch, bans are not likely to prove effective. There is a ready market and little risk. Shifting to more selective approaches would reduce the by-catch of seahorses, lessen negative environmental impacts, and employ more people.
Governments have tried a variety of approaches to protect wildlife. Trade bans can be an effective wildlife conservation tool when all parties observe the ban. But all too often, bans exist only on paper. When this happens, trade moves underground, and conservation goals become much more difficult to achieve.
Managing extraction and increasing enforcement will be necessary to curb the illegal seahorse trade. A two-pronged solution can provide valuable insight to animal advocates seeking to improve the outcomes of wildlife conservation efforts. This study illustrates the importance of considering both demand and supply when fighting the illegal wildlife trade.