Reining in the Seahorse Trade
Meet the industry that takes 20 million seahorses from the wild every year, and the fight to stop it.
Amy G. McDermott
Behind the scenes at the California Academy of Sciences, baby potbellied seahorses roam a tall, bubbling tank. They use their prehensile tails to cling to seagrass and to one another. Right now, the babies are small and slim as a finger, but as adults, they’ll grow that eponymous gut, and wobble about, on display in the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium. When a keeper approaches the tank, the youngsters rush to the glass, then swim up to the surface, expecting a meal. These fish are living the good life.
They’re the lucky ones.
Worldwide, seahorses are in trouble, threatened by habitat loss, and killed in a massive global trade. Scientists say this can’t go on, or many species will go extinct. But existing conservation efforts may not be enough to save them.
Researchers estimate that 15 – 20 million seahorses are taken from shallow, lush coastal waters every year. Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and the US are just a few of the countries exporting them. Ninety-five percent of captured seahorses end up dead and dried for use in traditional medicines, to boost virility, and even cure impotence. The other 5 percent are plunked into home aquariums, or sold as kitschy souvenirs.
Eleven seahorse species are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one step down from endangered. An additional 27 species are understudied, and listed as “data deficient.” In 2002, an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) responded to mounting concerns by tightening trade restrictions on all 48 species of seahorse. But scientists say that existing measures don’t go far enough.
In the four years after the restrictions took effect, 27 tons of dried seahorses, and 120,000 live specimens were shipped worldwide annually, CITES reports. Just in the last decade, the US imported 14,000 live, wild-caught seahorses, and half a ton of dried carcasses, through Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle alone.
To make matters worse, many of the fishing methods to catch seahorses also destroy their habitats. Overfishing is just one part of a much larger issue. Despite legal protection, life is getting harder and harder for these unusual fish.
A Complex Problem
Victor Cheng leans across his office desk, in a small business park, in San Jose, California. He’s pouring over a thick Chinese medical encyclopedia, hunting for “hai ma,” or seahorse.
Cheng, a graduate of UC Berkeley and UCLA, practices traditional Chinese medicine in California, and at Shuguang Hospital in Shanghai. When he finds “seahorse” in the encyclopedia, he translates the entry. The first records of their medical use appeared about 2,000 years ago, he reads, in the Taoist tome, The Baopuzi. They are typically soaked in alcohol, or boiled as a tea, to ostensibly increase sperm count and activity.
While Chinese medicine has a two thousand-year history with seahorses, Cheng says that today, they “are far from commonly used herbs.” Seahorses are used “recreationally” and “superstitiously,” he says. “I don’t even think they stock them in major hospitals in China.”
That’s not to say that seahorse doesn’t work, Cheng adds. But they are a folk remedy, like a supplement from a vitamin store. A doctor would prescribe something more potent, like seal’s penis, he says.
Despite the seahorse’s folk status, traditional medicine still fuels the majority of global demand. To understand why, consider the size of China’s population, and its health care system, Cheng says. China is home to more than one billion people. So even if one percent buys a single seahorse every year, that’s still fourteen million animals.
And folk remedies, while sometimes suspect, remain popular because health care is especially unpleasant in China. To make social services affordable, doctors are paid very little. “That doesn’t attract top talent to the industry,” Cheng says. Rather than visit a doctor they don’t trust, rural people head for prestigious (and crowded) urban hospitals, to see a physician with a good reputation. They can wait in long lines for hours, even sleeping on the floor, before being seen. Locally available treatments, like seahorses, are an appealing alternative.
But medical demand isn’t the whole story. The problem is much bigger, researchers say. Because, it turns out, most seahorses aren’t caught on purpose.
The Wrong Catch
Most fishermen don’t set out to supply the traditional medicine market. They snare seahorses accidentally, using indiscriminate trawling nets, gill nets, and crab traps, while angling for other creatures, says marine scientist Sarah Foster of the conservation group Project Seahorse. Bycatch would be thrown away— trash fish— if not for medicinal demand.
“So even if we weren’t using seahorses, they would still be caught and killed,” Foster says. That makes it unfair to blame traditional medicine for seahorse declines, she adds. “It’s the overexploitation by non-selective fishing gear that’s the problem.”
Bycatch hurts seahorses both directly and indirectly: It kills millions a year, and damages their habitat by mangling fragile ecosystems, Foster says. The weighted nets that snag these fish also rip up the seabed, along with the grasses, rocks, and corals that seahorses cling to.
Perhaps most insidiously, bycatch keeps wild seahorses cheap (they would be thrown away, after all). Fishermen dry them and sell them for cents on the dollar. The animals stay inexpensive, as they move from local ports to distributors, and into herbal shops worldwide. There are no overhead costs for seahorse fishermen, and as these animals become rarer, they’ll just get more expensive. Today, dried seahorses sell for 50 cents to $1.50 each. There is little economic incentive for change.
Boxes of loose tea, bags of roots, and other natural products line the shelves of a large herbal shop in San Jose. Bins of animal and plant-based herbs are filed neatly beneath glass counters. And on the countertop, dried pipefish rest in large, plastic vessels.
Pipefish, which look like seahorses and belong to the same family, have few legal protections. But seahorses are another story.
Just asking about them turns friendly conversations sour. In San Jose’s Little Saigon, the word “seahorse” brought five shop employees out from the back of one store. “No, we don’t have that,” they said, standing in a firm row and gesturing toward the door. And in San Francisco’s Chinatown, two herbal shop employees who had spoken in English only shook their heads in silence at the word “seahorse.”
A few years ago, these fish were common in Bay Area markets. But now, they’re gone— or at least, less visible.
In 2002, all 48 seahorse species were listed on the international wildlife treaty, CITES. Shop owners now need special permits to sell any imported species. The permits certify that the seahorses were caught without harming wild populations, meaning herbal shops can’t sell bycatch anymore.
Those permits are a first step, but they are far from enough, scientists say. Listing species on any treaty is “just a call to action,” says Foster of Project Seahorse. “The magic comes in actually implementing the listing [by] regulating exports.” That means consistent enforcement of environmental laws, and collaboration to find solutions that protect multiple species at once.
Limiting bycatch with more selective fishing gear is one broad solution. “They need to stop trawling,” Foster says. “We need much more of the ocean set aside, where these gears are not being used.”
As conservationists push for long-term international solutions, aquariums, zoos, and private businesses are exploring another option: captive breeding. Learning to farm seahorses, breeders say, offers a glimmer of hope for the future of seahorses in the wild.
Farming the Future
Today, most imported seahorses are wild-caught. But alternatives— like captive breeding— do exist. The baby potbellied seahorses crowding the glass at the California Academy of Sciences, for example, were born and raised in San Francisco, thousands of miles from their native Australia.
Steven Yong and I sit behind the scenes at the Cal Academy, in a bright conference room framed by sleek, sliding-glass doors. Yong is the Studbook Keeper and Species Survival Program Manager for lined seahorses, native to the Eastern Seaboard. It’s his job to know the pedigree of every individual in every American Association of Zoos and Aquariums facility, and to play matchmaker by recommending who should breed with whom.
Seahorses, he says, are challenging to rear in captivity, because babies, called “fry” rarely survive to adulthood. “Tiny fry need tiny food,” he says. In lieu of fish flakes, most aquariums feed their seahorses brine shrimp, which are small and relatively inexpensive, but offer limited nutrition. Facilities like the Academy are pushing the boundaries of captive breeding, he says, by growing other live food options, to mimic the dietary diversity seahorses get in the wild.
While aquariums “try to limit our wild collections,” Yong says, breeding programs are still “in their infancy.” Scientists don’t know enough about many wild populations to bring them into an aquarium setting. But some day, aquarists like Yong hope to breed many species of imperiled seahorses, for release back into the wild.
Across the Pacific in Hawaii, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka seahorse farms have already cropped up. Carol Cozi-Schmarr has raised seahorses in Kona, Hawaii, since 1998. Her farm, Ocean Rider, supplies 30 species to the pet trade and for global conservation.
“We did it to provide an alternative to taking seahorses out of the ocean,” she says. “If we weren't preserving the species no one would ever see them again.” Today, Schmarr says Ocean Rider is large enough to supply the pet trade with a million seahorses a year.
Even so, farming alone may not be enough. Both Schmarr and Yong emphasize the whole picture of bycatch, market demand, and habitat loss as a tangled, wicked problem. Yong questions if captive breeding can ever really put a dent in seahorse woes. “They still have so many pressures that are causing their decline in the wild,” he says. Until demand wanes, and fishing gears change, even farming could be futile.
The baby potbellied seahorses living in San Francisco are a minority today— most captive species are still born in the wild. But if global trends continue, museums might be the last places to see these charismatic little fish. Captive breeding and farming may save some species, but imagine, despite the vastness of the oceans, the last seahorses all born behind glass.
Born and raised in California, Amy founded Hawkmoth in 2014. She earned her master's at Columbia University, studying the evolution and conservation of coral reef fish in the tropical Indo-Pacific and is now a banana slug, in UC Santa Cruz's Science Communication Program.