I share your concern over this deplorable practice, sir, and I would be happy to discuss some of the things individual aquarists and home hobbyists can do to address the plight of seahorses. Unfortunately, the dried seahorses sold as curios and souvenirs represent just a tiny fraction of a number of seahorses that are removed from the wild for various purposes.
An estimated 25-30 million specimens are now collected from the wild annually, primarily to feed the insatiable demands of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for dried seahorses (Garrick-Maidment, May 2002, Aug. 2002). The global demand for seahorses for this medicinal market is virtually limitless. They have no place in modern western medicine, of course, but dried seahorses are used in countless numbers for TCM and its regional variations: hanyak in Korea, kanpo in Japan, and jamu in Indonesia (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). In vast areas of the world, seahorses are in widespread use to treat maladies such as asthma and other respiratory ailments, broken bones, impotence, arteriosclerosis, thyroid disorders, heart disease, skin problems, and incontinence (Cuen 2000, Gaski and Johnson 1994). They are especially popular in China and Taiwan as aphrodisiacs and treatments for sexual dysfunction (Garrick-Maidment, Aug. 2002).
Seahorses have been exploited for these purposes for centuries and will continue to be used in rapidly growing numbers for TCM throughout the foreseeable future. The handwriting is on the wall: TCM has been formally codified for 2000 years, is practiced by over one quarter of the world’s population, and is acknowledged to be a valid form of medicine by the World Health Organization (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). TCM and its variants are most popular in those very parts of the world whose population is growing the fastest, fueling the growing demand for seahorses in folk medicine.
Although Asian folk medicine is by far the biggest culprit, accounting for over 95% of the seahorses collected from the wild, seahorses are also taken in quantity for use as aquarium pets and for the curio trade. Several hundred thousand wild seahorses are exported annually for the pet market, primarily to the USA, and similar numbers are harvested and dried every year for use as souvenirs and trinkets (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). Thanks to their bony exoskeletons, seahorses retain their lifelike appearance indefinitely after drying, and they are thus incorporated into jewelry, key rings, paperweights, and craftwork featuring marine themes. I agree with you completely, Nigel — it’s utterly unconscionable that these remarkable creatures should be exploited as tasteless trinkets!
Of course, the hope and promise is that cultured seahorses can serve to reduce the current exploitation rates of wild seahorses and help to meet any future increases in global demand. In the United States alone, the aquarium hobby is second only to photography in popularity with a retail value approaching $1 billion annually. The US is by far the world’s biggest importer of live seahorses for the aquarium trade. For example, in 1987, no less than 200,000 seahorses were imported to the United States from the Philippines (TED Case 6) alone. Now, nearly two decades later, that figure is no doubt closer to a quarter million Philippine seahorses imported annually. And that total does not include seahorses imported from other countries, or the vast numbers of Hippocampus erectus and H. zosterae collected domestically from US coastal waters.
Environmentally responsible aquaculture facilities like Ocean Rider have the potential to dramatically reduce those numbers and reduce the exploitation of wild seahorses accordingly. What’s more, the cutting-edge rearing protocols and techniques the aquafarms have painstakingly developed for culturing seahorses can be applied equally successfully to raising a wide range of other marine fishes and invertebrates. OR already rears Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), clownfish (Amphiprion occelaris), and orchid dottybacks (Pseudomonas friedmani) and will be working with a number of other reef fish soon.
When you consider the tremendous advances that have been made in mariculture and coral propagation over the past decade, I can foresee a day when we can all have the marine aquarium of our dreams-be that a dedicated seahorse setup, a fish-only tank, a modified mini-reef or full-fledged reef system-that’s every bit as rich, diverse and beautiful as the aquaria we keep today, only composed entirely of captive-bred-and-raised specimens. From the corals and mollusks to the fabulous fish and colorful invertebrates, from the clean-up crew to magnificent macroalgaes, all will be farm raised in the not-to-distant future. That’s the promise modern mariculture holds for tomorrow!
And when that day comes, progressive aquaculture operations like Ocean Rider will be leading the way. They were the first aquafarm to produce captive-bred seahorses for the US market and remain the only seahorse farm to have received AZA accreditation. They led the way in developing standards for the certification of High Health farm-raised seahorse and are the only syngnathid culture facility to achieve that lofty status for their operation. They pioneered the micro-tagging system that allows captive-bred seahorses to be distinguished from wild-caught seahorses, and stand alone among the seahorse farms in routinely testing their livestock for genetic soundness and the presence of specific parasites and pathogens.
Always the innovator, Ocean Rider has opened a Visitor’s Center at their state-of-the-art facility in Hawaii that will stress educational exhibits and displays to better inform the public about the threats to wild seahorse populations and heighten awareness of marine conservation issues. As Carol puts it, "After spending over 20 years living, working, and traveling in underdeveloped and developed countries around the world, I have witnessed firsthand the very rapid destruction of the marine (and terrestrial) environment due to habitat destruction and overfishing caused by an exploding world population which has an insatiable appetite for marine life as food, medicine and pets. Craig and I wanted to use our commercial aquaculturing expertise to help ease this pressure on the oceanic environment. Ocean Rider was formed with the idea that that a beautiful, farm-raised pet seahorse is a great way to increase people’s awareness of the ocean environment and encourage them to do what they can to help protect it, while at the same time, bringing them a lot of happiness and helping to make the world a better place for us all!"
With that goal in mind, the Visitor’s Center includes a gift shop featuring handmade crafts with seahorse motifs from developing countries as well as American artists, with part of the proceed going to support marine conservation. Seahorse-related artwork for the center is crafted in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Central America, India, and the Philippines. Income from their handiwork will reduce the need for craftsman in these countries to turn to more environmentally destructive practices in order to support their families, thereby helping to promote conservation.
Even the best aquaculture operations can do only so much, however. Ocean Rider’s goal is to provide seahorses that are fun, hardy, colorful, easy to feed and convenient to keep as an attractive alternative to wild-caught seahorses, and if successful, they have the potential to end the exploitation of wild seahorses for the aquarium trade.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Only a small fraction of seahorses removed from the wild are destined for aquariums — the vast majority of them go to the international trade in Asian folk medicine. For example, the current world consumption for the medicine market alone is estimated to be more than 20 million individuals per year and to be increasing along with the global population at a rate of more than 10% per year (Vincent, 1996). As a result, there has been a 50% decline in the world seahorse population from 1990 to 1995, with their numbers plummeting by 70% if we go back as far as 1980 (Vincent, 1996). Almost all species are currently listed as "vulnerable" on the Red List of Threatened Species, facing a further decrease in their populations of at least 20% within the next three generations (IUCN, 2000).
To stem that tide, more than aquaculture alone is required. Under these grim circumstances, marine conservation becomes the purview of the lawmakers. International legislation is needed to address international trafficking in seahorses on such an enormous scale. Fortunately, CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) legislation was designed specifically for situations like this, and placing seahorses under the protection of a CITES Appendix II listing is the appropriate vehicle for stopping the bleeding in this case. The new CITES regulations protecting the genus hippocampus prohibit the taking of seahorses from any area where the wild population is considered to be unsustainable and/or unmanaged. Such protection has proven to be very effective in the saving of giant clams and live coral when they were similarly threatened. With several different aquafarms providing 20 distinct types of captive-bred seahorses for the US market alone, comprising 17 separate species, the aquaculture industry is now well positioned to meet the growing demand for these amazing animals.
Aquafarming and international legislation to protect seahorses are two giant steps in the right direction, Nigel, but on an individual basis, conservation ultimately comes down to the choices we make in our everyday lives and it will only work if we all do our parts. Here are some simple steps you and other hobbyists can take to help prevent seahorse eggs takes on and exploitation:
1. Resist the temptation to buy wild-caught pet seahorses.
There is no such thing as a bargain price for a seahorse if it was removed from the wild. That beautiful Brazilian at your local fish store may seem to be a great deal compared to cost of a captive-bred specimen, but in all likelihood you will have to go through several wild-caughts before you find a healthy specimen that will survive longer than a few months. And when you do finally find a wild-caught winner, you will need to provide it with expensive live foods for an indefinite period, rapidly consuming any initial savings in the process. And then, of course, there are the ecological costs that go with keeping a seahorse removed from the wild. As a result of overfishing for the aquarium trade, overexploitation for TCM, and habitat loss, seahorse populations have declined by over 70% worldwide since 1980, and most species are currently listed as "vulnerable" on the Red List of Threatened Species, facing a further decrease in their populations of at least 20% within the next three generations (IUCN, 2000). That’s no bargain!
2. Continue to support seahorse farmers with your business. Whatever you are looking for in an aquarium pet, be it temperate or tropical species, seahorses that are easy to breed and raise or just ‘horses that are fun and easy to keep, pint-sized ponies or king-sized Clydesdales, there is now a captive-bred-and-raised seahorse that’s perfect for your needs. It’s time to find out what you’ve been missing and join in on all the fun!
3. Encourage seahorse-friendly legislation:
*Promote no-fishing zones in marine parks and other marine reserves.
*Support conservation of wetlands, seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs and estuaries.
We must protect marine ecosystems to provide wild seahorse populations with the pristine habitats they need to thrive.
*Lobby for international legislation to address the international trafficking in seahorses such as they knew CITES appendix II (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) regulations protecting the entire genus Hippocampus.
4. Avoid buying dried seahorses as curios or souvenirs.
5. Educate yourself and others regarding marine conservation. Search out information about seahorses in books and magazines, on the internet, and at museums and aquaria. Request and undertake education on marine conservation in schools, aquarium shops, public aquaria and other locations.
6. Contribute time or money to a marine conservation or research organizations.
Best wishes with all your fishes, Nigel! I appreciate your concerns for seahorse preservation and marine conservation in general, and when taken collectively, the actions of individual hobbyists like yourself can make a big difference.