Re:Save the bees and kill a seahorse?

Pete Giwojna

Dear Alisa:

Yeah, that’s a darn shame — it sounds like the jewelry lady’s heart is in the right place but that she is woefully ignorant regarding the plight of the seahorse. Obviously she doesn’t realize that seahorses are far more threatened than honeybees…

As you know, wild seahorse populations now facing growing pressure from habitat loss, over harvesting, and a number of other factors. Unfortunately, seahorses just so happen to dwell in the world’s most threatened marine habitats: estuaries, coral reefs, mangrove forests, salt marshes and coastal seagrass beds (Cuen, 8 Jun. 2000). Destructive fishing practices such as cyanide collecting, heavy bottom trawling and dynamite fishing take a heavy toll on these delicate, all-important ecosystems (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). The dismal reality is that as coastal populations continue to boom around the world, seahorse habitats are steadily disappearing and smothering from pollution.
Take mangrove forests, for example. They are the coastal equivalent of tropical forests on land, providing natural habitat for countless species of fish (including seahorses, of course) and crustaceans as well as acting as nurseries for their young. Mangroves provide food, fuel and medicine for the locals and are an important natural resource for both their animal residents and human populations (Quarto, 2004).

Not long ago, mangrove forests covered fully three-fourths of the coastlines of tropical and sub-tropical countries. As a result of the charcoal and timber industries, urban growth pressures, and mounting pollution problems, less than 50% remain today, and over half of the remaining mangrove forests are already in poor shape, on the decline (Quarto, 2004). Mangroves are now disappearing even faster than tropical rain forests.

Habitat destruction is further aggravated by over collecting. 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. It’s unconscionable that these remarkable creatures should be exploited as tasteless trinkets.

Best wishes with all your fishes, Ali!

Pete Giwojna

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