Re:Seahorses as snacks!?

Pete Giwojna

Dear Ricky:

Yup, it’s difficult to believe, I know, but seahorses are indeed on the menu in certain cultures. It’s hard to imagine that they are very appetizing or nourishing — I mean, they’re all bony exoskeleton and prickly spines, with very little meat on them at all. I guess Hippocampus hors d’oeuvres must be very much an acquired taste.

It’s primarily an Asian custom, and I believe they are consumed primarily for their purported medicinal properties rather than their flavor. 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.

The consumption of so many seahorses for use in TCM based on a superstitious belief in their almost magical medicinal properties no doubt strikes many of us on this forum as a backward, abhorrent practice. But with regard to Asia folk medicine, it’s important to remember that the Western perspective is very much the minority viewpoint, and that by comparison to TCM, it is modern medicine that is primitive, still in its infancy, and entirely unproven by the test of time. It would the height of arrogance for us to attempt to impose our minority beliefs on the rest of the world. Lest we forget, there are Eastern cultures that regard our cattle ranches and steakhouses with the same sort of repugnance and distaste we hobbyists feel toward collecting or raising seahorses for use in TCM. But I’m not about to give up roast beef, barbecued ribs, and sirloin steak because cows are regarded as sacred in India anymore than we can expect Asians to abandon TCM because we put our faith in Viagra and prescription drugs instead.

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, as well as for human consumption. 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.

The double-pronged threat of habitat loss and overfishing has caused a dramatic decline in seahorse populations worldwide, and in some areas their numbers have dropped an alarming 50% over the past five to ten years (Cuen, 2000). Over 75 countries now actively trade in seahorses, and this traffic is growing by 8%-10% annually; as the world’s population of people soars, so does demand for these beleaguered fishes (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999).

But as far as food fish go, we seahorse lovers here in the US can relax. No one seriously believes seahorse-on-a-stick is going to become the next fast food craze in America! While I’ve been known to sample my share of corn dogs at the State Fair, it’ll be a heckuva cold day before you catch me at the stir-fried syngnathids stand or lining up for seahorse sushi!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

Post edited by: Pete Giwojna, at: 2008/08/13 02:07

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