Investigating the West African seahorse trade

By Kate West

Finally, after months of preparation, I have arrived in Senegal. My task: to investigate the fast-growing seahorse trade in West Africa. Hippocampus algiricus, the West African seahorse, is classed as Data Deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), having rarely been studied before. My aim is to gain as much information about the species' biology, as well as to gather quantitative information about the trade of the species. This will ultimately help to make the West African seahorse trade more sustainable. I will spend five weeks in Senegal and a week in Guinea.

Keen to get started as soon as possible, I meet with Cheikh Fall, a fisheries inspector and my research assistant, soon after my arrival. Given the nature of trade work, I’ve been feeling a little anxious about how fishers and traders will react to my probing questions about the trade of specialist marine products. When I meet Cheikh, a tall, smiling man, my fears are quickly put to rest. After a chat about logistics and the overall project, Cheikh produces a long list of people he has already started to contact in the port. I feel encouraged already.

The following day we meet with a wholesaler in Dakar, Senegal’s largest city. We pass through a shifty looking back alley near the port, where shark fins and swim bladders lay drying in the sun. Our contact views us suspiciously but informs us that he does indeed sell seahorses, and from this tiny piece of information, we develop new leads for our investigation at the port.

The next time we visit the port, to meet another wholesaler, the shark fins are gone and in their place we find something that, for our purposes, is even more interesting — pipefish, a seahorse relative. As I begin to inspect the dried specimens, an elderly man appears with a handful of dried seahorses. I can't believe my luck. After some haggling over the price, we bring the specimens with us into the port of Dakar. 

Cheikh informs me that there are a number of Chinese vessels docked here at the port — seahorses are in important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), commonly used as a tonic to treat many different health problems. Project Seahorse has been working for many years to make the trade in seahorse for TCM more sustainable, and my research here in West Africa will help to fill some of the gaps in our current knowledge about which species are traded and in what volumes.

We enter a dimly lit office next to the quay where we encounter several Chinese traders. In Wolof and French we explain our quest to the owner of one of the Chinese fishing vessels. Immediately the man becomes very excited and asks whether he can buy some seahorses from me! I explain that I am studying seahorses, not trading them, and he seems a little disappointed. When I ask why he wants them, he makes a gesture to Cheikh to indicate that they are used to enhance virility. Cheikh laughs. 

Outside on the quayside, we see that one of the Chinese vessels is unloading. We make our approach. Here our reception is not so warmly received. I am told not to take pictures. However, as we leave one of the fishermen slips a 'petit cadeux' into my hand — another seahorse, evidence of their catch.

After spending most of the rest of the day talking to fishing boat captains, we meet with another wholesaler. Sitting in a dark room down a dusty road, I finally see something familiar, the logo of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, the international body that regulates the trade in seahorses and other threatened animal and plant species. I ask him about regulations here in Senegal, and the wholesaler explains that all the seahorses are shipped to Hong Kong and that there is a quota managed by the Ministry of "Eaux et Foret" — water and forests. 

Following this lead, we visit to the Ministry the next day, where I ask about this quota. Excitingly, we are shown the official export records dating back to 2004, when all seahorse species were first listed under CITES. These data will be extremely useful.  Many types of data are needed to paint the most accurate picture of wildlife trade, as all data sources have omissions and errors, and it is helpful and encouraging that the Ministry is willing to share their export records with us. 

The next part of the journey takes us away from the fast pace of Dakar to fishing villages further south. Our first stop is the large fishing village of Joal. Here, around 3,000 pirogues depart every day to fish for cuttlefish, squid, sol, etc. This truly impressive sight was featured in "The End of the Line,” a documentary that highlights the problem of rapidly depleting fish stocks around the world. Karim Sall, appointed president of the local marine protected area and deputy town mayor, acts as our guide. 

As the pirogues unload in the dusk I notice a huge cart of what looked like rotting molluscs. Karim explains that these had been on a pirogue for 10-14 days, and, having been the first catch of the trip, twould have been sitting in the sun. Where previously these sub-par mollusks would not have been considered fit for consumption, they now serve as food for the Senegalese population. Meanwhile the fresher, iced catches are shipped to meet the demands of Western and Asian countries. I have observed examples of this time and time again – fishing efforts being doubled to meet ever-growing global demand, with diminishing results.

I leave Joal feeling like there is a lot to be learned from these examples, not just in terms of the seahorse trade but for all aspects of marine conservation.

Kate West is undertaking this trade and biological research as part of her Master of Science degree at Imperial College London (UK). Her work is supervised by Amanda Vincent (Director of Project Seahorse, based at UBC), Chris Ransom (West and North Africa Programme Manager, Zoological Society of London) and Pia Orr (Research Associate, Imperial College London). Kate's research is generously supported by an Erasmus Darwin Barlow Expedition Grant and by the People's Trust for Endangered Species