Seahorses, of all things: Further thoughts on the West African seahorse trade

By Andrés M. Cisneros-Montemayor

A fishing port, somewhere in Senegal or Gambia on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa. It’s a hot, humid and buggy day, the pirogues are coming in, and it’s organized chaos all around. We’re weaving through porters and sorters, watching out for donkey carts full of fish zipping by. Between rivulets of human sewage and fish offal flowing into the ocean, women sit and gut the days’ catch. I skirt a pile of half-day-old finned shark trunks, a bucket of multi-sized octopus and cuttlefish, catch a glimpse of old cleaned-out sea turtle shells and a large devil ray, and take in the seemingly endless flow of pelagic and tropical fishes arriving bucket by bucket. In the background sits a fly-covered hill of murex shells, and a small army of men and women adding to it after breaking each snail out with small iron bars. Scenes like this — of people catching whatever they can to make a meagre living — play out daily all over the world…

…and I’m here to ask about seahorses.

Now, as a quick personal back-story, growing up around fisheries I still remember hearing about this or that (usually foreign) conservationist and their quest to save something, usually shutting down a fishery in the process. So the irony was not lost on me as I moved down the beach with my bottled water (oh, how the tables turn) and, through my translator, Boiro, asked fishers about their catch. Did they see any seahorses, how many, etc.? Usually, the initial look of suspicion was replaced with one of honest surprise (and perhaps some derision) upon accepting that yes, this ‘Toubab’ is a student, and he actually just wants to know about seahorses. Seahorses, of all things! 

Seahorses are listed under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species), which means they can be legally caught in a country, but require a permit to export. Exports from West Africa to Asia (as traditional Chinese medicine) have been increasing quickly, but exactly where they’re being fished and how they compare with declared exports is unclear. My job is to continue research begun last year and estimate how many seahorses are being caught by fishers here, how they are being traded within the country, how they are getting out, and how the authorities are dealing with it, if at all. 

Three week’s research (so far) into the trade in Senegal and Gambia, here’s the lowdown. First of all, seahorses are not high on anyone’s radar. Fishers catch some by accident here and there; some traders might collect them and re-sell, and eventually larger handfuls of seahorses are accumulated on their way to Dakar. When asked how big a part of his business they are, the owner of a seafood processing plant and the largest single (legal) exporter of seahorses in Senegal laughed and said “0%”. After touring his plant, I believe him. In fact, many government officials and scientists, and even some fishers, were unaware of the seahorses trade in Senegal and Gambia. 

This is a classic example of the scaling-up phenomenon in fisheries. Even if individual fishers only occasionally catch a few seahorses, the sheer number of pirogues and industrial trawlers on the water means that an estimated 1.8 tonnes of seahorses (almost 300,000 individuals) are landed per year, just over six times the legally-exported amount. The rest of the seahorses are taken to Asia illegally, either by boat crews returning home or by clandestine exporters. This gap between perception and reality speaks to the much larger issue of global bycatch, which affects seahorses and many other marine species. 

What does this mean, specifically, for seahorses in West Africa? Well, we’re still working on that Our estimated seahorse landings represent less than one-thousandth of a percent of total Senegalese fishery landings. What we do know is that awareness is the necessary first step toward a sustainable seahorse trade in the region. After compiling results from our research, we brought together and shared them with key representatives from almost every stakeholder group you would want present, including CITES authorities, government officials, fish exporters, non-governmental organzations, academics, and policymakers. They now know what seahorses look like, how the males carry eggs and how to tell them apart from females, where and how they are caught, how they are being legally and illegally exported, and why this is something they should care about (trade sanctions if nothing else). More importantly, participants themselves were quick to spearhead discussion on the next steps to tackle this issue (and related ones such as shark-finning and customs practices), and have already started to move the wheels. On the biology/ecology side, we tripled the amount of seahorses previously sampled in this region and will now attempt to find more of them in the wild (tricky, but stay tuned). This will help provide much-needed local data for scientists and managers.

Developing countries face many serious economic and societal problems, such as poverty, which would seem to transcend by far even the most legitimate conservation concerns. Ultimately, these issues belong on a continuum, and need to be addressed together, with effective, holistic policies — sustainable fisheries being a step in the right direction. My field work in West Africa has made me realize, that if we only focus on and wait to solve the large-scale issues, we might eventually find that all the smaller conservation battles were lost in the meantime. So when you are tasked with even a seemingly-inconsequential aspect of conservation in a country with other pressing needs, remember that every single improvement counts. 

And remember to carry bottled water! 

Project Seahorse's trade research in West Africa is generously supported by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Photos: Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse