New research leads to conservation win for West African seahorses

By Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor and Kate West

Fisheries in Senegal. Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

Fisheries in Senegal. Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.

There are few things as rewarding as seeing science directly contribute to improved policy. We were thrilled to learn this month that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (also known as CITES, the UN body tasked with ensuring sustainability in the global wildlife trade) recently announced the suspension of all exports of the threatened West African seahorses (Hippocampus algiricus) from Senegal and Guinea — thanks in part to our fieldwork supported by People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Mohammad Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Seahorses are listed under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species); they can be legally fished, but a permit is required to export them to other countries. In 2012, CITES became worried about whether exports of the West African Seahorse were indeed unsustainable, prompting an urgent need for field research on this unstudied species and its fisheries and trade. 

During the summers of 2012 and 2013, we studied the local catch and export of seahorses in the West African countries of Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea, with particular focus on H, algiricus. We visited over 40 different sites over three countries and met with more than 300 fishers, traders, scientists and government officials. This led us to realize that discover the scale of seahorse catch and trade in West Africa was much greater than previously understood. Our results for Senegal suggest that in one twelve month period during 2012-2013, a total of 371,000 individual seahorses were caught, and 184,000 kept as catch. This estimate is far higher than the number reported by CITES or other trade data..  We also examined 250 seahorses, mostly of West African but also short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus) in what was by far the largest biological study of seahorses in this region. We also provided the first video of a live West African Seahorse and obtained specimens—with all the required legal permits—that may allow for genetic determination of different populations. 

These findings were communicated to national and global CITES Authorities, and helped provoke the decision in May 2014 to classified exports of West African seahorses from Guinea and Senegal as posing Urgent Concern. As a consequence, these countries were required to meet research, reporting, and management obligations. Such requirements provide useful support in efforts to reduce fishing pressure on wild seahorses in these waters. Unfortunately, though, neither country was able to respond in the required time frames and CITES drew on more of our information to decide on an export ban from these countries.  Our hope is that this notable step will lead to markedly more conservation work in the region, in partnership among researchers, fishers, managers, traders, and the general public. 

This positive outcome for West African seahorses should be celebrated, and is hopefully only the beginning of the story. These are just one of many unsustainably-fished species, and during the course of fieldwork we observed many worrisome practices including finning of sharks, catch of sea turtles, and discarding of many small or unwanted species of marine life. Nevertheless, fishers overwhelmingly noted the importance of sustainability for their way of life, lamented the fact that overarching conditions effectively force them into fishing ever harder for ever less fish, and were interested in learning about potential solutions to this quagmire. A post written during the fieldwork included the thought that: 

“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. 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.” 

At least for now, seahorses have provided a crucial win for marine conservation in West Africa. We must now build on this momentum and leverage into even wider environmental and social success. The process may be a long one, but well worth it in the end.