Do we need to ban bans? The case of the seahorse in India

By Tanvi Vaidyanathan (Originally posted on iucn.org)

Does banning the catch and trade of a species really help conservation efforts? This is the question that my research with Project Seahorse, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, The University of British Columbia (UBC), explores. I am studying the impact of catch and trade bans on the conservation of incidentally caught marine species, and the livelihoods dependent on them. To understand this, I use the case study of seahorses in India, where the fisheries are poorly regulated.

The incidental catch of seahorses and other organisms in shrimp trawls. Photo by Sarah Foster/Project Seahorse

The incidental catch of seahorses and other organisms in shrimp trawls. Photo by Sarah Foster/Project Seahorse

Seahorses are a commercially important flagship species. They help researchers investigate the need for marine conservation. Of the 41 species of seahorses currently known, 12  are classified as ‘Threatened’, but 20  are treated as ‘Data Deficient’ according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They face threats because of overexploitation, bycatch and habitat degradation, which are major concerns for marine conservation more generally.

In 2002, Seahorses were the first marine fishes to be included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).  Appendix II permits  trade subject to conditions, the most important of which is that the scientific authority must certify that the trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

In the previous year, 2001, India included all seahorses and pipefish under Schedule I of India’s Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 (WLPA), preventing their catch and trade. Until the ban, India was amongst the top four exporters of seahorses in the world.  Since then, little is known about the status of seahorse catch and trade in India. However, based on anecdotal evidence and little data from importers it seems that seahorse exports increased after this ban on exploitation.

To understand the situation better, I spent two extensive field seasons (Jun 2015- Jan 2016 and July 2016- Dec 2016) travelling along the coast of mainland India, traversing 9 states and 3 Union Territories (UTs). With the help of local assistants, I conducted semi-structured interviews with around 1500 fishers, traders, researchers, conservationists and government officials to understand the status of seahorse fisheries and trade, and changes after the ban.

I found that the fisheries were highly unregulated. Both traditional and mechanized boats violated norms about the net mesh size allowed, often employing nets with a mesh size smaller than 10mm. Trawls often operate close to the coastline, despite state fishing rules declaring that they need to fish outside 3 nautical miles. Additionally, the use of other prohibited destructive fishing nets like pair trawling continues unchecked.

Seahorses are caught by non-selective fishing gear, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu on the South-eastern Coast of India. Smaller seahorses, along with other incidentally caught organisms are often sold unsorted for chicken feed and fish meal at rates as low as 2 cents a kg.  Estimating seahorse catch is complicated because fishers either deny catching seahorses, or are unsure when their colleagues find a seahorse, because they are easily hidden in their clothing and sold later. Many trawl boat owners claim they are not aware of how many seahorses are caught, and it was only crew who caught it and sold it for pocket money. The risk of being arrested or fined means that most fishers are unwilling to talk about the numbers of seahorses caught in their nets. Most of the time, boat owners go unpunished, but the workers and small-scale fishers are often apprehended with only 1 or 2 specimens.

Despite it being over 16 years since the ban, many fishers and officials outside the state of Tamil Nadu seemed unaware that it was illegal to catch seahorses. Unfortunately, with the awareness of the ban, comes the awareness of the economic value of these species, encouraging more fishers to sell their catches rather than throw them back.

Since the ban, seahorse trade has also become highly lucrative, and traders state that the value of seahorses has increased. Because of their political connections, key traders rarely get caught and not one case of illegal seahorse trade has ever been concluded. Thanks to the monopoly traders now enjoy, fishers are forced to sell seahorses at whatever rate the traders are willing to pay (dependent on seahorse size).

For most fishers, the seahorse trade is a way to supplement their income. For the men, it is money to buy alcohol, while the women see it as a way to feed their family. The general feeling is that the seahorses are already dead in the nets, so why throw them back?

To reduce the catch of seahorses and other bycatch species, restricting the number of trawls and fishing area closures is the only way forward. Until the fisheries are regulated and rules enforced, a ban adds little value towards either conservation or the associated livelihoods. As many countries are contemplating an export ban to manage their resources (as in the case of Senegal and Thailand to manage their seahorse trade), it is essential that lessons learnt from India be applied elsewhere. Ultimately, a ban on extraction or trade seems to be problematic because it appears to exempt governments from implementing actual management or rebuilding measures.