Searching for clues in the catch and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam 

By Lily Stanton and Do Huu Hoang
(Part one of a three part series)

Hippocampus spinosissimus, one of the seven seahorse species found in Viet Nam. Photo by Dirk Crutelle/Guylian SOTW

Hippocampus spinosissimus, one of the seven seahorse species found in Viet Nam. Photo by Dirk Crutelle/Guylian SOTW

This story begins in 1995 with Amanda Vincent and Marivic Pajaro uncovering a global seahorse trade of more than 15 million animals per year. Until then Viet Nam was reportedly a supplier of dried seahorses but little was known about the nature or magnitude of the trade, not to mention the status of the seven species of seahorses found along the shores of Viet Nam. 

From 1995 to 1999, our researchers and researchers from Viet Nam’s Institute of Oceanography set out to uncover the extent of the seahorse trade and the impact it had on wild seahorse populations.  We gathered large amounts of data: we measured seahorses landed as by-catch in the coastal tourist city of Nha Trang; interviewed over 300 fishers and buyers from more than ten provinces; and monitored seahorse by-catch from trawlers and fishers in four major ports.  

What we found was surprising - and alarming!  The large numbers of trawlers operating in the surveyed coastal provinces in Southern and Central Viet Nam added up to an estimated 6.5 tonnes or approximately 2.2 million seahorses landed annually as by-catch. More concerning was that fishers and buyers were reporting a decline in seahorse catches, a worrying trend occurring around the world at the time. This high level of catch and trade propelled Viet Nam onto the list of the top five countries for the global export of seahorses together with Thailand, Philippines, India and Indonesia. 

Dried seahorses for sale in Viet Nam. Photo by Do Huu Huang.

Dried seahorses for sale in Viet Nam. Photo by Do Huu Huang.

It seemed that the trade and export of seahorses was a relatively new activity in Viet Nam that coincided with an increase in the supply of seahorses caught as by-catch due to the large (250%) increase in fishery production and the opening of markets in the 1980s and 1990s. Domestic consumption of seahorses was assumed, at the time, to be minimal being sold dry for use as traditional medicine or sold live and placed into alcohol-based tonics, however most seahorses were thought to be exported primarily into China. 

At the time of this study (1995- 1999) seahorses had not yet been listed on Appendix II of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). They were added in 2002 and now member countries are held accountable and must prove that international trade does not damage wild populations. But our research clearly revealed that a significant number of seahorses were caught primarily as by-catch and were traded from Viet Nam, with no monitoring in place or without any consideration of what impacts this may be having on wild seahorse populations. 

By 2013, things were starting to get complicated. Member countries (including Viet Nam) were asked by CITES to justify their level of exports for seahorse species of notable concern in trade. Some countries failed to respond to the recommendations made by CITES and this resulted in trade suspensions or bans and in Viet Nam’s case exports of Hippocampus kuda were suspended.

Following the suspension, Viet Nam expressed a desire to establish more sustainable trade practises. Armed with little research and knowledge on the health and fisheries and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam we find ourselves back in Viet Nam wanting to learn more. What has changed since 1999?  Are seahorse numbers bouncing back?  Are seahorses still be traded and exported in high numbers? Stay tuned for our next blog to find out more.