h. algiricus

Three more countries required to take action for seahorses

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

Good. Two more seahorses species should get better help, thanks to the recent CITES technical meeting for animals.

At this meeting, CITES expressed Urgent Concern about Guinea and Senegal’s exports of West African seahorses (Hippocampus algiricus - photo right) and Thailand’s exports of three spotted seahorses (Hippocampus trimaculatus). The upshot is that these countries have been given some recommendations (which must be followed) on how to move their exports of these species towards sustainable levels. It’s a good early step in the long, long journey that will be needed to secure the future of these seahorses, with both species judged as Vulnerable to extinction. 

Guinea and Senegal are huge exporters of algiricus. Vast numbers are caught in non-selective fishing gear (especially seine nets) and hundreds of thousands are sold dried to east Asia every year. CITES has decided that Guinea and Senegal must take more responsibility for these exports, and has drawn up a list of recommendations for both countries. Project Seahorse is very glad that we can help here; Kate West and Andres Cisneros-Montemayor recently carried out the only fishery and trade surveys of seahorses in these two countries. Kate and Andres also had a first look at algiricus biology – there are no papers on this species – and we’ll also give that info to Guinea and Senegal.

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

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

Thailand has been exporting more than 99% of all trimaculatus in international trade, with an average of well over a million animals leaving the country each year. This seems to be more than the population can support, but Thailand needs to do the work to analyse this properly. Such analysis may be tricky because most of the seahorses are caught accidentally by the huge number of trawls that operate off Thailand. Happily, Project Seahorse is able to help here too. We’ve been formally collaborating with the Thai Department of Fisheries for the past two years, as it works to manage exports of three other seahorse species. So we can help provide decent information about seahorse biology, fisheries and trade. Thailand, of course, will have to decide how to apply this knowledge to its trade challenges.

Fisheries in Thailand.   Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse.

Fisheries in Thailand.  Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse.

CITES gave the three countries much the same set of recommendations, all of which are essentially requirements. The main focus is on mapping, enforcement and monitoring. All countries need to know more about where the seahorses live relative to conservation threats and areas with fisheries/ocean management. Then the countries need to strengthen enforcement of their often really good management measures, such as the ban on trawling within 5.4 km of the coast of Thailand. Finally, the countries need to track seahorses catches - and the effort it took to catch them – for quite a few years to find out what is happening to the wild populations. The results of this work will guide next steps in conservation.

On other new seahorse matters, CITES agreed to ask all member countries to explain how they decide on appropriate levels of exports for the lined seahorse, Hippocampus erectus. And CITES addressed some confusion in the naming of seahorse species. Much more needs to be done on clearing up species distinctions and identification, however.

All in all, Project Seahorse involvement with CITES and seahorses looks likely to continue for quite some time. For one thing, we are waiting to hear whether Thailand adequately addressed CITES recommendations from two years ago. For another, we are working with Viet Nam to help them address the ban on seahorse exports – for one species only – that CITES imposed last year. This was the first ever ban under any international agreement for any marine fish, so is an interesting case study. Then there’s the new work ---.

I found this CITES meeting both interesting and frustrating. A few countries started scrutinising the recommendations for seahorses a lot more carefully, as they realised we were setting precedent for other marine fishes, including sharks . As a result, some sensible and focused advice was diluted into broad generalities that will be harder for countries to grasp. It will be interesting to see how their national agencies respond to the hard won recommendations: will they try to make change or while they wriggle as much as possible ?

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

CITES, conservation, and geopolitics

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

There it is.  I have survived another week of UN negotiations on wildlife trade.  And emerged content.

I’ve been in Geneva to contribute to the technical working group on animals for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.  It meets to execute the will of the 175 nations that are signatories to CITES, trying to make sure that international trade does not harm wild populations of animals and plants.

It’s a bit hard to explain these meetings.  You spend a lot of time watching global geopolitics played out over some poor quail or shark.  The meetings are full of process and procedure that can slow things to a glacial pace.  Many of the issues seem hardly to have moved since I was last involved seven years ago.  Some are clearly going backwards.  But an important few are actually creeping in the right direction.  Read up on the Saker falcon, for example. 

It takes a while to get your head around the fact that each and every one of the 175 signatory nations to CITES (the Parties) has the right to do more or less exactly what it wants.  You can negotiate and you can nudge but you sure as heck can’t order any nation around.  Nor would you want to try.  Any nation that gets fed up can just withdraw from the issue or the Convention.  So the approach has to be softly, softly, working to support their aspirations.  Your persuasive capacity comes from the fact that signatory nations want to be seen as good global citizens, doing the right thing.

Marine fishes are some of the most controversial issues that CITES and its technical Animals Committee ever tackles.  Many nations are apprehensive about treating fish as just another form of wildlife, fearful that this might lead to onerous restrictions with high economic or social costs.  Yet again this meeting, many nations claimed that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization was the appropriate body to deal with fisheries issues, even though (or maybe because?) the FAO has no regulatory capacity at all and has very limited or no interest in many fish species.

Against this background, I am happy that the Animals Committee agreed that nations should be asked to explain their rationale for allowing current high volumes of seahorse exports. The seahorses were the first marine fishes of commercial importance to be brought under CITES management in recent times, and continue to set precedent.  Countries all over the Indo-Pacific will now be asked for the scientific basis for their exports of six seahorse species.  And signatory nations in West Africa will need to justify their export levels of the West African seahorse (H. algiricus), newly in trade and already exported at about 600,000 animals per year.  

Given the outcome, it was well worth being here.  I did rather wonder about investing a week in these interminable proceedings.  But the solid science and strong trade data that Project Seahorse always produces definitely helped convince signatory nations to begin this trade review.  They listened and asked questions and dissented but agreed in the end to do what is right for our quirky fishes.  That should give us a chance to figure out how well CITES is working for these seven seahorse species and what more we need to do to help.  Plus I got a quick snapshot update in current global geopolitics, played out at a snail’s pace that enthralled even as it exasperated.

I appreciated being part of the IUCN delegation.  This strong intergovernmental organization has a great record of credible evidence-based contributions to CITES. 

For the report on the Working Group on the Review of Significant Trade, go tohttp://www.cites.org/common/com/AC/25/WG/E25-WG01.pdf

For more on the 25th meeting of the CITES Animals Committee in general, go tohttp://www.cites.org/eng/com/ac/

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the Director of Project Seahorse.