thailand

Investigating the Thai seahorse trade

By Ting-Chun Kuo

“First you grind the specimen into powder, then you boil it with herbs,” the trader told me. He showed me a box with about 50 dried seahorses in it and explained that, prepared in the right way, the animals act as a tonic to improve kidney and lung function as well as improve men’s virility and cure back pain. 

I was at a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Yawarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, investigating the seahorse trade in Thailand. There were more than 10 traditional Chinese medicine shops on this street, and I found seahorses in almost every of them. Used in medicines, for aquarium display, and as curios, 15-20 million seahorses are traded internationally every year. 

Thailand is the biggest seahorse exporting country in the world. Seahorses are controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that countries that have signed on to this international agreement must ensure their exports are not detrimental to wild seahorse populations. To move the Thai seahorse trade toward sustainability, Project Seahorse and the Thai Department of Fisheries agreed to investigate the situation in Thailand together. It is the first such investigation in Thailand since CITES controls on seahorses came into effect in 2004.

To really grasp the scope of the trade and the impact of these protections, we need to study the route, quantity, price, and species/size composition of Thailand’s dried and live seahorse trade, comparing this new data to the data gathered before the CITES regulations were implemented. 

Starting in Bangkok, my Thai colleague, Jaeb, and I interviewed traditional Chinese medicine traders and aquarium dealers We then spent a month traveling along the coastline of Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, talking to fishers and local traders. In Thailand, most of the seahorses involved in trade are caught unintentionally in fisheries that are targeting other species. Fishers collect the seahorses in their catch, dry them, then sell the specimens to local buyers at port. The sales provide important extra income. Local buyers then sell the seahorses to higher-level traders, who then sell to wholesalers, who finally distribute the seahorses to retailers and exporters. Sound complicated? This diagram might help:

Figure 1. Dried seahorse trade structure in Thailand. Arrows indicate the direction seahorses were sold.

Figure 1. Dried seahorse trade structure in Thailand. Arrows indicate the direction seahorses were sold.

The work in Thailand has had its challenges. Although the seahorse trade is legal in Thailand, traders – especially in traditional Chinese medicine retailers – were reluctant to talk about how they sourced their seahorses or about the volume of their trade. Such questions were very sensitive in a business context. Therefore, we had to cross-validate the information we got from people at different trade levels to gain a more complete picture of overall Thai seahorse trade.  

Seahorse buyers in fishing villages were easier to approach. Almost every day, they come to the ports to purchase seahorses from the trawler crews, and then keep them until the higher-level traders comes to buy their catch. The first local buyer I met was a man opening a classic old style karaoke bar in a fishing village in Phuket. He was very frank about the trading he does, and even asked us whether we want to go to collect seahorses together. He spends most afternoons and evenings, from about 3 p.m. to midnight, at the port, waiting for trawler boats to come in and making sure he’s one of the first to buy their seahorse catches.

We went with him to the port near his home, which was used primarily for landing the massive bycatch from trawlers, for eventual reduction to fishmeal or fish sauce. Usefully, the buyer soon found a trawler with eight dried seahorses. He bought the seahorses from the crew, as well as many other bycaught animals, such as sea cucumbers, shells, and lobsters. He also arranged for us to interview the trawler captain, who provided us with good information. 

The higher-lever traders were more difficult to find, because they usually lived in bigger cities and only occasionally visited the ports where seahorses are landed. Still, we managed to interview a few of them. They told us that they usually sent their seahorses to wholesalers in Bangkok for export, and some of the seahorses were re-distributed to TCM stores in other parts of Thailand.

As our research continued up the trade ladder, a picture began to emerge of the complexities of the seahorse trade and how urgently the Thai government needs to enforce fisheries regulations to ensure sustainability. Stay tuned for the next update! 

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 ?