We return to searching for clues in the catch and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam 

Seahorses enter a complicated system of trade from fishers to various levels of buyers and/or traders. By piecing together information from a number of different sources, we have been able to create a fuller, more accurate picture of the true catch and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam.  More on that in part three of our blog, but in the meantime here are some images, taken by Hoang during his time in the field, which provide a glimpse into the life of a seahorse trade detective. 

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

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. 

Getting excited about export regulation … really!!

Our job was to find common challenges and opportunities for managing wildlife trade among seahorses, sharks, rays, humphead wrasse, European eels, and sturgeons.  These very cool fishes are united as the first wave of fishes to come under global regulations, requiring that no export threaten wild populations.  While that sounds good, the challenge, as ever, lies in the implementation … and that was our focus. 

The Gulf of Mannar's trawling problem

Located between the southeastern tip of India and the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, the Gulf of Mannar is home to mangrove and sea grass habitats- ideal feeding and breeding grounds for many species. Unfortunately, it is also known for its longstanding problems with overfishing and destructive fishing practices.

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! 

From Danajon Bank to aquariums all over the world

By Tyler Stiem

Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

The tiny island of Hambungon looks like a typical Danajon Bank fishing village. Ramshackle houses spill onto the beach and outrigger boats bob over the blue shallows just beyond. Women mend nets in the bright morning sun.Dogs bark, roosters crow, and kids chase each other across the sand. What sets Hambungon apart from other villages is that it’s home to a thriving — and, unusually, sustainable— trade in aquarium fishes.

This week, the expedition team paid a visit to Hambungon’s barangay captain, or elected chief. “Max,” as he calls himself, runs a small but important community fishery that targets reef fishes and invertebrates for sale to exporters in nearby Cebu City. Unlike many fishers in Danajon Bank, Max’s team of divers only collects species designated as sustainable by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) of the Philippines.

An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

Max leads us to a covered space. He’s a friendly middle-aged man, quick to make a joke. When he laughs, which is often, his deeply tanned faces wrinkles with amusement. Here, twenty-five or thirty basins are fed by water pipes. Each contains something different. We see anemonefishes, colourful nudibranchs, small jellyfishes, a pair of electric blue mandarinfishes. Max picks out an eel and, gently lifting it out of the water, lets it slither through his fingers back into the basin.

“Moray,” he says. “Juvenile.”

He explains that his divers, a team of village boys aged 15 to about 25, have been trained by MAC to identify and avoid marine species vulnerable to overfishing, and to catch their target species in such away as to avoid serious harm.  

Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

 Our tour’s piece de resistance is a scorpionfish. The craggy, brown-and-orange-flecked scorpionfish is famous for two things: One, its ability to blend in among corals and on the seabed, and two, its excrutiating venom. Max very carefully ‘milks’ the fish by pressing on its venom duct. A blueish white substance jets out from one of its spiky protrusions. He jumps back.

“You do not want to step on that fish!” he says, laughing.

The divers soon arrive on a pump-boat, carrying their morning catch. Clad in balclavas and long shirts to protect them from jellyfish stings, they look like a clan of soggy ninjas. Their catch buckets brim with silvery baggies filled with fish. The animals are catalogued and dumped into the basins. There are anemone fishes, mystic ras, boxfishes, a lionfish, nudibranchs, a frogfish, another scorpionfish, a long-snout butterflyfish, and more.

An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

The animals will be sold to a distributor in Cebu for anywhere between 10 and 100 pesos, or about $0.25 to $2.50 each. Compared to the retail prices the animals can fetch — a blue mandarinfish that sells for less than a dollar here can eventually be resold in stores for up to US $100 — it doesn’t seem like much. But the sustainable aquarium trade provides an important source of income for the fishers, and, even more importantly, an alternative to other, more destructive kinds of fishing. 

Whether the divers always follow the sustainability guidelines is another question. We spot a tiger-tail seahorse, a threatened species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, in one of the catch buckets. When Luciano points it out, a diver quickly returns the seahorse to the sea. But given how valuable seahorses are — a single animal is worth the equivalent of a kilogram of rice, enough to feed a family for a few days — you can imagine how difficult it would be for fishers to resist temptation now and then.

The following day, expedition photographers Tom Peschak and Luciano Candisani return to Hambungon before dawn to document the divers at work on the reef a few hundred meters beyond the village. It quickly becomes clear why it’s a young man’s game: Aquarium fishing is hard work.

Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Everyone freedives using only homemade wooden flippers, swimming down as far as seven meters to reach the reef. Small, weighted nets are set near coral heads on the one dive, and on the next, fish are coralled into the mesh. Next, the net is scooped and closed and prized species are transferred into baggies. In between the divers jet to the surface for lungfuls of air.

One diver proudly brandishes his catch for Luciano. You can see the smile in his eyes through his mask. The baggie shines like quicksilver in the sunlight seeping down through the blue water. A large anemone fish squirms inside. The day’s first iconic photo.

This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

After four or five hours, the day’s work is finished, and the aquarium fishers say goodbye. They chug off in their pump boat, destined for home.“Unbelievable,” Luciano says, shaking his head. “Tom and I were swimming with professional gear and we couldn’t keep up with those guys. I’m in good shape, but compared to them, no way.”