Project Seahorse: Tackling the traditional chinese medicine trade in Asia (Wildlife Conservation)

By Floyd Whaley

SITTING IN THE BANQUET ROOM of a modest hotel on the central island of Cebu in the Philippines, Amanda Vincent looks across the table. The men sitting opposite her represent a grave threat to the sea creatures that she is trying to save. Vincent, a marine biologist, has devoted many years to studying seahorses in the wild. The men she faces are researchers in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) industry, which consumes nearly 25 million seahorses every year.

Not one to mince words, Vincent asks the men if they would be willing to work with her to establish a long-term program to help save seahorses in the wild.

"What do you mean by long-term?" asks one man.

"One thousand to two thousand years," she replies.

The men break into smiles. "Absolutely," they say. "That's the time frame in which we think."

Vincent knows that TCM has been codified for more than 2,000 years, and that its practitioners will not change overnight. That meeting in 1998 signaled the birth of a landmark program in Hong Kong that partnered TCM practitioners with conservationists in an effort to curb the rapid decline of the world's seahorse population. It also exemplified Vincent's personal philosophy of addressing wildlife conservation issues from all sides, including heeding the concerns of the local communities. To feed their families, those communities depend in part on catching and selling seahorses. "We respect their knowledge and their health care system, and they recognize that," says Vincent.

"They understand that our goal is to assist in ensuring that they can continue to have access to these resources, but not at the expense of wild populations. They're comfortable with this because we are straightforward about it."

It is one of a long string of victories for the 42-year-old Canadian. As the Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, Vincent is an energetic advocate for a beguiling but beleaguered group of fishes that derive their name from their startling resemblance to horses. As director of Project Seahorse, she has almost single-handedly put seahorses and their relatives on the radar screens of the world's scientific and conservation communities.

Vincent followed a roundabout path to seahorses. After earning a degree in zoology from the University of Western Ontario in 1981, she traveled the world for three years, gaining an interest in marine conservation. In graduate school at Cambridge University in England, she studied the reproductive ecology of the seahorse, in part to explore what male pregnancy in seahorses—the group's most distinctive trait—meant for other differences between the sexes. Along the way, she learned that seahorses have a rich mythical history and are featured on Greek and Roman pottery. But scientifically, the fish seemed to have dropped off the map.

"It came as a surprise to discover that the most recent papers on seahorses had been written thirty-five to forty years before, and that none of these had benefited from modem theoretical thinking in biology," says Vincent. "My notion of conducting a very precise theoretical investigation had to go by the wayside until we laid down basic biological information." To get that information, Vincent studied captive seahorses at Cambridge, and later did a year of fieldwork in Australia. She sometimes spent as much as 12 hours a day underwater observing the fish. Through her research—the first-ever underwater studies of seahorses—she uncovered new details about their sexual habits.

Researchers already knew that the female deposits her eggs in the male's brood pouch, after which the male goes through a pregnancy of several weeks, then endures labor, and gives birth. The young are miniature adult seahorses and receive no further parental care. Vincent observed that seahorse pairs within most species remain faithful to each other for life.

"Sticking with a partner is pretty common in the animal world, but most partners cheat on each other all the time," she says. "Most seahorses don't, as far as we know."

Thirty-four species of seahorses inhabit waters around theworld, in temperate and tropical coastal areas from Florida to the Philippines. They vary in size from about a quarter of an inch to a foot, and can consume thousands of brine shrimp and other tiny marine organisms each day. The toothless fish suck in and swallow their prey whole through their horse-like snouts.

The creature's equine looks fascinate people. To study this master of camouflage, scientists take advantage of the fact that the seahorse's head has a coronet, a crownlike group of spines nearly as distinctive as a human thumbprint. A seahorse also possesses a prehensile tail that allows it to hold fast to seagrass stems, corals, and other objects while floating vertically in the ocean. Its external bony plates act like armor to discourage marine predators. Crabs prey on seahorses, and large fish such as tunas, skates, and rays will eat them, but Vincent found out that people pose the greatest threat. This fact motivated her to move beyond her research to champion the conservation of seahorses after she earned her PhD from Cambridge in 1990.

"I never anticipated that these animals would turn out to be under heavy pressure," she says. "Everything I knew about them suddenly became relevant."

With funding from National Geographic Society, Vincent set out in 1993 to explore the previously undocumented global seahorse trade. Her investigation took her from the exotic Chinese medicine shops of Hong Kong, to the crowded harbors of Indonesia, to the remote islands of the Philippines. She found that nearly every country where seahorses occur exports them, and that Thailand, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines were the largest exporters.

Traditional Chinese Medicine consumes the lion's share of the seahorse trade. TCM practitioners consider this bony fish to be the remedy for respiratory ailments, impotence and other sexual disorders, skin ailments, heart disease, and various other problems. The World Health Organization has recognized TCM as a legitimate form of health care. Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong use the greatest amount of seahorses by far, but North America and Europe are also major consumers. Most of the seahorses Westerners buy are for home aquariums or have been fashioned into souvenirs.

"There is a heavy trade in seahorses for the home aquarium market, and seahorses do not do well in captivity," Vincent says. "People buy them, fall in love with them, and when the seahorses die, they want more. And most of these seahorses are juveniles. They haven't even bred.

"In addition, about a million seahorses a year are made into key chains and paperweights, or dipped in gold to make broaches," adds Vincent. "It's very hard to see the benefits of a seahorse key ring."

But the challenges don't end there. The steady degradation of their habitats by humans is also a substantial threat. Seahorses inhabit some of the world's most threatened marine environments: sea grasses, mangroves, coral reefs, and estuaries. No one knows how many die each year from the destruction of and damage to these areas. To address these problems, Vincent and her colleague Heather Hall, senior curator at the Zoological Society of London, created Project Seahorse in 1996. This team includes some 40 professionals who work around the world and collaborate with hundreds of aquarium professionals and local fishers. Its network of researchers collects data and supports worldwide conservation of seahorses, their pipefish relatives, and other coastal creatures sharing their marine habitat.

"But seahorses are the heart of our operations," says Vincent, "because we recognize that to save seahorses, you are going to have to save the seas. We talk about seahorses all the time, because we care about them, and because other people seem to find their plight an easy way to understand marine conservation issues and to become engaged."

Vincent's global crusade to save seahorses and their habitats has yielded major results. Beginning May 15, 2004, new trade rules took effect for all species with their listing on Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The CITES listing means that more than 160 countries must now ensure that export of seahorses is not detrimental to wild populations.

One way to protect populations is by not harvesting seahorses until they have grown large enough to reproduce at least once before they are caught. After studying the life histories of all known species, Vincent and her colleagues proposed a minimum catch size of four inches, which should work for all but a few species.

In the world's largest seahorse trading hub. Hong Kong, Project Seahorse has been working with TRAFFIC East Asia to promote sustainable use, and their work is paying off. The Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Merchants Association is now promoting the four-inch minimum size limit. Their support comes at a welcome time, as CITES recently recommended that its signatory countries consider adopting the four-inch limit for international trade.

As chair of the CITES Working Group on Seahorses, Vincent is pleased that such a common sense approach has emerged. "Setting a minimum size limit is an important first step in developing management plans for these quirky fishes," she explains. "If we get it right for seahorses, then CITES offers hope that other marine fishes may also be recognized as wildlife as well as commodities."

Despite the successes, there is still much to do. "This is a call for action," says Vincent. In the year 2000, more than 20 million seahorses were traded globally, a dramatic increase from years past. With mainland China's growing economy and population, demand will probably climb. "Any decline [in seahorse populations] is a runaway train," says Vincent. "It has to be stopped. If we wait too long, then we often have to take these very heavy-handed policies of imposing absolute trade bans and sticking an armed guard over every animal, as we do with rhinos and tigers."

Vincent's approach is anything but heavy-handed. Her dealings with the TCM community serve as a perfect example. What could have been a contentious relationship between traders and conservationists has developed into a partnership. "There's been a tremendous response from a community that had not been adequately consulted or informed about conservation issues," says Vincent.

But the response that most touched Vincent occurred in the tiny village of Handumon on the island of Bohol, when she brought TCM practitioners to watch seahorses being caught. One of the practitioners had only handled seahorses in their dried medicinal form. He marveled in disbelief at the beauty of the live creatures in the wild. Vincent was surprised to see him kiss one of them.

"It was the first time he had met the animal face to face," she recalls. "He will continue to use that form of medical treatment, but undoubtedly it created a whole new understanding of the fact that these are wild animals."