New Collaborative Action On Philippines Seahorse Trade

This was originally posted World Ocean’s Day, 8 June 2016 on the IUCN’s SOS (Save Our Species) blog.

Hippocampus histrix.  Photo by Bettina Balnis/Guylian Seahorses of the World

Hippocampus histrix. Photo by Bettina Balnis/Guylian Seahorses of the World

The Philippines government now has a plan to move toward sustainable seahorse fisheries and trade, thanks to a successful consultative forum held in March in Cebu, according to Dr. Sarah Foster, Programme Manager with Project Seahorse, an SOS grantee.

This is one small but important conservation success to share on World Oceans Day as we struggle to balance the problems of overfishing, international wildlife trade and sustainable livelihoods worldwide.

The forum’s main output – a government-led action plan for developing and implementing adaptive management for seahorse exploitation and trade in the Philippines- is a critical step in moving toward successful implementation of the newly revised Philippines fisheries law.

“This new law, which came into effect in the autumn of 2015, re-opens the door to the legal catch and trade of seahorses. These are activities that had been illegal, but ongoing, in the Philippines since 2004 because of a blanket ban on fishing and trade in response to the listing of seahorses on Appendix II of CITES ”, explains Foster.

A listing on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) means that  trade can continue but must be regulated to ensure it is sustainable. However, undocumented and uncontrolled fishing and trade of seahorses have continued in the Philippines, in spite of the ban, adds Foster. “Untrammeled trade is a concern for us as seven of the Philippine seahorse species are listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List”, says Foster. ”The other three are categorized as Data Deficient – they may also be threatened but we don’t know enough to assess their status” she adds. Regulating their trade will help with effective conservation for all species in the longer-term.

The future legalisation of seahorse exploitation and trade in the Philippines could be positive for both seahorses and the people that earn income from them – but only if such activities do not harm wild populations. Legal take and trade means that the activities can be monitored and managed, as opposed to continuing underground. Legalisation may also mean improved access to markets for some of the world’s poorest fishers. But preventing harm to seahorses, and ensuring sustainable fisheries well into the future, requires seahorse management and monitoring – neither of which are ongoing in the Philippine at this time.

The new fisheries law has provisions for legal fishing and trade in CITES Appendix II species. What remains is to reconcile this new law with the mechanics of CITES in terms of the acceptable thresholds at which international trade (hopefully derived from managed take) should be allowed. The target for re-opening the fisheries and export of seahorses is the end of 2018, but this will depend on the Philippines’ capacity to properly manage those activities at that time, says Foster.

This forum (co-organized by Project Seahorse, the Zoological Society of London-Philippines, and the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) brought together more than 40 stakeholders from government, academia, inter-governmental organisations (IGOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and industry to increase national capacity for the management and monitoring of seahorses in the Philippines.

Such a level of engagement is most encouraging. According to Prof. Amanda Vincent, Chair of the IUCN SSC Specialist Group on Seahorses, Pipefishes, and Sticklebacks, “the forum has sown the seeds to create serious support for marine life that the Philippines exports under CITES. In so doing, the Philippines will become one of the world’s leaders in seahorse conservation.”

That is news worth sharing on World Oceans Day!