Set foot in any beach town and you might see paintings of seahorses hanging in a restaurant or plastic seahorse toys sold in stores. The mythical creatures are used as symbols of marine life around the world.
Seahorses, easily recognized by their necks and long-snouted, horse-like heads, are some of the most unique animals on the planet. Not only are they monogamous, but they’re the only animal in which the males, not the females, give birth.
But they’re also in trouble. When fishermen use trawl nets or other gear to catch shrimp and fish, seahorses are often scooped up along with the intended catch. This has a big impact on their population. Many of the 41 species are considered vulnerable or near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the organization that sets the conservation status of species.
Once fishermen have the seahorses in their possession, some sell them to traders who export them to other countries. About 80 countries trade in seahorses, which are traded either live or dried. Most of the dried ones end up in China and other countries in east Asia where they’re used in traditional medicine to cure everything from impotence to abdominal pain. Enough seahorses are caught as bycatch that there is little intentional seahorse fishing needed to meet international demand.
Now Thailand, the largest exporter of dried seahorses, has announced that it will temporarily ban exports of the fish. The announcement came on Sept. 23 in Johannesburg at the 17th triennial meeting of CITES, the treaty governing international trade of wildlife. Thailand exports about three-quarters of all seahorses in international trade.
“We’re pleased they’ve taken it seriously and will get exports under control,” says Amanda Vincent, chair of the IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish, and Stickleback Special Group.
Seahorses are included in Appendix II of CITES, meaning they can only be exported if the country decides that the export won’t pose a threat to the population. But many countries haven’t done a great job of making this determination, Vincent says. That includes Thailand, which is why it’s decided to suspend exports of the fish until it figures out how to make the trade—and its fisheries—sustainable for seahorses.
Vincent applauds the announcement and appreciates that it puts a spotlight on the conservation of seahorses. But she says that as long as fishing gear traps seahorses, the conservation of the species remains a concern.
“As long as we have non-selective gear scraping the bottom of the ocean, other management will have minimal effect,” she says.