Seahorses worldwide are facing a variety of grave threats.
The planet’s seahorses are in trouble. These idiosyncratic small fish, which belong to 45 known subspecies, are being poached relentlessly around the world.
Tens of millions of them are taken from the sea each year. Most of them are then dried so that they can be turned into souvenirs or used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine because many practitioners falsely ascribe aphrodisiacal properties to seahorses. Habitat loss, plastic pollution and climate change are among other threats facing these unique creatures.
Dedicated teams of conservationists are working worldwide to save them from going extinct. One NGO whose mission is to raise awareness of the plight of seahorses and aid in their conservation is the Seahorse Trust in the United Kingdom. Set up nearly two decades ago, the nonprofit seeks to protect marine environments in collaboration with other organizations worldwide by using seahorses as its flagship species.
British conservationist Neil Garrick-Maidment, who founded the Seahorse Trust and is now its executive director, has spoken to Sustainability Times about the threats facing these small fish and what can be done to save them.
Sustainability Times: How did you first become interested in seahorses and what led you to set up The Seahorse Trust?
Neil Garrick-Maidment: I started by accident. I come from a conservation background, but 42 years ago when I was helping out in a local aquarium I was asked to try and raise some seahorse fry [young] because I had been keeping fish successfully for so long.
I set up The Seahorse Trust in 2000 to continue the work I started all those years ago. I have a very enquiring mind so I’ve just kept going and have now closed the life cycle of 22 species of seahorse, more than anyone ever. To “close the life cycle” means getting them to breed, rearing the fry to maturity, and getting them to breed as well so this closes the life cycle and helps the species sustain itself.
We still do not know everything about seahorses, however. Every day we learn something new. We make new discoveries and they reveal something different to us.
What are the major threats facing seahorses in coastal waters?
Collection for traditional medicine, the curio trade and the pet market. They are also facing severe habitat loss. All of these are making it look as though seahorses could be functionally extinct in some areas of the world in 25 to 30 years’ time.
Taking seahorses from the wild for the pet trade and traditional Chinese medicine is a big threat to these animals. A big problem with traditional medicine is automation. Traditionally a person would go to the market to buy a large, smooth, light-colored seahorse and then take it home and prepare it themselves.
Nowadays seahorse pills are bought from online shops and we know these pills contain juvenile and sub-adult seahorses which have never had a chance to breed. They also contain pipefish because seahorse numbers are dropping so rapidly.
According to some estimates, as many as 37 million seahorses are caught from the wild each year. How dire is the situation for these unique animals?
We work very closely with our sister organization that is based in Dublin called Save Our Seahorses (SOS). They have done extensive undercover studies and have come to realize that the figure is much higher at a minimum of 150 million seahorses per annum. Kealan Doyle, a marine biologist who runs Save Our Seahorses, has looked closely at the medicine trade [and thinks] that large-scale commercial breeding could perhaps alleviate the problems of seahorses being taken from the wild.
In traditional Chinese medicine, seahorses are regarded as natural aphrodisiacs and so dried seahorses are consumed in large quantities. Hong Kong has been the epicenter of the trade in seahorses for medicinal purposes. What can be done to combat such unfounded beliefs and roll back the trade?
Education is the only way forward. A few years ago we had a short eight-minute film put onto all internal flights in China with our partners at SOS and Wild Aid and the response was amazing amongst the younger Chinese who never knew that seahorse medicine was so destructive.
The Seahorse Trust is engaged in several conservation efforts. How successful would you say these efforts have been in protecting threatened and endangered seahorses, as well as other marine animals?
We have been highly successful in getting seahorses protected and areas made into Marine Conservation Zones. We have also been successfully tackling the medicine and curio trades and engaging in education. We have managed to get some of the largest online markets to work with us and ban seahorse sales unless they can provide the legally required CITES paperwork, which the vast majority can not. None of these would have been possible without our incredible teams of volunteers.
Are you optimistic about the prospects of seahorses in the wild?
To be honest, no. Not unless we can make more radical changes in people’s mindsets when it comes to the natural world. Seahorses have 25 to 30 years left in the wild, as I’ve mentioned. but we can make a difference if we work together in partnerships to change laws, set up Marine Conservation Zones and conserve wildlife through collective efforts.
What can laypeople do to help protect them?
This is very simple: Do not buy curios. Do not buy traditional medicines containing animals (any animals). Only buy seahorses as pets if you have the skills to keep them. Only buy captive-bred seahorses. Do not buy seahorses (dead or alive) unless they come with CITES’s permits.
Spread the word about seahorses and the problems facing the natural world. Support organizations like The Seahorse Trust. Report sightings to The Seahorse Trust to be added to our World Seahorse Database, which is used to conserve seahorses. Report sales of seahorses on all social media sites to us so we can inform the sites of what is going on.