Author: IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon Specialist Group

We are now the Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon Specialist Group

newIUCNseahorse logoThe IUCN SSC Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group (SPSSG) has changed its name to the Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon Specialist Group. We have always been focused on syngnathiform fishes – seahorses, pipefishes, seadragons and their near relatives – but we also previously embraced the gasterosteiform fishes – sticklebacks and a few other species – because they were thought to be close relatives (sister clades). Phylogenetic revisions have, however shown that they are not close relatives and there is no longer any justification for keeping them together. We, the SPSSG, will continue with responsibility for syngnathiform fishes totalling >320 species in five families. The gasterosteiformes – which includes species found in freshwater and/or marine habitats – will be supported by the Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, the Freshwater Biodiversity Unit and the Marine Biodiversity Unit.


European Syngnathid meeting in Oct 2018


Hippocampus guttulatus (Long-snouted seahorse). Photo by Roberto Strafella / Guylian Seahorses of the World 2016.

The first European Syngnathid meeting took take place at the Oceanário de Lisboa, 20-21 October 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal.  The aim of this meeting was to build a network to help expand knowledge and action for syngnathid species.  The objectives include:

  1. Address IUCN Red Listing for the European seahorse species, trying to resolve
    Data Deficient status
  2. Generate quick response capacity when concerns arise for the European
    syngnathid species
  3. Agree on consistent methods for population assessment in support of IUCN Red Listing and other conservation action for syngnathids.
  4. Develop a proposal for European Union’s CostAction fund, to allow ongoing

Follow us on Twitter for updates @IUCNseahorse, #EuropeanSeahorses


European syngnathid researchers and professionals gathering for the first time in Portugal at the Oceanário de Lisboa.

For more information, you can view our programme booklet or read the meeting minutes.

Or to learn more, view these presentations from participants:

Núria Baylina/Oceanário de Lisboa – How can public aquariums contribute?

Michele Gristina/Italian National Research Council – On the status of the Long-snouted seahorse, Hippocampus guttulatus, along the Italian coasts 

Vanda Lobo/Oceano Azul Foundation – Save the seahorses in Ria Formosa

Cristina Mena/Asociación Hippocampus – The Mar Menor: Current problem and evolution of the Long-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus)

Jorge Palma/Universidade do Algarve – The Seahorse Working Group at the Centre for Marine Sciences of Algarve





We gratefully acknowledge our sponsors and hosts

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Meeting (and describing) a Patagonian seahorse species

This story begins many years ago, when I was a child. I remember taking a slow and dusty train to the mountains in Bariloche from Buenos Aires that stopped in every town of Patagonia. One of those stops in San Antonio Oeste. A couple of children climbing onto the train to sell seashells and dry seahorses to fellow passengers caught my attention. A few minutes later, the train continued on its journey to the next stop and I forgot about those children and their seahorses for almost 20 years.

It is difficult to understand and explain how on these lands, visited and studied by so many dedicated naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alcides D´Orbigny that there were no records of seahorses inhabiting Patagonia. Only few seahorses, caught by old expeditions, had been deposited at the Argentinian National Museum of Natural History.  Recently, ichthyologists admitted to their presence in the Argentine Sea, but, no one had studied them and no one knew what species they were. All the available local fish records contained confusing and inaccurate identifications (European or invalid species) and were recorded without any geographical information.

The patagonian seahorse, Hippocampus patagonicus. Photos by Diego Luzzatto.

This fact did not escape the curiosity of Dr. Gabriela Piacentino, an ichthyologist and former curator of the MACN. She often had lunch with us in the lab next door – the lab where I started my career as a marine scientist.  Gabriela was particularly interested in seahorses and in my sampling techniques that consisted of trawling shallow sandy bottoms monthly. We were studying the giant free egg capsules of a Volutid gastropod its unique mode of reproduction. I listened to her but I was confident that I had never caught a seahorse within my samples and I felt that my studies would not help in her research. Soon thereafter “magic” happened and a female seahorse appeared in my samples.

After this it was very difficult for me to focus on my PhD work, I was captivated by this unexpected finding. I was very motivated by a wrong conviction that it should be a new species based on ecological facts. Now, I know more about the mechanism of the dispersal of seahorses and how species can exhibit large geographical ranges. However, at the time, my thoughts were that it should be considered a different species because adult seahorses are known to be “almost sessile” organisms and it was found isolated in Patagonia miles away from any other known population. Fortunately, Gabriela has a strong background in taxonomy and asked for reference material from several Museums around the world. After much work on the specimen and comparing it with the voucher specimens from other museums she started considering that the seahorses found in the Argentinian Sea may constitute a new species, but not on the basis of my erroneous hypothesis.

Nonetheless, more specimens were needed to reach to a final conclusion. Suddenly, I remembered that train, the children and the dry seahorses! A few weeks later, Gabriela and I ventured to San Antonio Oeste. We visited the local fishing dock and found, at its craft fair, dry seahorses being sold as curious souvenirs. We asked the merchants how those seahorses were caught and they offered to take us there. Using just a mask and snorkel we discovered a very shallow place with a wonderful habitat that was full of seahorses. We collected a few specimens and went on to describe a new species Hippocampus patagonicus in 2004.

Fifteen years later, I am still engaged with these incredible organisms, generating information, mostly to preserve them and their delicate environment. Sadly, the precise place where I saw seahorses for the very first time is now overfished and the seahorses are hard to find. However, not everything is lost, places nearby look healthy and full of life. The threats are there but it is a rewarding challenge to work towards preserving Hippocampus patagonicus and their habitat.


Learn more about H. patagonicus
Wei, J., Estalles, M., Pollom, R. & Luzzatto, D. 2017. Hippocampus patagonicus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T195100A54909767.

Piacentino, G. L., & Luzzatto, D. C. (2004). Hippocampus patagonicus sp. nov., nuevo caballito de mar para la Argentina (Pisces, Syngnathiformes)Revista del Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales6, 339-349.


(Cross-posted on Project Seahorse’s blog, On conservation)

The strange case of Stratoni seahorses

By Miguel Correia (National Seahorse Expert, iSeahorse)

Stratoni is a small village located in the north-eastern part of Greece. Most of the local community works in a mining factory located near the shore line. The landscape is beautiful with irregular mineral rich mountains that rest in the sometimes rough shores of the Mediterranean waters. On arriving in Greece in the midst of Ana’s storm I was worried about what I would find when I went to look at the treasure that lays beneath the sea.

I went to Greece after a call from Vasilis Mentogiannis*, a professional archaeological diver who contacted Project Seahorse to urge us to protect a local seahorse population. As I was not aware of any seahorse population in Greece (apart from some rare occasional sightings), I was very curious about this intriguing story. Vasilis and his team have been monitoring this population since 2007, when they first saw seahorses on an exploratory dive while searching for archaeological antiquities. Following a large storm in 2010, the bottom cover of the seahorse habitat was covered by the mountain’s sediment run-off from the small creeks. This event dramatically changed the seahorse habitat and threatened the existence of that seahorse population. The following month, Vasilis went back to monitor the area and was pleasantly surprised to find seahorses in a now barren area. Vasilis and his team felt the need to help these seahorses. More recently in 2016, a set of different artificial holdfast were deployed to help seahorses grasp in an area very impacted by waves. These artificial holdfasts were mostly made of ropes and have been used by the seahorses since then. Over the years, Vasilis and his team became passionate about these charismatic creatures and they have engaged in protecting them and raising awareness in the local community, with the support of several entities.

The first dive in the artificial holdfast area
The morning after I arrived in beautiful Stratoni, Vasilis and his colleague Anastasis took me diving. Vasilis and Anastasis were eager to show me the local seahorses at their custom-made artificial structures. As experienced archaeological divers, the two dive buddies brought with them all their high-tech gear to photograph and record the seahorses. It was with a mixture of surprise and amazement that I saw the first seahorse – a small Hippocampus hippocampus grasping the team’s previously deployed artificial holdfast. After a quick swim, another seahorse, and then another… six seahorses in total including H. guttulatus too! At the end of the first dive I felt honored to be able to witness first-hand what could possibly be the first recording of a fairly big seahorse population in a brand-new location. No such records had been seen in any other part of Greece. Amazing! Many questions arose. Why are the seahorses coming to a completely barren location for those artificial holdfasts? Where are they coming from? These questions got stuck at the back of my mind.


Technology as a research tool
Night came and Vasilis wanted to test something. “We should take the ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) to the seahorse site and record what is happening during the night and what creatures we can see near the seahorse area”. The night was cold but the sea remained calm. Not even a small wave disturbed the sea surface. After reaching the site, carefully indicated by a small yellow buoy, the team prepared the ROV. The remote-controlled vehicle was carefully placed in the water and Vasilis did the rest. On arrival at the location the ROV spotted the first seahorse grasping the base of the artificial structure. “Now we wait!” said Vasilis, grabbing a cup of coffee. The small seahorse, standing in the middle of the spot light, was seemingly unconcerned about this strange object and remained still, looking around with both independent oriented eyes. Suddenly a myriad small crustaceans gathered around the light dancing and circling the area. After 15 mins, the first sparid fish approached the ROV, keeping a safe distance but apparently feasting on this abundance of food. Twenty minutes passed and a small H. hippocampus appeared, adding to this special moment. The coffee ran out, and the cold started to get the best of us. We happily gathered all the gear and headed back to the dock, drunk on the magical images we had just seen. What a fantastic experience!


Luxurious seagrass
The next day, it was time to test a hypothesis. Could the seahorses we had found come from a nearby area covered by a seagrass bed (Posidonia sp.)? “It is time for you to test the scooter” said Vasilis. “It will help you cover a wider area with little effort”. I felt uneasy as it was my first time to try such a machine, but curiosity made me go. Anastasis guided me to the area while I did my best to find seahorses amongst the seagrass. The luxurious seagrass bed was home to many organisms such as sea cucumbers, sea urchins, tunicates, sea stars and many fish species. After a 60-minute dive, and taking full advantage of the scooter, the result was puzzling. No seahorses! So, why were there no seahorses in a supposedly adequate and preferred habitat, and instead they were occupying a mostly barren location…?? Time to tackle this question. Vasilis and Anastasis were happy to see someone sharing their thoughts and passion. We brainstormed during the day, coming up with ideas and plans for the future. Endless possibilities! This could possibly be the perfect place to do a case study of these Mediterranean seahorse populations.

Exploring new areas
My stay in Stratoni was coming to an end. I had only one day left to dive. We decided that we would do a free dive, no plans, just to feel the pulse of the underwater surroundings. I loved the idea and (professional default) I chose to do a quick survey of the area near the artificial holdfasts. I took a 100m transect tape and followed east, keeping parallel to the shore. Nothing, just sediment, runoff from the metal enriched mountains, no holdfasts, no seahorses. I changed my bearing and went south, to deeper waters. I started to see some tube worms (Sabella sp.) and suddenly I saw the first seahorse, a H. guttulatus. The more I searched, the more seahorses I found, each holding onto its own worm tube. Two, three, four… ten! While I was recording these findings with my underwater camera, I saw Vasilis approaching me. “10!” I signaled with both hands- a full set of fingers enthusiastically pointing up. He didn’t budge in disbelief. I continued my search and left Vasilis now busy photographing two seahorses that were nearby. Then I saw the eleventh, the twelve… sixteen overall! I was a very happy man!


Greece in my heart
During my stay in Stratoni, Vasilis introduced me to the local people. I felt their genuineness, they always having a big smile on their face. I felt welcomed and somewhat a part of the community, even for a short period of time. It was time to leave. I felt confident and optimistic for the future. The engagement of some extraordinary people was the living testimony of the effectiveness of citizen science in the quest of protecting such a charismatic but vulnerable species. The passion of this archeological research team has proven to be the key for the protection of Stratoni seahorses.

*Vasilis Mentogiannis is an iSeahorse Ambassador

Photos by Vasilis Mentogiannis and Miguel Correia

(Cross-posted on Project Seahorse’s blog, On conservation)

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

By Lily Stanton and Dr. Do Huu Hoang

(Part one of a three part series)

Hippocampus spinosissimus, one of the seven seahorse species found in Viet Nam. Photo by Dirk Crutelle/Guylian SOTW

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.


From 1995 to 1999, our researchers and researchers from Viet Nam’s Institute of Oceanography set out to uncover the extent of the seahorse trade and the impact it had on wild seahorse populations.  We gathered large amounts of data: we measured seahorses landed as by-catch in the coastal tourist city of Nha Trang; interviewed over 300 fishers and buyers from more than ten provinces; and monitored seahorse by-catch from trawlers and fishers in four major ports.

What we found was surprising – and alarming!  The large numbers of trawlers operating in the surveyed coastal provinces in Southern and Central Viet Nam added up to an estimated 6.5 tonnes or approximately 2.2 million seahorses landed annually as by-catch. More concerning was that fishers and buyers were reporting a decline in seahorse catches, a worrying trend occurring around the world at the time. This high level of catch and trade propelled Viet Nam onto the list of the top five countries for the global export of seahorses together with Thailand, Philippines, India and Indonesia.

Dried seahorses for sale in Viet Nam. Photo by Do Huu Huang.

It seemed that the trade and export of seahorses was a relatively new activity in Viet Nam that coincided with an increase in the supply of seahorses caught as by-catch due to the large (250%) increase in fishery production and the opening of markets in the 1980s and 1990s. Domestic consumption of seahorses was assumed, at the time, to be minimal being sold dry for use as traditional medicine or sold live and placed into alcohol-based tonics, however most seahorses were thought to be exported primarily into China.

At the time of this study (1995- 1999) seahorses had not yet been listed on Appendix II of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). They were added in 2002 and now member countries are held accountable and must prove that international trade does not damage wild populations. But our research clearly revealed that a significant number of seahorses were caught primarily as by-catch and were traded from Viet Nam, with no monitoring in place or without any consideration of what impacts this may be having on wild seahorse populations.

By 2013, things were starting to get complicated. Member countries (including Viet Nam) were asked by CITES to justify their level of exports for seahorse species of notable concern in trade. Some countries failed to respond to the recommendations made by CITES and this resulted in trade suspensions or bans and in Viet Nam’s case exports of Hippocampus kuda were suspended.

Following the suspension, Viet Nam expressed a desire to establish more sustainable trade practises. Armed with little research and knowledge on the health and fisheries and trade of seahorses in Viet Nam we find ourselves back in Viet Nam wanting to learn more. What has changed since 1999?  Are seahorse numbers bouncing back?  Are seahorses still be traded and exported in high numbers? Stay tuned for our next blog to find out more.

Do we need to ban bans? The case of the seahorse in India

By Tanvi Vaidyanathan (Originally posted on

Does banning the catch and trade of a species really help conservation efforts? This is the question that my research with Project Seahorse, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, The University of British Columbia (UBC), explores. I am studying the impact of catch and trade bans on the conservation of incidentally caught marine species, and the livelihoods dependent on them. To understand this, I use the case study of seahorses in India, where the fisheries are poorly regulated.

The incidental catch of seahorses and other organisms in shrimp trawls. Photo by Sarah Foster/Project Seahorse

Seahorses are a commercially important flagship species. They help researchers investigate the need for marine conservation. Of the 41 species of seahorses currently known, 12  are classified as ‘Threatened’, but 20  are treated as ‘Data Deficient’ according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They face threats because of overexploitation, bycatch and habitat degradation, which are major concerns for marine conservation more generally.

In 2002, Seahorses were the first marine fishes to be included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).  Appendix II permits  trade subject to conditions, the most important of which is that the scientific authority must certify that the trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

In the previous year, 2001, India included all seahorses and pipefish under Schedule I of India’s Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 (WLPA), preventing their catch and trade. Until the ban, India was amongst the top four exporters of seahorses in the world.  Since then, little is known about the status of seahorse catch and trade in India. However, based on anecdotal evidence and little data from importers it seems that seahorse exports increased after this ban on exploitation.

To understand the situation better, I spent two extensive field seasons (Jun 2015- Jan 2016 and July 2016- Dec 2016) travelling along the coast of mainland India, traversing 9 states and 3 Union Territories (UTs). With the help of local assistants, I conducted semi-structured interviews with around 1500 fishers, traders, researchers, conservationists and government officials to understand the status of seahorse fisheries and trade, and changes after the ban.

I found that the fisheries were highly unregulated. Both traditional and mechanized boats violated norms about the net mesh size allowed, often employing nets with a mesh size smaller than 10mm. Trawls often operate close to the coastline, despite state fishing rules declaring that they need to fish outside 3 nautical miles. Additionally, the use of other prohibited destructive fishing nets like pair trawling continues unchecked.

Seahorses are caught by non-selective fishing gear, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu on the South-eastern Coast of India. Smaller seahorses, along with other incidentally caught organisms are often sold unsorted for chicken feed and fish meal at rates as low as 2 cents a kg.  Estimating seahorse catch is complicated because fishers either deny catching seahorses, or are unsure when their colleagues find a seahorse, because they are easily hidden in their clothing and sold later. Many trawl boat owners claim they are not aware of how many seahorses are caught, and it was only crew who caught it and sold it for pocket money. The risk of being arrested or fined means that most fishers are unwilling to talk about the numbers of seahorses caught in their nets. Most of the time, boat owners go unpunished, but the workers and small-scale fishers are often apprehended with only 1 or 2 specimens.

Despite it being over 16 years since the ban, many fishers and officials outside the state of Tamil Nadu seemed unaware that it was illegal to catch seahorses. Unfortunately, with the awareness of the ban, comes the awareness of the economic value of these species, encouraging more fishers to sell their catches rather than throw them back.

Since the ban, seahorse trade has also become highly lucrative, and traders state that the value of seahorses has increased. Because of their political connections, key traders rarely get caught and not one case of illegal seahorse trade has ever been concluded. Thanks to the monopoly traders now enjoy, fishers are forced to sell seahorses at whatever rate the traders are willing to pay (dependent on seahorse size).

For most fishers, the seahorse trade is a way to supplement their income. For the men, it is money to buy alcohol, while the women see it as a way to feed their family. The general feeling is that the seahorses are already dead in the nets, so why throw them back?

To reduce the catch of seahorses and other bycatch species, restricting the number of trawls and fishing area closures is the only way forward. Until the fisheries are regulated and rules enforced, a ban adds little value towards either conservation or the associated livelihoods. As many countries are contemplating an export ban to manage their resources (as in the case of Senegal and Thailand to manage their seahorse trade), it is essential that lessons learnt from India be applied elsewhere. Ultimately, a ban on extraction or trade seems to be problematic because it appears to exempt governments from implementing actual management or rebuilding measures.

Reflecting on SyngBio, the global gathering for seahorse, pipefish & seadragon people

By Lily Stanton, Project Seahorse Research Biologist

I’ve just had the most amazing week in Florida, filling my head with wonder and my heart with joy.  I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first International SyngBio meeting where hundreds of researchers and professionals from all over the world were set to meet in Tampa, Florida. After all, I am new to the Syngnathid world. But, I reasoned, what better place to learn about seahorses, pipefishes, pipehorses and seadragons than a meeting full of the leading experts in the field?

As it turns out, I had underestimated just how fun and rewarding SyngBio would be, full of collegiality and intellectual excitement.  The schedule was jam packed with interesting talks and social events.  With far-flung topics ranging from sexual selection and genomics to husbandry and aquaculture, I was fascinated by the range of presentations and impressed by their excellence.  It was just wonderful to hear from people who are based all over the world, all focused on these improbable fishes.

 Ribboned pipefish,  Haliichthys taeniophorus , at The Florida Aquarium

Ribboned pipefish, Haliichthys taeniophorus, at The Florida Aquarium

I really appreciated the diversity of the SyngBio experience, where passion for these fishes was ever-present. Our first social event was set against the background of the main reef exhibit at the Florida Aquarium. Under dimmed lights, we sat in amazement as presenters shared their personal scientific stories and photos about their research. Even the curious green sea turtle named Flip couldn’t resist coming closer to catch a glimpse of the activities happening right before her, rather upstaging the wonderful story telling.

My brain strained to keep up with the wave of new knowledge.  Throughout the meeting, we learned of everything syngnathid, from a new species of pipehorse to the fascinating world of seahorse communication (did you know seahorses click, growl and purr?). There were also alarming tales of annihilation fishing in India, the devastating effects of trawling in Southeast Asia and the extraction of seahorses for the dried trade in Portugal. All this nicely intermixed with a good dose of inspirational conservation success stories of seagrass restoration in the Tampa Bay Estuary, citizen science helping save seahorses through iSeahorse Philippines and the imaginative use of discarded fishing traps to create “seahorse hotels” in Australia.  We learned how to train your dragon – your seadragon that is – and how “The Secret Lives of Seahorses” exhibit broke attendance records at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Indeed, these fantastical fishes have captivated the imagination of many people for many years.  And for me, it is no different.  I could feel my excitement about these fishes growing, the more I discovered.

 Heading out into the warm waters of Tampa Bay to participate in the BioBlitz

Heading out into the warm waters of Tampa Bay to participate in the BioBlitz

I even observed some syngnathids, up close and personal in their natural habitat. Among the many memorable moments I had at SyngBio, the best by far was the field excursion.  We were spoilt for choice, having to decide between a behind-the-scenes tour of the Florida Aquarium or the Mote Marine Laboratory, Bird watching or BioBlitz, a chance to immerse ourselves (literally) with the wild animals. I, of course, chose BioBlitz and was thrilled at the opportunity to get out into the warm waters of Tampa Bay and push small nets through seagrass beds to sample the improbably small dwarf seahorses and pipefishes.  My choice did not disappoint, I was delighted to see many wild seahorses and pipefish for the very first time! A truly magical experience. One I will not soon forget. These fishes are just so tiny … and happily so abundant in the restored habitats of Tampa Bay.

 The beautiful University of Tampa

The beautiful University of Tampa

The fun lasted until the very end.  SyngBio concluded with a fantastic boat cruise and an evening banquet – complete with crazy awards – at the Florida Aquarium. An enjoyable evening had by all with new found friends and colleagues. It will be hard to top the stunning scenery and amazing hospitality of our hosts at The University of Tampa and the Florida Aquarium but I am sure the next set of organizers are up for the challenge. See you all in a few years’ time!

(Cross-posted on Project Seahorse’s blog, On conservation)


Fantastical Fishes: Seahorses, Pipefishes and Seadragons into the Future

sygnbio2017SyngBIO 2017, the third meeting of researchers and other professionals working to understand the unique biology and conservation of Syngnathid fishes (seahorses, pipefishes, pipehorses, and seadragons) will be held May 14-19, 2017 in Tampa, Florida (USA) (hosted by The University of Tampa and co-hosted by Project Seahorse).

Find out more and also REGISTER here

“Fantastical Fishes: Seahorses, Pipefishes and Seadragons into the Future” is our theme this year. Keynote, oral and poster presentations will embrace several aspects of seahorse, pipefish and seadragon biology, including: physiology, phylogenetics, phylogeography, genomics, sexual selection and mating systems, behavior, syngnathid breeding programs and aquaculture, and conservation and management. Attendees typically include almost 200 scientists, educators, aquarium professionals, graduate/undergraduate students, and government officials dedicated to understanding and protecting the unique biology of seahorses, pipefishes and seadragons.  Come join us!

Thailand announces it is suspending seahorse exports

Story originally posted on UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries
23 September 2016

Project Seahorse, a marine conservation research unit based at The University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, is applauding Thailand’s decision to end seahorse exports until it can trade in a sustainable manner, without damaging their wild populations. We spoke to Dr. Amanda Vincent, Director, Project Seahorse and Professor, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries about the decision.

Thailand has announced it is suspending seahorse exports. What does this mean?
Thailand is by far the world’s largest exporter of wild seahorses, representing 90% of the trade. What they announced at today’s CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting is that they have decided to suspend all of its international trade in these quirky fishes until it can sort out an effective, sustainable way to sell them abroad without damaging their wild populations.

This trade suspension means that the country will stop exporting seahorses, probably for several years, but will one day return to international trade in seahorses.

What role did Project Seahorse play in achieving this trade ban?
The Project Seahorse team, based at UBC and with its partner, the Zoological Society of London, played a major role in assisting Thailand to tackle this important conservation issue head on.

We lead seahorse research, conservation, policy, and management around the world, and were the first to discover the nature and scale of the seahorse trade in Thailand, alerting the world as to its conservation implications, and generating global restrictions on seahorse trade.

Our work on the international level has been pioneering; we are the globally recognized expert group on 350 species of fish (seahorses, pipefishes, sea dragons and their relatives), and we worked with CITES to develop the first ever global trade agreement regulations the export of marine fishes.

At the request of CITES, Project Seahorse worked with Thailand’s Department of Fisheries on tools and approaches for export management, as well as studying Thailand’s seahorse populations, fisheries and trades. Meeting CITES recommendations on the complex and very large trade in these animals was a big challenge, and we understand why Thailand has decided that a trade suspension would allow it more time to get export regulations right. Now we are eager to help Thailand obtain what it needs in terms of tools, resources, and support to manage seahorse exports sustainably.

How large is the international trade in seahorses?
It is large and complex, estimated at more than tens of millions of individuals per year, involving more than 80 countries, and more than 41 species. The majority of exports come from Southeast Asia or West Africa, with Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as the primary importers. Seahorses are used primarily in dried form for traditional medicine, live in ornamental aquarium displays, and as curios and souvenirs.

Thailand is by far the world’s most significant exporter of seahorses; the source of more than three-quarters of the seahorse in international trade each year. Official CITES data show that Thailand has exported about 5 million animals per year since 2004, all of them dried and all of them wild. Our analysis of Thailand’s fisheries suggests the real numbers are actually much higher.


Hippocampus kuda, Spotted seahorse. Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse

Which species will be impacted by this move?
Seven species of seahorses inhabit Thailand’s national waters. Five have been recorded in trade, and four (Hippocampus kelloggi,, Hippocampus kuda, Hippocampus spinosissimus, and Hippocampus trimaculatus) dominate global trade volumes. All will be affected.


What is the biggest risk to the seahorse population in Thailand?
Seahorses are caught directly, for the live trade, but that is only a small part of the fishery. Thai fishers capture the great majority of seahorses by accident, brought up in non-selective fishing gears such as trawls and gillnets. Bottom trawls, in particular, are very damaging and destructive. They scrape the ocean floor, taking everything in their path. About 85-95% of the weight in trawl nets is marine life they didn’t mean to catch. Actually, some trawl fisheries have given up even targeting any particular species and just grab what they can get.

We are heartened that Thailand has recognized that these non-selective gears are causing ecosystem damage, as well as impacting their fisheries. They are, thankfully, stopping the trade so that they can develop action plans that will better manage not just the future of the seahorse trade, but also the catches that Thai fisheries depend on as a source of income.

So you want to re-open the trade? Why is Project Seahorse promoting sustainable use instead of an outright ban?
Generally speaking, sustainable use offers more potential for long-term conservation. While bans certainly have their uses, they are not a panacea. One often has to deal with ensuing illegal catch and trade, and with angry fishers and traders. After all, fisheries are of great economic importance. It is better for both wildlife and people to seek a balance between safeguarding a species or space and using it as a resource. People who depend on a resource can become marvelous guardians. Moreover, having their buy-in is vital to stimulate compliance with regulations; enforcement of unpopular management decisions is very problematic, and commonly fails.

More stories on this

IUCN: IUCN behind major advance for seahorse conservation
National Geographic: Thailand suspends exports of seahorses
Washington Post: Thailand suspends seahorse trade amid conservation concerns

Marine Species on CITES #CITES4Seas

CITES CoP 17 Information Documents |  CoP17 Side Events  | Resources



CITES CoP 17 Information Documents

The following four information documents are available in several languages, in pdf format.

Implementing Appendix II listings for marine fishes: important considerations when making non-detriment findings.
(English | French  | Spanish)

Assisting Parties to meet their commitments: CITES Review of significant trade for Seahorses (Hippocampus spp.), a taxon traded in high volumes
(English | French | Spanish)  [Please note that the French and Spanish versions are translations of the official CoP17 Inf. 53 (Rev. 1)]

Implementation of CITES Appendix II listings for marine fishes.
(English | French  | Spanish)

Simple is good: moving toward pragmatic and effective monitoring to support CITES implementation for marine fishes and invertebrates on Appendix II
(English | French  | Spanish)

Side Events

Implementation of Marine Fish Listings on Appendix II

Sunday Sept 25 12:00-14:00 Lunch provided
Room 5  (Hosted by IUCN)

How is CITES helping marine fishes listed on Appendix II? What progress have we made? What more can we do?

This side event will explore progress on implementing Appendix II listings for marine fishes. IUCN SSC Specialist Groups will report on experiences with European eel, sharks, humphead wrasse, and seahorses. We will follow that with a discussion about opportunities and challenges.

Addressing Illegal Wildlife Trade for App II listed Marine Species

Sunday October 2 12:00-14:00  Lunch provided
Room 4 (Hosted by IUCN and FAO)

What can CITES do about illegal trade in App II-listed marine species? How can other organizations and agencies help?

This event will link efforts to reduce Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) with initiatives to address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing. Growing public and policy attention to IWT needs to include ocean species. The CITES Secretariat, FAO and TRAFFIC will help identify successes and opportunities in responding to both IWT and IUU.


The role of CITES in the conservation of marine fishes subject to international trade

CITES and Marine Fishes Think Tank
Non-detriment findings (NDF) advice for marine fishes in general

NDF frameworks / tools for specific marine fish taxa



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