In Reply Refer To:
Willem Wijnstekers, Secretary General
Geneva Executive Center
15, chemin des Anémones
Case postale 456
Dear Mr. Wijnstekers:
The United States is pleased to submit the enclosed ASpecies Assessment@ for seahorses (Hippocampus spp.) to the Secretariat for distribution to all CITES Parties under the provisions of Resolution Conf 8.21, paragraph b. The document, although not technically an amendment proposal, presents biological and trade information indicating that Hippocampus spp. qualify for listing in CITES Appendix II under terms of Resolution Conf. 9.24, Annex 2a. The United States is interested in receiving comments from all CITES Parties with seahorse populations, especially those range states that are major harvesters and exporters of seahorses. We are particularly interested in receiving scientifically based comments on the conservation status of the species in this taxon, and the impacts of international trade on their populations. On the basis of comments received, the United States will decide whether or not to submit a formal amendment proposal for seahorses at COP11. We understand that a revised proposal must be submitted to the Secretariat at least 150 days prior to COP11.
Comments should be mailed to my attention, Office of Scientific Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22203, USA, faxed to (703) 358-2276, or e-mailed to email@example.com.
Thank you very much for facilitating the distribution of this document to CITES Parties. Please feel free to include this cover letter in your distribution to the Parties.
Dr. Susan S. Lieberman
Chief, Office of Scientific Authority
Species: Seahorses Hippocampus spp.
Proposed for: Listing in Appendix II
Evaluation of CITES criteria:
The main threats to seahorses populations are widespread declines in abundance resulting from overfishing and habitat loss. Seahorses (Hippocampus spp.) are globally exploited for use as traditional medicines, aquarium fishes, and curios, and seahorse populations in Indo-Pacific countries are estimated to have declined by 25-75% over the last five years (Vincent 1997). Size of individuals have also declined with an increased take of immature males in fisheries catch, which may have grave implications for reproductive potential.
Considering the substantial threats to these species, and their importance in international wildlife trade, the species of Hippocampus may qualify for inclusion in Appendix II of CITES. The current status of Hippocampus spp. meets Criterion A of Annex 2a of Resolution Conf. 9.24: unless trade in the genus is regulated, Hippocampus spp. will meet at least one of the criteria for listing in Appendix I (criterion C). A decline in the number of individuals in the wild has been observed in regions that have seahorse fisheries, which may worsen due to habitat degradation, decreasing reproductive potential, and a predicted 8 to 10 percent increase per year in demand. Hippocampus spp. also meet Criterion B of Annex 2a: harvesting of specimens from the wild for international trade appears to have exceeded the level that can be continued in perpetuity.
There are approximately 35 species of Hippocampus. All species are marine; they live among sea grasses, mangroves and coral reefs worldwide, between 45° north and south latitude, with most species in the western Atlantic or Indo-Pacific region (Pollard 1984). Although they appear to have wide geographic ranges, they are found only in narrow strips along the coast, typically in shallow water. Seahorses prefer water between 1 to 15 meters depth, with some species found at 45 to 60 meters. Seahorses occur at densities of about one individual per six square meters, although densities may be as high as 10 to 15 seahorses per square meter in some sea grass habitats (Vincent 1997). In some populations there are short-range seasonal migrations; dispersal also occurs during storms.
Background on the species or taxon:
Seahorses are characterized by sparse distributions, low mobility, small home ranges, low natural adult mortality, low fecundity, long parental care, and mate fidelity. They range in size from a 10-20 mm Australian seahorse to a 300 mm Pacific seahorse. The life span of seahorses is unknown, but has been inferred to be about four years for most medium sized Indo-Pacific species (Vincent 1997). Life history strategies of seahorses make populations susceptible to over-exploitation: a) seahorses brood their young, thus pregnant seahorses must survive if the young are to survive; b) reproductive rates are limited by lengthy parental care combined with a small brood size; c) sparse distribution, low mobility and small home ranges limit replacement of lost partners and the ability for juveniles to recolonize depleted areas; and d) low natural rates of adult mortality are offset by heavy fishing pressure, which exerts selective pressure on populations.
A rapidly growing trade in Hippocampus spp. for traditional Chinese medicine and its derivatives, aquarium pets, souvenirs and curios is resulting in overexploitation of wild populations. Seahorses are caught by subsistence fishers by hand, scoop net or small seine. They are also a by-catch shrimp trawlers and other forms of net fishing. It is estimated that at least 20 million seahorses are captured annually from the wild. At least 20 nations worldwide are exporting seahorses; the largest known exporters are India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, with annual exports for each country estimated at 3 to 15 tons of dried seahorses. Seahorses comprise 80 to 100 percent of the income of some fishers in the Philippines and India, and are among the most valuable export fisheries from Vietnam and the Philippines (Vincent 1995). The number of seahorses landed in the USA (Florida) has steadily increased since records began in 1992, with more than 112,000 seahorses taken in 1994.
The largest importers for dried seahorses are China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with an estimated annual consumption of 45 tons in Asia (16 million seahorses). Sea horses are sold as whole, dried animals (in Hong Kong they are bleached) for preparation into tonics. There has been a recent increase of prepared medicines (pills) in Asia, possibly in response to decreases in size of individuals obtained in fisheries catch. Seahorses are also used in traditional medicines in Indonesia, the Philippines and India, and at least eight seahorse medicines are now sold in North America (Fratkin 1986). Demand for medicinal purposes has increased 10-fold during the 1980's and continues to grow by 8 to 10 percent per year in China alone; similar trends are likely to occur in other countries with large Chinese populations. Dried seahorses are also utilized as curios with a high availability in beach resorts and shell shops around the world.
Live specimens for aquaria pets are exported primarily to North America, Europe, Japan and Taiwan. Five species are preferred for aquaria, including four Indo-Pacific species in the H. histrix complex and H. kuda complex, and one North American species, H. erectus, although several other species are sold as well. Virtually all aquarium seahorses come from the wild. Seahorses are highly unsuitable aquarium fishes, and few survive in captivity (Vincent 1997).
Seahorse supply no longer meets international demand. In addition to the large, highly prized specimens that were exclusively harvested in past decades, a substantial proportion of the trade today consists of previously undesirable, small seahorses. For instance, in the Philippines seahorses less than 100 mm were not harvested in the 1970's, while animals 50 mm or larger in size are taken today (Vincent 1997). This indicates that juveniles and adults, as well as other previously unexploited species (of smaller adult size) are now vulnerable to harvest pressures.
Table 1. Primary importing countries for dried seahorses. All data are from Vincent (1997), with quantities and values extrapolated from published statistics and interviews.
quantity used (tons/yr)
Value per kg
Value per kg
number per kg
Table 2. Quantity and value of seahorses from the major exporting countries. All data are from Vincent (1997) and includes information from country statistics and interviews. The value is dependent on seahorse size, with top dollar paid for the largest animals.
To date few conservation strategies have been implemented, and only Tasmania (Australia) fully protects seahorses. Seahorses are included in the French, Portuguese and Vietnamese Red Lists of Threatened Animals; however, trade is still legal. On January 1, 1998, Australia became the first country requiring permits for exports of seahorses; permits are only issued for animals derived from approved captive breeding programs (Moreau 1997). Inshore trawling is banned in Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand, providing indirect protection by protecting essential seahorse habitat (provided there is adequate enforcement). Two small-scale community-based seahorse management projects exist in Vietnam and the Philippines; these include no-exploitation zones and holding pens for pregnant males, which are not killed until they give birth (Vincent 1995).
Captive breeding programs designed to reduce pressure on wild populations have been mostly unsuccessful, due to difficulties in rearing young and the need for repeated removal of adults from the wild to maintain brood stock. Captive breeding programs existed from the 1950's to the 1980's in China, but economic failure (mainly due to high mortality rates and low productivity) forced closure of all facilities (Vincent 1997). Seahorse culturing was also attempted in the Philippines because indiscriminate fishing was depleting populations, but activities have also been abandoned. The Seafarming Development Centre in Sumatra, Indonesia reports success in seahorse culturing (53 percent survival of young), although this facility needs to be critically assessed. Captive breeding trials are underway in Vietnam, however it is too soon to determine the viability of these operations. Overall, most seahorse culturing programs have found that breeding seahorses in captivity is relatively simple, but rearing the young is highly problematic due to nutritional problems and disease.
In the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, 31 of the 35 species in the genus Hippocampus are listed as "vulnerable" with the species facing a high risk of extinction in the future. The remaining species were not classified because of insufficient data.
To date, seahorses Hippocampus spp. have not been proposed for listing in CITES Appendix II.
Fratkin, J. 1986. Chinese herbal patent formulas: A practical guide. SHYA Publications, Colorado.
Moreau, M. December, 1997. Australia bans exports of wild-caught seahorses. SPC Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin #3. Pp. 45-46.
Pollard, D.A. 1984. A review of ecological studies on seagrass-fish communities, with particular reference to recent studies in Australia. Aquat. Bot. 18:3-42.
Vincent, A.C.J. 1995. Trade in seahorses for traditional Chinese medicines, aquarium fishes and curios. TRAFFIC Bulletin. 15(3): 125-128.
Vincent, A.C.J. 1997. International trade in seahorses. TRAFFIC International. 163 pp.
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