Seahorses have lived in our oceans since the dawn of the dinosaur. However, in recent years, the demand for seahorse in Traditional Chinese Medicine has had a catastrophic impact on their populations. Will the seahorse survive the reign of humanity?
Chinese Medicine Threatens The Seahorse
By Dylan Lasenby
Found in shallow tropical and temperate waters throughout the world, the seahorse is truly a one-of-a-kind animal. These tiny creatures, who range in size from 1.5 to 3.5 centimetres long, bear an astounding resemblance to that of a horse. Seahorse is the name given to the 54 species of small marine fishes in the genus Hippocampus. This small and fragile creature lives in sheltered areas of the ocean, often latching to seagrass beds, coral reefs, or mangrove roots. Perhaps one if its most remarkable traits is that the seahorse mates for life. Rarer still, they are among the only animal species on earth in which the male bears the unborn young.
The seahorse may seem like easy prey to predators, however, they have two tricks which have led to their relative survival success: camouflage and mimicry. Their ability to hide by changing colours and blending into their environments, as well as their ‘masquerading’ technique, allows them to escape from other marine predators!
Unfortunately, the unique and remarkable seahorse is threatened by habitat loss, pollution and illegal poaching. In recent years, seahorse populations have plummeted due to their popularity in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Despite there being no evidence to suggest that seahorse has any medical benefits, demand for the fish has grown immensely with people hailing it as a miracle cure for ailments such as impotence, bladder control, asthma, and abdominal pain. Seahorse is also thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac and is often taken to increase sexual potency.
With around one-quarter of the world’s population practising Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is not surprising that the seahorse populations are being threatened. The staggering demand for this ‘miracle medicine’ has spawned a spike in illegal trade and harvest of the unique seahorse, with over 24 million seahorses being sold around the world each year.
As countries like China have risen in wealth, so too has the desire for luxury items. The demand for seahorse has a ripple effect throughout the supply chain. Dried seahorse retails from US$600 – 3000 per kilogram with larger, paler and smoother animals generally commanding the highest prices.
Very little is known about the supply of seahorses due to poor regulation and enforcement of maritime law in many countries where the seahorse is popular. Perhaps with international cooperation to identify and target illegal trading markets, seahorses can be more closely monitored and protected. Much like the infamous shark fin trade; awareness, protection and governance must be enforced to protect seahorses if they are to stay for the future.
How You Can Help
Fortunately, there are many ways to ensure the survival of the seahorses:
1) Do not buy seahorse, and do not support any market or restaurant that sells seahorse products.
2) Make wise consumer choices. Avoid eating shrimp. Shrimp trawling and shrimp farming are among the most destructive activities in our oceans and are putting seahorses and other species at risk.
3) Visit Save our Seahorses and join the organisation in campaigning for changes in fishing laws to better protect the wild populations of seahorses.
4) Sign up for our newsletter here.