Before my recent trip home to China, I discovered a folk tale that explains why seahorses are used as a traditional medicine. It goes something like this:
Once upon a time there was a fisher living on the coast of South China Sea. While fishing one day he saw a shiny body drifting away in the deep sea. He rowed his boat to the body and discovered that it was a mermaid who was badly injured. The fisher rescued the dying mermaid and cured her with some herbal medicines. In order to thank the fisher, the mermaid gave him a shiny pearl and told him that whenever he needed her help he could throw that pearl into the water with a message, and she would come to help him.
|A Kellogg’s seahorse (H. kelloggi), taken in Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, June 2, 2014. Xiong Zhang/Project Seahorse|
A few years passed. The fisher got married and his wife became pregnant. He was very happy. However, during childbirth his wife had a very difficult labor, and the fisher was afraid she might not survive. In that moment he recalled the mermaid and her promise. He rushed to the sea and sent the message with the pearl. Then the mermaid appeared with a magical medicine — a finger-length fish that has a horse-like head, a weird pouch, and a curved tail. The fisher brought the “medicine” home to his wife and she ate it. Soon after, she delivered a healthy boy.
The fisher visited the mermaid again to thank her. He persuaded her to drive these magical fishes into the shallow seas where they could be easily captured by fishers to help more women during childbirth. Since then, this magical fish — the seahorse — has lived in China’s shallow waters to ensure the safety of pregnant women and their babies.
I was surprised and amazed by this story, which I’d never heard before, even though I grew up in China and, as a PhD student with Project Seahorse, am now studying seahorses and their distribution patterns, their habitats, and their reaction to human pressures. The reality is that most Chinese people don’t know this story, either. They only know that dried seahorses are used as traditional treatments for infertility and obstructed childbirth (dystocia), and have been used this way for a very long time.
On my visit to Shanghai in June, I was struck by how little most people know about seahorses. At Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, one of the biggest aquariums in China, I spoke to some of the visitors at the seahorse display. I asked them what they knew about these charismatic animals and the threats to their conservation. Most people gave me a polite smile but they weren’t at all interested in learning more about seahorses.
I must admit that I felt a little frustrated by this at first. As a young scientist, I want my research to be more than just research. I want to inspire people to learn more about seahorses and rethink about what we should and can do for the sustainability of seahorse exploitation in China and all over the world.
But visiting Dr. Qiang Lin, a colleague in the Laboratory of Marine Bio-resource Sustainable Utilization, South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, has doubled my resolve. He is the leader of the only seahorse research team in China, conducting studies on seahorses in various fields including behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation biology. He explained to me that the domestic production of cultured seahorses is around five million animals per year, while his preliminary research suggests the annual illegal domestic catch of wild seahorses could be as high as 12 to 15 million.
|Xiong Zhang (middle left) and Dr Qiang Lin (middle right) and other two researchers in his team, taken after Xiong’s presentation in Lin’s office, June 18, 2014.|
Under increasing pressure from overexploitation, seahorses are becoming very rare in many of China’s coastal waters. Based one of his early studies, the domestic demand for dried seahorses is about 600 tonnes per year, but only about 5% of the volume can be satisfied by China’s own seahorse populations. To meet this demand, China has become the largest importer on seahorse trade, importing dried seahorses from all over the world. Vietnam and the Philippines are among those major countries who export seahorses to China. Along with development of tonic and medicine industries and the increasing demand, the prices of seahorse products are rocketing. Dried seahorses can be sold at a price of $2,500 per kg in Hong Kong, for example.
Facing this pressing issue, Dr. Qiang Lin and his team have conducted impressive studies on seahorse conservation and sustainable use in China. They have completed the whole genome sequencing of seahorses, and are currently exploring the genetic diversity and evolution of wild seahorses in order to build a strong foundation for seahorse conservation in China. They are also conducting seahorse aquaculture and creating new breeding stocks as an indirect way to relieve the pressure on wild populations from overfishing.
They have also completed a decade-long survey (2004–14) on wild seahorse populations in China’s seas – Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, East Sea and South China Sea. This is extremely important work that will influence my own research. We have agreed to cooperate on seahorse conservation in the future in order to uncover more about the “reality” of wild seahorses in China. I believe this cooperation will be rewarding and hope that it will be the start of a larger movement to raise awareness about seahorses and marine conservation in China.
Note: This post marks the last of our reports from the 2014 CITES annual technical gathering in Veracruz, Mexico. To read more, visit the "Commentary" section of this blog.
Every now and then you have an experience that really gets you thinking. Participating in my first UN meeting has certainly done that for me. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) has an annual technical gathering to sort out challenges in regulating annual exports of species for conservation. Seahorses pose plenty of such challenges with a huge global trade of tens of millions of animals — and declining populations. We need to make CITES an effective tool for their conservation, to complement everything else we are doing.
Amanda Vincent (left) and Sarah Foster (right) at the 27th CITES Animals Committee Meeting in Veracruz, Mexico.
After long days at this meeting I retain lots of hope that CITES can make a difference. But I’m struck by two reality checks that are tempering my idealism. That’s inevitable, perhaps, given how much I expected from just this one tool, but it’s still sad.
My first reality check is that CITES seems to address symptoms more than causes for many species declines, including seahorses. The principle of CITES seems simple enough – Parties should not export more seahorses than wild populations can bear. So we just need to figure out how many we can take out of the water, and keep trade levels there. Except it is not that easy. CITES is only about international trade and not really about actual exploitation. The hope for most species is that limits on exports will create limits on how many are taken from the wild. The problem is that most seahorses are caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries. So caps on export levels will not, by themselves, reduce catch rates. We can make this point at the CITES meeting but – in a CITES context - we cannot tell Parties how they should go about managing their fisheries, including the destructive and non-selective trawling that is the root cause of the problem. So we are often skirting around the real issues, removed from the heart of the matter. We need to find innovative and yet politically acceptable ways to bridge this gap and help CITES move seahorse trade toward sustainability.
My second reality check is that we cannot tell Parties what to do. No way, no how. But they want our advice. And we know quite a bit about what needs to be done! CITES is working to support Thailand in moving its seahorse exports towards sustainability. This is pretty tricky because most are caught in trawls (see above) and seahorses are just not priority species in Thailand. More problematic still, fixing this will need CITES to try some new approaches, beyond the usual recipes. Amanda and I were delighted to be asked to draft new recommendations for Thailand. After two years of assisting its Department of Fisheries, we have learned a lot about what needs to be done. So I found it really very frustrating that our gentle attempts at innovation were set aside in favour of formulaic phrases. We had an amazing chance to give Parties guidance for eventual success but instead we had to beat around the bush, respecting the politics of the CITES process.
I recognize that my gripes are probably realities of an international UN convention. Still, it all has me thinking that such protocols are really hampering support for thousands of species that would beg for help if they could. How can we best make progress in this context - carefully, indirectly, vaguely and without telling anyone what to do? And do seahorses have time to wait for us to work this out?
It is truly wondrous that the world has managed to create a global action group for conservation, one that includes 1200 governments and non-governmental organizations. I am so involved in this club, called the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) that I seldom step back and really look at it. But I was recently reminded not to take it for granted. It does amazing work, particularly by co-ordinating thousands of volunteer experts in animal and plant conservation into a strong force for nature
The IUCN team of volunteer experts is much in evidence at CITES meetings on regulating exports of endangered species (see my blog on May 2nd). The meetings are packed full of countries and public interest/advocacy groups. They tackle a huge array of very complex issues that need masses of information about lots of species involved. There is a lot of knowledge in the hall. But a great deal of the information and influence in these meetings comes from behind the IUCN name plate, where staff and volunteer experts work together to get it right for wildlife.
I love being part of the IUCN group. At my most recent CITES meeting, IUCN was able to cover the most critical agenda issues in wildlife trade thanks to help from volunteer experts on big cats, crocodiles, primates, snakes, sharks, tortoises and freshwater turtles — and seahorses. At such gatherings, IUCN provides factual input without pushing any particular agenda. Because of this, we are commonly asked for advice, invited to offer our views, and always respected for our expertise.
Contributing through the IUCN is rewarding, even if things don’t always work out quite as hoped. As IUCN is so trusted, we are often able to influence what countries decide at CITES without ever insisting on our opinion. The corollary, though, is that sometimes we just have to bottle our annoyance and live with a country’s surprising behavior and/or CITES’ quirky decisions. I certainly had to cope with that mixture of good and frustrating at the last meeting. But I’m so glad at least to have a decent chance to change things through IUCN.
Project Seahorse researcher Sarah Foster says most of the shrimp we eat are unsustainably harvested. For every kilogram of tropical shrimp caught through trawling the bottom of the ocean, 10 kilograms of other marine life is killed. To protect ocean health, Foster argues that we have to be smart about the shrimp we eat.
How does shrimp harvesting impact our oceans?
Each year around World Oceans Day my family and friends ask what they can do to make a difference to the health of our oceans. My answer: don’t eat shrimp or prawns–unless you know they have been sustainably sourced. Most aren’t.
Where do most of our shrimp come from?
Almost all shrimp you buy or get served come from tropical trawl fisheries. This fishing technique “clear cuts” the ocean floor, catching shrimp and everything else in its path. An average of 10 kilos of other marine life is captured and killed for every kilo of tropical shrimp landed. Some of this “other catch” or “bycatch” is kept and sold, but most is turned into fishmeal or fish oil for fertilizer and aquaculture practices. Many of these species could be sources of food for humans but reducing them to plant or animal feed redirects key protein sources away from the people who need it.
The total area of seabed trawled each year is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clear cut. We criticize clear cutting forests so why don’t we fuss about clear cutting the ocean floor?
Is farmed shrimp a sustainable alternative?
Most shrimp farming is as bad, if not worse, as bottom trawling. Shrimp ponds have destroyed thousands of kilometres of coastal habitats around the world, particularly mangroves, which serve as nurseries to many marine species and help buffer coastal communities from powerful storms. Shrimp farming also pollutes adjacent waters with chemicals and waste, and the salt from the ponds can turn productive land into a desert.
How can we end ocean clear cutting?
Something has to make trawlers change their practice. By buying and eating sustainably sourced shrimp you can help provide the incentive. Shrimp trawlers around the world now carry Turtle Excluder Devices because the U.S. won’t import their shrimp if they don’t, although implementation remains a huge challenge.
Let’s give fisheries an incentive to protect the rest of the bycatch species. Be smart about the shrimp you eat. Thankfully in Canada this is easier than in many places. Most of Canada’s shrimp fisheries are considered to be ecologically sustainable with minimal bycatch. Canada is home to one of the most sustainable prawn fisheries in the world – the B.C. spot prawn fishery. This fishery uses traps that do not result in as much bycatch or habitat damage. We also have programs like Oceans Wise that tell you if the shrimp you want to buy for the barbecue or order in a restaurant won’t harm the oceans they come from.
Yes, you will pay more for the shrimp you eat but the oceans will pay less for your choices. Your gain is that you will be able to appreciate and eat other marine life for much longer.
When the sun goes down in the Central Philippines the reefs come alive as crabs, snails, cuttlefish and other creature emerge from hiding. Meet the marine creatures that crowd the reefs at night and the fishers who collect them.
(All photographs by Kyle Gillespie/Project Seahorse)
The village of Bilang-bilangan West is several miles off the west coast of Bohol. Fishing is a major source of food and income. Several of these boats will set out for the reefs as the sun goes down as creatures like crabs and squid emerge.
A fishing boat is readied for a night of fishing. Lanterns help the fisher see down onto the reef and also attract curious marine life to the boat. Note that this is not the type of lantern fishing that is used for seahorses – this boat is much bigger and the lanterns more impressive.
The sun sets over Jandayan Island as fishers prepare to dive the reefs to collect crabs, and other marine species. Invertebrates, which mostly emerge at night, provide about third of the protein in local diets.
Fishers near Matabao, Bohol, ready their nets for an evening of fishing.
As the reefs darken, an aeolid nudibranch emerges from the coral to hunt.
Scavengers, like the spotted porcelain crab also appear and search for morsels of food.
The squat shrimp, another scavenger, may be small but it certainly adds a splash of colour to the reef.
Hand-made crab traps dry in the sun on Batasan Island, Bohol. Crab fishing has become a major source of protein and income on Danajon Bank in the Central Philippines.
Once snails and crabs are caught, meat is removed and prepared for meals. Here, marine snails are removed from their shells. Batasan Island, Bohol.
A flamboyant cuttlefish is one of the more curious (and colourful) creatures on the reef. This one watched from a distance for several minutes before coming to investigate. Apparently, we did not appear to be a threat.
Many species depend heavily on a specific type of habitat on which to live. This type of coral shrimp hides in crevasses during the day and spends its nights in amongst soft corals.
The white spotted hermit crab cannot make its own shell and must find a new one every time it out grows its home. The reef is a competitive real estate market, with crabs often battling for a new shelter.
Sea cucumbers are laid in the sun to dry on Batasan Island, Bohol. These creatures have become a popular item in the fish and medicine markets of Hong Kong. Sea cucumbers now sell for up to 25 times the price of lobsters in China.
Nudibranchs, like this chromodoris, use bright colour patterns to warn potential predators that they are poisonous or distasteful. Chromodorids feed on sponges.
The sapsucking slug gets its name from its ability to suck the juices out from algae. Some species can even integrate the chloroplasts from the algae into their own tissues become “solar-powered sea slugs”.
Good. Two more seahorses species should get better help, thanks to the recent CITES technical meeting for animals.
At this meeting, CITES expressed Urgent Concern about Guinea and Senegal’s exports of West African seahorses (Hippocampus algiricus - photo right) and Thailand’s exports of three spotted seahorses (Hippocampus trimaculatus). The upshot is that these countries have been given some recommendations (which must be followed) on how to move their exports of these species towards sustainable levels. It’s a good early step in the long, long journey that will be needed to secure the future of these seahorses, with both species judged as Vulnerable to extinction.
Guinea and Senegal are huge exporters of algiricus. Vast numbers are caught in non-selective fishing gear (especially seine nets) and hundreds of thousands are sold dried to east Asia every year. CITES has decided that Guinea and Senegal must take more responsibility for these exports, and has drawn up a list of recommendations for both countries. Project Seahorse is very glad that we can help here; Kate West and Andres Cisneros-Montemayor recently carried out the only fishery and trade surveys of seahorses in these two countries. Kate and Andres also had a first look at algiricus biology – there are no papers on this species – and we’ll also give that info to Guinea and Senegal.
Fisheries in Senegal. Photo by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor/Project Seahorse.
Thailand has been exporting more than 99% of all trimaculatus in international trade, with an average of well over a million animals leaving the country each year. This seems to be more than the population can support, but Thailand needs to do the work to analyse this properly. Such analysis may be tricky because most of the seahorses are caught accidentally by the huge number of trawls that operate off Thailand. Happily, Project Seahorse is able to help here too. We’ve been formally collaborating with the Thai Department of Fisheries for the past two years, as it works to manage exports of three other seahorse species. So we can help provide decent information about seahorse biology, fisheries and trade. Thailand, of course, will have to decide how to apply this knowledge to its trade challenges.
Fisheries in Thailand. Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse.
CITES gave the three countries much the same set of recommendations, all of which are essentially requirements. The main focus is on mapping, enforcement and monitoring. All countries need to know more about where the seahorses live relative to conservation threats and areas with fisheries/ocean management. Then the countries need to strengthen enforcement of their often really good management measures, such as the ban on trawling within 5.4 km of the coast of Thailand. Finally, the countries need to track seahorses catches - and the effort it took to catch them – for quite a few years to find out what is happening to the wild populations. The results of this work will guide next steps in conservation.
On other new seahorse matters, CITES agreed to ask all member countries to explain how they decide on appropriate levels of exports for the lined seahorse, Hippocampus erectus. And CITES addressed some confusion in the naming of seahorse species. Much more needs to be done on clearing up species distinctions and identification, however.
All in all, Project Seahorse involvement with CITES and seahorses looks likely to continue for quite some time. For one thing, we are waiting to hear whether Thailand adequately addressed CITES recommendations from two years ago. For another, we are working with Viet Nam to help them address the ban on seahorse exports – for one species only – that CITES imposed last year. This was the first ever ban under any international agreement for any marine fish, so is an interesting case study. Then there’s the new work ---.
I found this CITES meeting both interesting and frustrating. A few countries started scrutinising the recommendations for seahorses a lot more carefully, as they realised we were setting precedent for other marine fishes, including sharks . As a result, some sensible and focused advice was diluted into broad generalities that will be harder for countries to grasp. It will be interesting to see how their national agencies respond to the hard won recommendations: will they try to make change or while they wriggle as much as possible ?
Hippocampus kuda. One of the three seahorse species under CITES Review of Significant Trade. Photo by Luc Eeckhaut/Guylian Seahorses of the World.
Here we go: CITES again. Every year or so, several hundred people sit down at a technical meeting to see whether international trade controls are doing any good for animals. It’s a somewhat crazy process, full of potential and limitations. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is responsible for ensuring sustainability in exports in 4827 animal species. It works more or less well for different countries and different species. Our challenge at this meeting (called the Animals Committee) is to figure out which countries and which species need the most support – and how to help.
We came to the meeting to support seahorses, of course. We also want to get involved in some broader issues that range from captive breeding to training for Customs officers. But the focus is seahorses, the first marine fish brought under CITES regulation since 1976. We are already working closely with Thailand and Vietnam, which are having trouble ensuring that exports of some seahorses don’t exceed what wild populations can bear. Now it seems that Thailand might need help with another species. And we might have to get involved in West Africa too.
For the first time, I have another seahorse wizard along. Sarah Foster is also on the Project Seahorse team and has spent years working with CITES but this is the first time she has come to a formal meeting. It will be interesting to see what she makes of it all ---
At the moment, we are ploughing through the masses and masses of documents, coded with letters and numbers that refer to remote parts of the CITES experience. Most of them are very dull and somewhat obscure. But we really need to understand them well and figure out how they apply to our immediate conservation concerns. Behind every animal name in this mound of paper is a spectacular, quirky or critical species. One that we just might lose forever unless CITES does its work well.
|Cracks caused by the October 2013 earthquakes. Photo: ZSL|
Last weekend I visited some our project sites hit by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). This weekend I am visiting sites hit by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Bohol in October.
As we land in Tubigon dock on Bohol I see the power of yet another of nature’s forces — this time a massive earthquake. I’ve entered a wonky, cracked, rubbly world, slowly being patched and filled. As we get a tricycle, I am stunned to see the municipal offices — the dominant building in central Tubigon — is torn apart by huge cracks on one side, while the other side has completely collapsed. I’ve had many meetings in those very offices with the mayor and officials and it’s normally bustling with activity so it feels all wrong to see it that way. Close by, the historic church and school are crumbled ruins, with the only consolation that it was a national holiday when the earthquake happened. Otherwise the casualties would have been so much higher.
We are heading to Matabao, the location of the marine protected area (MPA) we implemented as a result of Project Ocean — a wonderful and unlikely joint ZSL initiative with Selfridges department store. The road to Matabao is bumpier than before as sections have dropped and cracks have been temporarily filled. Tents line sections of the road and it’s great to see Shelterbox — a fantastic Cornish charity based near to where I live in the U.K. — have provided temporary housing to the most needy. There are houses that have completely collapsed, while others have spiderwebs of fresh concrete as people have made running repairs. Others look just fine, until you realise they are leaning at a rather unnatural angle and the tents in the garden confirm that these homes are no longer safe.
|Snorkeling over cracks in sea floor. Photo: ZSL|
We drop our bags at the little hostel we stay at near the water. The doors to our rooms won’t open fully now because, thanks to the quake, the rooms themselves have shifted and dropped below the path outside! At the highest tides, they now flood (luckily not today!) and rebuilding has already started. This is nothing compared to the situation reports we hear from some of the outer islands. Batasan, which is home to another Project Seahorse-supported MPA, dropped about a metre during the quake. In fact, our team was there at the time with international volunteers conducting surveys and were lucky to live through that terrifying experience. Now, the island floods every high tide and up to a metre at the highest tides. A detailed assessment will be done by experts this week, but it seems that the most likely option is to relocate that entire community — practically and emotionally a very difficult task.
We hold a community meeting with the members of the MPA Management Council and discuss this year’s plans. The mayor, engineer, and municipal agricultural officer from Tubigon also attend the meeting. They share some great news as they are able to allocate a fuel allowance and boat maintenance costs for the new ‘Selfridges’ patrol boat. They are grateful to have additional enforcement power in the area and we agree to set a co-ordinated enforcement plan with the larger Seaborne Patrol vessel that runs day and night throughout Tubigon’s municipal waters. The village captain confirms that he too has allocated funds this year from his budget to support the running of the MPA, in spite of the earthquake and the fact they couldn’t spare any funds last year. It’s encouraging to see — as with the ZSL Philippines mangrove sites — that environmental protection remains a priority in these communities, even after experiencing such major calamities, and testament to our local team for helping instil those values.
|The devastated municipal hall at Tubigon. Photo: ZSL|
We discuss the equipment they need and how to support that with the Selfridges’ MPA budget this year. Although I’m sure the fish wardens could do some damage with some Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag, we go for the slightly more practical option of binoculars, torches and mobile phones so they can communicate with the Seaborne Patrol!
The yellow patrol boat — painted in Selfridges’ statement colour — takes us out to the MPA after the tide comes in later that afternoon. The MPA guardhouse has adopted a jaunty angle after the ‘quake and the engineer has come up with a repair plan. I’m relieved we can get it operational again in the next month. As we pull up alongside it, we see very clearly why. There is a huge crack below the surface that snakes away from the guardhouse. These underwater cracks remain a real concern for the local fishers and who are very anxious, in many cases choosing not to fish in spite of the need for income and food. I put on my mask and snorkel and swim along the crack. It's really quite extraordinary to see the huge changes in the underwater topography. The crack is over five metres wide in places and ranges from a shallow drop to deep chasms. After a few hundred metres I find myself swimming over a drop-off, a steep wall with the sea disappearing below me. I only remember this area being a reef flat and seagrass bed and am confused. Back on the boat, Angie, our senior biologist, and the local fish warden confirms that there was no drop-off before.
|Heather, Marisa, and village official in damaged MPA guardhouse. Photo: ZSL|
Next week, the team start our bi-annual underwater surveys of our MPAs to establish their impact on improving fish and habitats. This time, we will also be working with Filipino scientists to document the physical changes resulting from the earthquake. The communities are desperate to find out how their MPA and surrounding fishing grounds have changed. And, of course, they want to know whether it’s safe to go out on the water.
Ironically, the earthquake seems to have reduced fishing pressure on these impacted reefs as most fishers did not go out for about a month after it hit. The earthquake has shown the importance of diversifying livelihoods, not just to take pressure off the oceans, but also to build resilience in these communities against such catastrophe. The ZSL-Interface Net-Works project seems to be doing just that, with net collection rates remaining consistent or even increasing in the months after the earthquake, indicating this initiative is able to provide valuable income at a time when there are so few other options. Never has there been a better time to emphasise that we need conservation for development if we are truly going to achieve a sustainable future.
Dr. Heather Koldewey is Project Seahorse's Co-Founder and Field Conservation Manager, and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London.