Police in Peru have seized a staggering number — 16,280 — of dried seahorses that were to be exported illegally to Asia. Three cases containing 60 pounds of the dead creatures were left behind after a police operation near the Lima airport.
Northern Peru’s warmer waters are a prime breeding ground for the marine animals, which are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Police chief Victor Fernandez said the seahorses could have been sold for up to $250,000 aboard, telling the BBC that, across the world last year, 20 tons of dried seahorses were seized. Last year, Peruvian authorities seized two tons of dried seahorses.
In Peru, seahorse fishing has been illegal since 2004; those caught can receive sentences of up to two to four years in prison, says AFP (via Raw Story).
Seahorses in Traditional Chinese Medicine
“They are sent to Asian countries and used as aphrodisiacs. In China this product is also used to cure asthma,” Fernandez said. Seahorse powder sells for about $6,000 a kilogram. Seahorses are also sought after in Japan and South Korea for their alleged curative powers.
Some of my older relatives, who had all emigrated from rural southern China at the start of the 20th century, used traditional Chinese medicine treatments (though I think it’s fair to say my relatives simply considered them “medicine”). We occasionally went to stores selling Chinese herbs and other treatments and I recall seeing jars with tiny curled-up forms that I saw, on closer inspection, must be (dead and dried) seahorses.
A 2007 Encyclopedia Britannica article about endangered animals and tradition Chinese medicine (TCM) notes that nearly 80 percent of the world’s population relies on medicines made from plants and animals, according to the World Health Organization. In TCM, some 1,000 plant and 36 animal species are used, including the black bear, musk deer, sea horse, tiger and rhinoceros, the last two being endangered animals.
Seahorses have been used in TCM for centuries to treat kidney ailments, circulatory problems and impotence and demand has been rising:
Thirty-two countries and regions are involved in harvesting some 20,000,000 seahorses each year; yet production already is failing to meet a worldwide demand that had reached 500 tons annually by the beginning of the 21st century. China’s demand alone was 200 – 250 tons per year, 95 percent of which had to be imported. The rising demand, according to the World Nature Foundation, had resulted, already in 1996, in the reduction of populations of the known 35 varieties of seahorses by more than half.
It it not yet known if seahorses are endangered. Efforts to farm the animals have not been successful in the past so fishing wild seahorses continues.
Towards a Sustainable Global Trade in Seahorses
An organization called Project Seahorse seeks to protect seahorses from being illegally fished and also to preserve their habitats. They are not only illegally caught but stripped from the sea by the nets of shrimp trawlers and pollution, dredging, mining and other human activities are damaging their inshore coastal habitats.
Noting that the global trade in seahorses threatens their survival, Project Seahorse is seeking to make trade sustainable. Seahorse fishing by subsistence farmers in some nations is “generally a legitimate practice” but “such extraction must be kept at sustainable levels.” Project Seahorse is actually working with TCM traders and practitioners in Hong Kong and mainland China and “supporting their work to make trade sustainable and promoting greater conservation awareness in TCM consumers.”
Seahorses are important predators in marine ecosystems and need to be protected the ensure the future health of our oceans and all the incredible varieties of animals who call it their home.
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Photo by Fovea Centralis