Saving the seahorses

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

When I was young, India was flooded with comic books of Archie, Superman and War. The two central pages and the back advertised things for sale in America: party treats, Halloween costumes. The maximum space though was given to advertising seahorses for aquaria. For one dollar you could get six seahorses who were “magical”. Millions of seahorses lost their lives to these advertisements before people realised that the chances of sea horses surviving in a home aquarium were nil.

From then to now, sea horses continue to be poached and killed in different ways, even though all 40 species are endangered and some close to extinction. India has five – the spiny, great, yellow, hedgehog and three spot seahorse. UK has two, but they have not been seen for the last two years and may be extinct.

The seahorse is indeed magical in its uniqueness. With heads shaped liked tiny horses and varying in size from half an inch to 14 inches, seahorses mostly inhabit mainly tropical and temperate coastal waters, living in coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds and estuaries. Unlike most fish, seahorses have an exo-skeleton and no scales. They also have a neck and a snout that points down. They breathe through gills and have a swim bladder. Their long, snake-like, tail allows them to grip onto sea-grasses and corals, preventing them from being washed away by strong currents. Since they have no teeth or stomach, food passes through their digestive systems so quickly that they must eat almost constantly to stay alive. They can consume 3,000 or more brine shrimp per day. The seahorse is also the only male creature that can actually get pregnant. The female transfers her eggs to the male, which he self-fertilises in his pouch. The number of eggs can vary: from 50-150 for smaller species, to 1500 for larger species. The babies are born in 14 – 28 days in the pouch.

Will you ever see a seahorse? Probably not. They are expected to be gone in another 20 years. Eight species are severely endangered, and the cape seahorse of South Africa will disappear in the next two years due to water pollution and development. India’s hedgehog seahorse and the flat faced seahorse are also expected to be gone in five years. Habitat degradation and destruction due to coastal development, marine pollution, coral reef destruction, and land-based deforestation are to blame. Deforestation leads to increased siltation in surrounding marine waters, suffocating sea grass beds and killing coral reefs.

But none of the above is as bad as the commercial reasons that are killing them.

The first reason is the same for all wild animals across the world: the Chinese nonsensical native medicine (TCM). This takes 150 million seahorses from the wild annually for “growth” and aphrodisiacs. Seahorses have high levels of collagen, which Chinese women use as a substitute for Botox.

The curio trade takes approximately ten million seahorses from the wild. Along with shells and starfish they are sold as souvenirs and jewellery. Dried seahorses range from 600 – 3000 dollars per kilo, almost the weight of gold. For instance, in UK alone, the Seahorse Trust says that seahorses, corals, pipefish baby sharks and crocodiles, brought in from Asia, are sold in hundreds of beach shops as mementoes – even though they are banned for sale in the UK. It is illegal to kill, take or disturb seahorses in British waters, so they are imported from abroad. Most seahorses on sale in the UK, come from the Far East and some are sold here for as little as a few pounds. The import and export of seahorses has been controlled under CITES, an international treaty that protects trading in wildlife, since 2004, but countries like Indonesia, Japan, Norway and South Korea chose to opt out of the trade rules set by CITES. Sites like ebay are selling seahorses openly – and illegally.

The aquarium trade takes an estimated ten million seahorses from the wild. Less than .01 % survive more than two weeks. The aquarium trade is exclusively driven by North America (thanks to generations growing up on Archie comics). In Maharashtra, seahorses are sold openly in unlicensed aquarium shops.

The second big reason seahorses are dying out is because of the trawlers. They are a by-catch in the shrimp trawl and other fisheries off of Florida, Mexico, Central America, and South America.

In India, millions are being killed daily in Tamil Nadu alone. Tamil fishermen drop heavy nets from their trawlers that go deep into the ocean. Every living creature in the area is caught. The fishermen choose what they want to sell and all the rest – the tiny fish, seahorses and sea cucumbers (both protected by  law) – are mashed and sold to the poultry industry to be fed to chickens, to the aquarium industry as pet food, or to be made into oils. They are sold for next to nothing (Rs 2- Rs 4 per kg). This kind of bottom trawling is wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait by destroying the habitat as well. So we are destroying our waters, marine resources and all our species to feed chickens? Does this make sense?

The State Fisheries Department has no records of the trawlers, or what they catch. They have no record, or knowledge, about which species are caught, or even what species actually exist in the waters of Tamil Nadu.  This became obvious when researchers from the University of Columbia, Canada did an investigation.

No checks have ever been made on what the trawlers bring in, even though nothing is hidden. In Tuticorin and Rameshwaram, for instance, the researchers said that mounds of marine life, brought in by different vessels, is strewn all over the beaches.

Project Seahorse did an undercover investigation in India and found not just the illegal sale of the fishing “by-catch”, but that India is also illegally exporting seahorses by mislabelling them. Till 2000, the Marine Products Export Development Authority MPEDA was exporting 4 million seahorses a year. Then it became illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act. But the export is still going on from Chennai.  The forest officials take no interest in marine wildlife and know nothing about wild sea species, even though the Act comes under them. Not a single raid has ever been conducted on illegal exporters of seahorses, even though they are well known.

Seahorses are an important part of the marine world, and saving them is an imperative. They serve as flagship species for a wide range of marine conservation issues. Are we going to sit back and let seahorses become the dinosaurs of our generation?

You can make a difference by

  1. Refusing to buy seahorse souvenirs and wild caught seahorses for aquarium. You should also report to me all shops that are selling these.
  2. Promote reforestation along coastlines.
  3. One of the more effective ways is to make those areas into wildlife reserves and allow the ecosystem to return to its natural state.
  4. You need to help bring public pressure on the government. Current fishing practices and laws have to be changed. MPEDA and the Forest Departments must start patrolling.
  5. Sea horse cultivation should be started. Captive breeding projects are being done abroad, why not in India?
Categories: Panorama
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