Species for Sale: Seahorses (2024)

by Thomas Gomersall

Seahorses (Genus: Hippocampus) are elongated fish found in temperate and tropical seas worldwide, particularly in mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds and estuaries. They are planktivores that require large volumes of live micro-organisms to survive. They have a unique mode of reproduction in which the male gets pregnant and broods a relatively small number of eggs inside a special pouch on his abdomen. After hatching, the young will not travel far from their parents, either settling within their territory or only a short distance away from it. This makes it hard for them to find mates and as such, seahorse populations tend to be small and sparsely distributed (Sadovy & Cornish, 2000, p. 53–p.54; Project Seahorse, 2020; Ng, 2011).

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Species for Sale: Seahorses (3)

Seahorses are primarily traded whole and dried as an ingredient for traditional Chinese medicine, although a few are also sold live for the aquarium trade. Often, they are laundered with other dried seafoods, hidden in personal luggage or traded along hard to detect routes, making it difficult to prevent their entry into countries (Dasgupta, 2019).

In 2004, seahorses were listed under Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that they cannot be legally traded without export permits proving that they are sustainably harvested. However, the sale of illegally harvested ones still persists (ADMCF, 2018).

Hong Kong is the world’s biggest buyer of dried seahorses, which can fetch up to HK$2,000 per kilogramme here. Between 2004 and 2011, the city imported three to five million of the 3.3 to 7.6 million seahorses that were traded during that time, as well as at least 979 kilogrammes of them between 2013 and 2017. Because of these large volumes, it is easy for smugglers to launder illegally harvested seahorses with legally harvested ones (Dasgupta, 2019; ADMCF, 2018).


Species for Sale: Seahorses (4)

Each year, an estimated 37 million seahorses are harvested across the tropics (Lawson et al, 2017), often using indiscriminate fishing methods like bottom trawling, which catch and kill many other marine species as bycatch and destroy seabed habitats (Dasgupta, 2019).

Species for Sale: Seahorses (5)

Even if seahorses or other animals are thrown back, the stress of being caught is usually enough to kill them. Those that aren’t already dead when collected are then hung to die slowly in the sun during drying (WWF-Hong Kong, 2018). Intense harvesting combined with their naturally small populations mean that many seahorse species are in decline, with 46 being listed on the IUCN Red List and 14 of those being classified as ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Endangered’ (Project Seahorse, 2020).

Supplying the trade using captive seahorses has historically been unfeasible as their specialised dietary requirements make them very difficult to breed in captivity. Attempts to rear enough of them to meet commercial demands have largely not been successful (although more recent attempts have shown some promise (Arumugam et al, 2017)), making harvesting wild populations the only economically sensible option for traders (Sadovy & Cornish, 2000, p. 54; Koldewey & Martin-Smith, 2010).

Species for Sale: Seahorses (6)

Additionally, many of the preferred habitats of seahorses, like seagrass beds, are important carbon sinks and habitats for commercially important fish (Gullström et al, 2017; Gillanders, 2006). So through the destruction of these habitats from bottom trawling, the seahorse trade also threatens local fisheries and helps to worsen the climate crisis (ADMCF, 2018).

How can Hong Kong help?

Species for Sale: Seahorses (7)

While the volume of documented seahorse imports into Hong Kong has decreased since the CITES listing (Kuo & Vincent, 2018), a 2019 study found that 95 per cent of seahorse imports here came from countries that had imposed export bans (Foster, et al, 2019). Given Hong Kong’s high seahorse consumption rate, this means that the city is still a major contributor to the illegal international trade and decline of wild populations.

The most effective way for Hong Kong to tackle this is to reform its current wildlife trade laws. At present, wildlife trade and CITES rules in Hong Kong are regulated under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Cap 586), which gives the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) the responsibility to investigate wildlife crimes. However, Cap 586 does not grant the AFCD the investigative capacity, tools (e.g. forensic analysis) or mandate to catch the powerful crime bosses and kingpins behind illegal wildlife smuggling networks, including those for seahorses. It also does not grant the capacity to investigate wildlife crimes that go beyond Hong Kong’s borders (Chan, 2020).

To address these flaws, wildlife crimes should be included under Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance (Cap 455). Doing so would allow them to be treated with a greater level of seriousness and grant investigators more power to target and prosecute crime bosses, freeze their bank accounts and to dismantle and disempower wildlife smuggling syndicates. Such a move would benefit not only seahorses, but also many other species currently affected by Hong Kong’s wildlife trade (Kao, 2018).


· ADMCF. 2018. ‘Trading in Extinction: The Dark Side of Hong Kong’s Wildlife Trade’. Hong Kong.

· Arumgam, M., Rayadurga, S., Sanaye, S.V. and H.B. Pawar. 2017. Captive breeding and rearing of the yellow seahorse, Hippocampus kuda (Bleeker, 1852) in support of the marine ornamental fish industry and conservation. Indian Journal of Geo-Marine Sciences, vol. 46(10): 1996pp.–2000pp.

· Chan, J. interviewed by Thomas Gomersall, 2020, WWF-Hong Kong.

· Dasgupta, S. ‘Seahorse trade continues despite export bans, study finds.’ Mongabay, 8 March 2019. https://news.mongabay.com/2019/03/seahorse-trade-continues-despite-export-bans-study-finds/ (Accessed: 8 April 2020).

· Foster, S.J., Kuo, T.C., Kar Yan Wan, A. and A.C.J., Vincent. 2019. Global seahorse trade defies export bans under CITES action and national legislation. Marine Policy, vol. 103: 33pp.–41pp.

· Gillanders, B.M. 2006. Seagrasses, Fish and Fisheries. In A. W. Larkum, R. J. Orth, C. M. Duarte, (eds). Seagrasses: Biology, Ecology and Conservation. Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: 503pp.–536pp.

· Gullström, M., Lymio, L.D., Dahl, M., Samuelsson, G.S., Eggertsen, M., Anderberg, E., Rasmusson, L.M., Linderholm, H.W., Knudby, A., Bandeira, S., Mtwana Nordlund, L. and M. Björk. 2017. Blue carbon storage in tropical seagrass meadows relates to carbonate stock dynamics, plant-sediment processes, and landscape context: Insights from the Western Indian Ocean. Ecosystems, vol. 21: 551pp.–566pp.

· Kao, E. ‘Hong Kong green groups call for endangered species smuggling to be dealt with using organised crime laws.’ South China Morning Post, 19 August 2018. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2160319/hong-kong-green-groups-call-endangered-species (Accessed: 3 August 2020).

· Koldewey, H.J. and Martin-Smith, K.M. 2010. A global review of seahorse aquaculture. Aquaculture, vol. 302(3–4): 131pp.–152pp.

· Kuo, T.C. and Vincent, A. 2018. Assessing the changes in international trade of marine fishes under CITES regulations — A case study of seahorses. Marine Policy, vol. 88: 48pp –57pp.

· Lawson, J.M., Foster, S.J. and A. Vincent. 2017. Low bycatch rates add up to big numbers for a genus of small fishes. Fisheries, vol. 42(1): 19pp.–33pp.

· Ng, T. 2011. The impact of seafood consumption on endangered marine species on Hong Kong. International Journal of Environmental Sciences, vol. 1(7): 2048pp.–2085pp.

· Project Seahorse, Areas of Focus–Saving Seahorses, [website], 2020, http://www.projectseahorse.org/seahorses (Accessed: 3 August 2020).

· Sadovy, Y., Cornish, A.S. 2000. Reef Fishes of Hong Kong. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong. 53pp.–54pp.

· WWF Hong Kong, Little seahorse critters belong in the ocean, [website], 2018, https://www.wwf.org.hk/en/whatwedo/oceans/seafoodupdates.cfm?21422/Feature-Story-Little-Seahorse-Critters-Belong-in-the-Ocean (Accessed: 15 April 2020).

Species for Sale: Seahorses (2024)


Can you still buy seahorses? ›

Ocean Rider, Inc. is a family business that incorporated in 1998. We now captively breed dozens of seahorse species which are now on display in our aquarium room and which we sell to hobbyists and aquariums throughout the United States and beyond.

How many species do seahorses have? ›

Currently, we recognize 46 species of seahorse. Browse the list to learn more about these fabulous fish.

Are there 47 species of seahorses? ›

Seahorse: any of the species of small marine fish in the genus Hippocampus. There are at least 47 different species of seahorses.

How many seahorses can you have in a 40 gallon tank? ›

Assuming that your aquarium will be a dedicated seahorse tank and not a community tank, and that you'll be keeping captive-bred seahorses such as Mustangs or Sunbursts of average size, Lelia, the suggested stocking density for Hippocampus erectus under those circ*mstances is about one pair per 10 gallons of water ...

Are seahorses hard to own? ›

Hardy captive bred seahorses that are trained to eat frozen foods, on the other hand, are very much at home in the aquarium and are relatively easy to care for. More home hobbyists are able to breed and raise cultured seahorses such as Mustangs successfully than any other type of marine fishes.

How much does it cost to own seahorses? ›

You will have to visit a good local fish store to see what the actual costs would be for a tank and accessories that meet those specifications, but you should count on spending around $300-$500 for your initial investment.

Will seahorses go extinct? ›

The 300 or so species often have limited ranges in coastal regions and freshwater lakes and rivers around the world, and many require specialized habitats, making them susceptible to disturbance. As a result, researchers found, at least 6% of these species and up to 38% are threatened and at some risk of extinction.

Do seahorses have 2 genders? ›

Seahorses are not one of those animals who change their sex. The female lays the eggs and the male carries the fertilized eggs on his back. They remain male and female.

What is the rarest type of seahorse? ›

The rarest.

The Knysna seahorse is the worlds most elusive and endangered seahorse. This species is only found across three fragmented, local estuaries on the south coast of South Africa. Threatened with extinction and is now totally protected by law.

Do pink seahorses exist? ›

Walea soft coral pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus waleananus) lives on and around soft coral. The soft coral have fat stems and this seahorse has a correspondingly long tail. They vary from pale pink to yellow.

Is finding a seahorse rare? ›

The calm, unassuming life of a seahorse takes place beneath the waves, hidden from sight. We rarely come into contact with a Seahorse in their natural environment, making them rare to see.

What are purple seahorses called? ›

bargibanti. Here is the pygmy bargibanti seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti, also named seahorse pygmy gorgonians). It most often has small bumps of pink-purple or yellow-orange color. A purple bargibanti hippocampus poses on its gorgonian branch. ( Triton Bay, West Papua, Indonesia, March 2016)

Can you mix seahorse species? ›

It is NOT Recommended to Mix Seahorse Species

Seahorses from different areas of the world carry different micro fauna (bacteria, ect). Seahorses can have immunity to these and when introduced to another species which has not been previously exposed and with no immunity it can cause stress on the immune system.

How many seahorses can fit in a 10 gallon tank? ›

The suggested stocking density for dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae) is two pairs per 1 gallon (4 L) of water, so theoretically a well-filtered 10-gallon aquarium is spacious enough to house up to 20 pairs or 40 individual adults.

Can seahorses live with clownfish? ›

Young clownfish can be suitable tank mates, but once they reach maturity, their aggressive behavior poses a serious threat to seahorses. Always have a backup plan when you're adding fish to a seahorse aquarium.

Can you own a seahorse in the US? ›

While their unique characteristics make them seem like fantasy creatures, seahorses are not a figment of our imagination and can be kept as pets. However, despite their notability, these guys can be hard to find in pet stores and are what we consider advanced-moderate pets to own.

How long do pet seahorses live? ›

Known lifespans for seahorse species range from about one year in the smallest species to an average of three to five years for the larger species. What and how do they eat? Seahorses have no stomach or teeth.

Why are seahorses in decline? ›

Like most other species, both terrestrial and marine, seahorses, pipefishes, sticklebacks, and their relatives face many threats, including habitat loss, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and direct exploitation in the form of overfishing and bycatch.

Why are seahorses hard to find? ›

Why are seahorses difficult to discover? For starters, they are some of the tiniest adult fish around. The average length of an adult seahorse is just 3.9 inches. The Satomi's pygmy seahorse, which lives near Indonesia and Malaysia, is the smallest seahorse in the world at only half an inch long.

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