26-27 MAY 1999
Philippine Seahorses Fall Victim to Overfishing

by CHADWIN THOMAS
HANDUMON, BOHOL


REY ABANO plies the dark, warm waters off Jandayan Island searching for seahorses, his way lit by a kerosene lantern tied to the front of his small fishing boat, and a half-moon sky deep with stars. The 24-year-old's head disappears under the water, pops up for air and disappears again.

But more often than not, Abano resurfaces empty-handed. Indeed, he counts himself already lucky if he manages to haul in 10 seahorses in a single night.

When Abano began selling the tiny creatures seven years ago, he could catch twice that amount, or even more. Older fisherfolk here in Handumon, on Jandayan Island off the northern tip of Bohol, say that as late as 1985, they used to get at least 50 seahorses per night.

Handumon is actually at the heart of the Philippines' seahorse trade, which has Bohol, Cebu, Zamboanga and Palawan as the most active players among the country's provinces. But seahorses are becoming more difficult to find around here, a trend that has meant extra hardship for a place where 40 percent of the fisherfolk among its 800 residents are in the seahorse business. It is also a telling indication of how demand for the small but elegant marine animal has escalated in recent years, leading to overfishing of seahorses here and elsewhere.

As one of the four major seahorse exporters in the world, the Philippines is at ground zero in the global decline of the seahorse population. Perhaps no place in the country reveals this more than Handumon, where the local seahorse population is being depleted so fast that the area has attracted the attention of conservationists.

Handumon's fisherfolk themselves estimate that seahorse numbers in and around this area have plunged by as much as 70 percent in the last decade. That echoes an alarming discovery by conservation biologist Amanda Vincent of the McGill University in Montreal: The seahorse population worldwide has likely plummeted 50 percent since the beginning of the 1990s.

According to Vincent, who is considered the foremost authority on international seahorse trafficking, the number one reason for the decline in seahorse numbers worldwide is the rapid growth in China's disposable income since the mid-1980s.

In a landmark 1996 study she did on the trade, Vincent noted that as incomes in China rose, so did demand for seahorses—particularly dried ones—in China, as well as in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Although dried seahorses are often made into curios, key chains and other souvenirs, most of them are used in traditional Chinese medicine for a variety of purposes that range from aphrodisiacs to asthma treatment.

At the same time, there has also been strong demand for live seahorses. Unlike in traditional Chinese medicine, where large, smooth-skinned seahorses are preferred, the live trade is mostly in smaller seahorses, which fit more easily in home aquariums. And since home aquarium enthusiasts are usually not picky about whether the seahorses are smooth- or spiny-skinned, there is a market for nearly all seahorses, large or small, smooth or spiny.

In the Philippines, scientists have found at least eight species of seahorses, which, despite their unusual appearance, are fish that belong to the Syngnathidae family, along with seadragons, pipefish and pipehorses.

Filipino fisherfolk like Abano often earn only about P6 per seahorse. But once the seahorses reach Chinese drugstores, street vendors and aquarium shops in Manila, they fetch from P35 to P80 pesos each. They are worth even more overseas, where Philippine seahorses overwhelmingly end up. The rarest and most valuable seahorses used in traditional Chinese medicine can sell for several hundred dollars per kilo.

There are 39 countries that are actively involved in the lucrative global trade in seahorses. Aside from the Philippines, India, Vietnam and Thailand are considered to be among the four top seahorse exporter-nations. Vincent estimates that the Philippines' share could exceed 5.2 million seahorses— 4.7 million dried and 500,000 live—annually. That translates to more than one-fourth of the 20 million wild seahorses that Vincent estimates are harvested and sold worldwide each year.

That there are no laws specifically protecting seahorses has undeniably helped the trade in the Philippines to continue despite the fish's dwindling population.

Biologists say concern for seahorses extends not just to these captivating creatures, but to their surroundings as well. To be sure, seahorses are not known to fill a specific link in the aquatic food chain, since they do not feed on creatures whose numbers they help control and have no known natural predator feeding on them exclusively. Nevertheless, they are seen as indicators of the general health of their marine environments because they live in the oceans' most productive marine systems: mangrove forests, sea grasses and coral reefs.

In truth, the drop in seahorse numbers is also partly due to the destruction of their environments through the pollution of coastal waters, felling of mangrove forests, dredging and draining of sea grass beds and destruction of reefs by cyanide and dynamite fishing.

Handumon, which is located on the Danajon Bank that is part of a rare and spectacular double barrier reef, has not been immune to such problems, and illegal fishing practices here have resulted in the destruction of much of the coral.

But there is no doubt that the overenthusiastic harvesting of seahorses by Handumon fisherfolk deserves the most blame for their scarcer and scarcer presence in the area, as overfishing of seahorses elsewhere in the world has resulted in the fish's dismal global numbers today.

A shellfish trader had introduced the seahorse trade to this remote barangay in 1966. Initially, the trader relied on children to catch the small amounts needed. But as demand increased, it became an adult occupation.

Not all Handumon fisherfolk are into seahorse fishing. But nearly half of the families here earn their subsistence incomes fully or partially from it, and have proved more than enough to be a serious threat to the local seahorse population. These days, they are reaping the dire consequences of their past deeds.

Rey Abano, for instance, used to live quite nicely off the seahorse trade and other fishing-related activities. His total earnings enabled him not only to feed his family, but also build the frame of a new home for himself, his wife Liza and young son Jason. With the decline of Handumon's seahorse population, however, Abano says he considers P1,000 a month from seahorse sales a windfall.

The seahorse season lasts six months from December to May, which means Abano can still earn some P6,000 a year from seahorse fishing. That, says his wife, is enough to feed and clothe the family for a year, but if they have no other income, there will be no money to finish their home or to set aside for their son's education.

Abano's seahorse catch, and that of the other Handumon villagers, usually winds up with one of the barangay's two seahorse dealers—one for live, one for dried. Rubylin Butiro, who works for Handumon's dried seahorse dealer, says just a few years ago they could collect eight to 10 kilos of dried seahorses every two weeks. Now it can take a month to accumulate half that.

But they continue collecting them all the same. With seahorses fetching P2,200 to P2,800 per kilo in Cebu, the money is still too good to pass up. One kilo of dried seahorses from the Bohol-Cebu area contains about 300 to 450 dried seahorses.

Once the seahorses reach Cebu, they are either shipped to Manila or directly to Taiwan or Hong Kong, where most dried seahorses are processed.

One live fish dealer in Cebu says he sends about 500 live seahorses to Hong Kong and Taiwan each month, packing them in plastic foam containers for the trip. He sells them for about P26 each.

Although most seahorses do survive their capture and transport, they usually do not live long in captivity because they are finicky eaters, consuming only live food such as brine shrimp and zooplankton. The offspring of those that do make it usually die shortly after birth, or are unable to reproduce. Aquarium seahorse supplies must thus continually be replenished from wild stock.

The biology of seahorses makes it easy for fisherfolk to harvest them. After a storm, it is common to see these slow-moving creatures with equine heads washed up on the beach. Although seahorses are fish, they cannot swim well. And because seahorses are stationary animals, affixing themselves to coral, mangrove or sea grass with their prehensile tails, fisherfolk have only to scoop them by hand or with little nets. Because they also have a tendency not to stray far from home, finding them is not that difficult.

Also contributing to the seahorses' decline in numbers is their being monogamous. Once the male or female from a seahorse couple is taken or dies, it is unlikely that the remaining mate will find a new partner.

Even the way seahorses reproduce makes it more vulnerable to fast depletion after they become targets of fisherfolk. Among other fish, a male fertilizes the eggs and the female lays them. In theory, either could be caught, and the young still survive.

With seahorses, though, it is the male that gets pregnant. The female deposits her eggs into a pouch located on the male's lower portion. The eggs are fertilized in the pouch and remain there until the male gives birth to live, fully formed offspring 10 days to six weeks after fertilization—the length of time depends on the species and water temperature. If fisherfolk catch the pregnant male, therefore, the young will not be born.

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