Vancouver -- A monogamous lifestyle and male pregnancy aren't the only things that distinguish seahorses from other marine life. Starting May 15, international trade rules kick in for seahorses -- making them one of the first commercially valuable marine species to be protected by the world's largest wildlife treaty.
A number of the world's species of seahorses are threatened because of overfishing and unsustainable trade, which has led to all 33 species being added to the wildlife covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
At least 77 countries are involved in the seahorse trade, so regulations on the international level are needed to ensure their protection. An estimated 24 million seahorses are taken from the wild every year, dried and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine, to treat everything from asthma to sexual dysfunction. Hundreds of thousands more are sold live for the aquarium trade.
The CITES listing means more than 160 countries must now ensure that commercial trade of seahorses is not detrimental to wild populations.
"TRAFFIC has produced an ID manual to help ensure the seahorse regulations are successful in conserving these remarkable species," said Ernie Cooper of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of World Wildlife Fund and IUCN -- The World Conservation Union. "It will be distributed to Customs agents and law enforcement officials in 165 countries to help them enforce the new rules through proper identification of the different species."
The biology of seahorses may make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Because most species of seahorses are monogamous, for example, widowed animals dont reproduce until they find a new partner, and lost partners are not quickly replaced. Male pregnancy means that young depend on parental survival for far longer than in most fish. And small home ranges in many species may restrict recolonization of depleted areas.
Seahorses are traded internationally for use in aquariums, as curios and souvenirs, and in traditional Asian medicine. Trade in recent years appears to be increasing, with demand particularly high in China for use in traditional medicine. Survival rates for seahorses in captivity are low, meaning almost all seahorses in aquariums are wild-caught.
The CITES regulations for seahorses were approved in November 2002 but delayed for 18 months -- until May 2004 -- to allow countries time to put in place policies to enforce them.