Seahorse numbers are declining and being used as a natural Viagra in Chinese medicine

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Hong Kong (CNN) – On the western side of Hong Kong Island, in a row of shops in Sheung Wan, seahorses of all sizes and colors are stored in plastic boxes and glass jars.

This district in Hong Kong is the center of trade for traditional Chinese medicine, an ancient system that uses dried plants and animal parts to treat ailments. One of these medicinal products being sea horses. Hong Kong is the world’s largest trading hub for dried animal.

Seahorses are believed to have Viagra-like powers in Chinese medicine. Sarah Foster, program manager of Project Seahorse at the University of British Columbia in Canada, said that analysis of global trade data shows that Hong Kong was responsible for around two-thirds of all seahorse imports from 2004 to 2017. Seahorse popularity as a medicine is also driving sales in China, Taiwan and Indonesia, as reported by the World Wildlife Fund. 

While nobody knows how many seahorse are left in the world, experts say they are under threat.

Seahorses are hard animals to study which is why it is so important to conserve this species so that scientists can better understand them. Spread across vast oceans, some seahorses are less than an inch long and some can change color to camouflage themselves, which can make them difficult to spot and study. 

According to Foster, about 37 million seahorses are caught in the wild every year. Despite regulations designed to protect them, smuggling remains a problem. 

Populations of at least 11 species of seahorse have dropped by between 30 – 50% over the past 15 years, according to Project Seahorse.

Lixing Lao, director of the School of Chinese Medicine at the University of Hong Kong says that “according to Chinese medicine theory, seahorse is nourishing … and gives the body more energy.” Mixed with herbs and boiled as a tea, dried seahorses are most commonly used to treat asthma and male sexual dysfunction, including impotence and premature ejaculation, he said.

Lao said there is no scientific evidence that seahorses could relieve asthma or boost sexual performance, adding that there had not been any clinical trials carried out on humans in this area.

Seahorses retail in Sheung Wan for up to 40 Hong Kong dollars ($5) each.

In 2002, all species of seahorse were listed under Appendix II of CITES, an international treaty designed to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. With this listing, seahorses can be exported only if they have been sourced sustainably and legally, and there is paperwork to prove it.

Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, went a step further and put blanket bans on seahorse exports. However, these efforts have not saved seahorses, said Foster. Instead, the bans have created a black market.

In Sheung Wan, the Chinese medicine shops are not breaking the law in selling seahorses. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said that CITES measures for seahorses are designed to control import and export, but Hong Kong law does not ban trade within the territory.

The AFCD has been trying to stop the illegal imports. In 2018, Hong Kong authorities seized 45 shipments of incoming dried seahorses weighing a total of 470 kilograms — approximately 175,000 seahorses. 

The only way to save seahorses is to better manage fisheries by reducing the size of fishing fleets, closing large areas of ocean to trawlers, and making greater efforts to keep trawlers out of existing exclusion zones, Foster said. She would also like to see trade bans properly enforced with more rigorous checking of dried seafood shipments.

“Without greater political will, it won’t be possible to stamp out the problem,” she said, adding that she fears that seahorses will be wiped out in some parts of the world.

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