Published 11th February 2021
Demand for luxury food in Asia driving threats to high-value marine species in Africa
Cape Town, South Africa, 11th February 2021— A suite of TRAFFIC reports into high-value African marine products highlights yet another burgeoning, under-reported, unsustainable, and illegal trade that threatens the long-term survival of key marine species and the potential for sustainable human development.
Seahorse trade dynamics from Africa to Asia
Simone Louw, Markus Bűrgener
TRAFFIC’s policy brief A response to trade in high-value marine products between Africa and Asia summarises studies into seahorse, sea cucumber, and fish maw (dried swim bladder) trade; painting a picture of population declines, inadequate regulation, stretched law enforcement, and local communities impacted by illegal and unsustainable catch and trade.
Many coastal fishing communities across the continent, as well as those on the banks of Lake Victoria, rely on sustainably harvesting these products as a source of revenue. However the growth of illegal trade is not only impacting vulnerable communities, it is also starving source countries of potential trade revenue, and threatening the future sustainability of the international trade.
Along with shark fins and abalone, sea cucumbers and fish maws are highly-prized, luxury seafood products consumed as symbols of status or wealth. High demand, especially from east Asia, has resulted in an expanding marine product “gold rush”, with more than 80% of African coastal states now exporting fish maw to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region alone.
As the trade in fish maws, sea cucumbers, and seahorses from Africa to Asia increases in volume, we simultaneously see significant discrepancies in the reported imports and exports of products linked to these taxa.”
Simone Louw, Project Support Officer at TRAFFIC and author of the reports
“This warrants urgent investigation, as it indicates significant levels of unsustainable and illegal harvest and trade, which is having a detrimental impact on target marine populations, and the local fishing communities that rely on them.”
From a biodiversity perspective, sea cucumbers and many fish species harvested for their bladders are essential for the healthy functioning of marine ecosystems, with population reductions having a knock-on effect on food-webs.
Due to the nature of the fishing gear used, most seahorses are caught as bycatch within many fisheries. Instead of releasing them back into the ocean however, they are kept and dried for the Traditional Chinese Medicine market where they are regarded as a health tonic.
Dried seahorses are one of the most valuable marine products within Traditional Chinese Medicine markets, where specimens are claimed to treat infertility, erectile dysfunction, and arthritis, amongst other ailments.
“Seahorses are caught and traded in high volumes from African countries with little to no monitoring of the international trade, or the associated impact on local populations. Given that seahorses are flagship species and indicators of ecosystem health for some of the rarest coastal habitats, this has to change,” said Markus Burgener, Programme Co-ordinator at TRAFFIC.
TRAFFIC’s policy brief A response to trade in high-value trade in marine products between Africa and Asia reveals to customs and enforcement agencies of exporting African states of the need for closer attention on these three high-value marine products.
A combination of increased regulation and closer trade scrutiny, such as the creation of specific HS codes and investigations into reporting discrepancies between African and Asian countries/territories, is urgently needed.
“Sharks and rays garner comparatively high levels of conservation and enforcement attention, as they should, but marine species such as seahorses and sea cucumbers are no less important to protect. They play a vital role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem, which in turn provides opportunities and sustenance for the communities that rely on them,” added Simone Louw.
estimated total global number of imported dried seahorses
accounted for 99% of reported exports of seahorses
reported the highest number of exports (98%) of dried seahorses in Africa
for more information:
Melissa Matthews Global Head of Communications