Vanishing sea horses worth their weight in silver

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The Independent Online
Sea horses, the strangest of fish, are being over-exploited by man and may soon join the long list of species in danger of extinction. They are already worth their weight in silver, as their numbers continue to dwindle.

The growing demand for sea horses in traditional Chinese medicine is the main reason for their misfortunes, according to a report by Oxford University zoologist Amanda Vincent.

A report for Traffic, part of the World Wide Fund for Nature which investigates the trade in endangered wildlife, says that the fish, ground up and eaten in their millions, are thought to relieve asthma, impotence, pain and general lethargy.

Their desiccated bodies are also sold in huge numbers as tourist curios. And yet another threat is the trade in live sea horses for aquarium-keepers,though the fish seldom breed in captivity and usually die after a month or two.

The sea horses' unique appearance goes a long way to explaining man's growing appetite for a small, spiky, armour-plated creature; that, and the fact that it is slow moving.

Sea horses pair off for life and it is the male who becomes "pregnant", storing the female's eggs in his swollen brood-pouch while the embryos develop. At birth, hundreds of miniature sea horses burst out of the pouch.

The dried bodies of the fish have been used in oriental medicine for centuries. But as China and its neighbouring countries undergo economic growth, the sea horses are fished more heavily; they are now on sale in Chinatown pharmacies in London and throughout the West.

Clients used to choose individual sea horses which the pharmacist ground up with other products to produce an individually-tailored medicine, but recently there has been a switch to ready-made medicines, with sea-horse flesh already incorporated. This means that any of the 35 species of seahorse are now fair game for medicinal use, whereas it used to be only larger specimens.

In a three-year study which involved more than 400 interviews and visits around the world, Dr Vincent found the classic signs of over-exploitation of a species. Sellers say the demand is almost limitless, the price is soaring, catches are falling, and the fish on sale are becoming smaller.

Dr Vincent suggests that one of the best hopes for the future of the sea horse is to help the fishermen, who depend on catching the sea horse for their livelihood, to learn how to farm them.

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