Tag Archives: Chinese medicine

Seadragon Hunter

"Hunting for seadragons" retirednoway

Hunting for seadragons

Seadragons and seahorses are staples that you can buy at traditional Chinese pharmacies. It’s been a long time since I went to one, in the late-1980s, in Hong Kong.

From Palawan to Hong Kong

The pharmacy is the end of the supply chain. The start of the supply chain lies in the Philippines, at the hands of individual hunters like this man. The Philippines is one of the major sources of dried seadragons and seahorses. The name of the industry of trading in these animals (and animal parts, like shark fins), to supply Chinese pharmacies, is referred to as “Marine Products.”

I’ve blogged twice before about the trade of seadragons and seahorses. (Click to read: Seahorse X-ray and Marine Products.)

"Typical Pharma Supply Chain. Chinese herbal medicine uses materials in their original form. Seahorses, seadragons, and sharkfins arrive at the pharmacy still looking like seahorses, seadragons, and sharkfins." retirednoway

Typical Pharma Supply Chain. Chinese herbal medicine uses materials in their original form. Seahorses, seadragons, and sharkfins arrive at the pharmacy still looking like seahorses, seadragons, and sharkfins.

The seadragon hunter in this post is a Raw Material Supplier. He sells his dried catch to a Dealer-Trader (whose western-style pharma supply chain equivalent is Manufacturing, in the preceding illustration). He sells a kilo of dried seadragons for 1,500 pesos (about 36 dollars at the current exchange rate level of 42 pesos to 1 U.S. dollar).

"Seadragons are pipefishes. Pipefishes are shaped like little pipes, hence the name. Commerce in them is divided between Chinese pharmacies and the live aquarium trade." retirednoway

Seadragons are pipefishes. Pipefishes are shaped like little pipes, hence the name. Commerce in them is divided between Chinese pharmacies and the live aquarium trade.

It takes the hunter an afternoon to dry his catch. Dried seadragons are incredibly light. It takes half a sack to weigh a kilo.

"50kg Sack of Rice. A full sack of rice weighs 50 kilograms (110 pound). For comparison, a full sack of seadragons weighs 2 kilograms!" retirednoway

50kg Sack of Rice. A full sack of rice weighs 50 kilograms (110 pounds). By comparison, a full sack of seadragons weighs 2 kilograms!

The hunt

The hunter wades through a thick but not overly dense forest of seaweed.

"Seadragons and seahorses live in this submerged forest." retirednoway

Seadragons and seahorses live in this submerged forest.

I took a 20-second video of this forest. Click here to watch it in YouTube.

"Some unknown animal lives in this mound. The bottom of Puerto Princesa Bay has thousands like it. The water was one meter deep." retirednoway

Some unknown animal lives in this mound. The bottom of Puerto Princesa Bay has thousands like it. The water was one meter deep.

"Starfish were abundant enough, there was one for every several square meters." retirednoway

Starfish were abundant enough, there was one in every several square meters.

"What are these? Eggs? If you look closely, you'll notice that this particular seaweed leaf is no longer able to float upright because of the weight of the alien objects. ;-)" retirednoway

What are these? Eggs? If you look closely, you'll notice that this particular seaweed leaf is no longer able to float upright because of the weight of the alien egg objects. 😉

"This sac resembles the smaller ones but it housed a different and, obviously, larger animal." retirednoway

This sac resembles the smaller ones but it housed a different, larger animal. Also, the sac was flexible, soft even. This contrasts with the smaller egg sacs in the preceding image. The smaller egg sacs felt hard. This sac is empty. The animal that lived in it is now swimming on its own.

"Seadragons and seahorses are slow-moving fish that rely on camouflage to survive. It fooled me but not the practiced eyes of this hunter." retirednoway

Seadragons and seahorses are slow-moving fish that rely on camouflage to survive. It fooled me but not the practiced eyes of this hunter.

He would let one go to show me how slowly they swam but not once was I able to spot a seadragon (or seahorse) on my own.

"Representing two hours of work. The hunter caught his prey, seadragons, by hand." retirednoway

Representing two hours of work. The hunter caught his prey, seadragons, by hand.

The trade in seahorses and seadragons only revolves around the market for Chinese traditional medicine and the live aquarium trade.

Overview of the two markets

Traditional Chinese medicine: Seahorses are known to cure a variety of illnesses from asthma to heart disease to impotence. Seadragons, relatives of seahorses, apparently work as cures too but are not valued as much.

Seahorses as medicinal ingredients

An estimated 24.5 million or 70 tons of seahorses are sold annually for use in Chinese medicine. Most seahorses on the market are caught accidentally by shrimp trawlers who later handpick them from the net and sell them for additional income on the international market. In some countries, seahorses are targeted by lantern fishers who fish by night when seahorses are most active.

Seahorses are reputedly high in yang, the active male force, and are a respected treatment for many ailments associated with a cold kidney system. As a source of fire energy, seahorse can be used to treat many symptoms including impotence, urinary incontinence, wheezing, abdominal pain, toxic swelling and debility in the elderly.

—  Demystifying the mythical seahorse

The Philippines became a top exporter of seahorses widely used for medicinal purposes and also as curios and of course, as pets displayed in aquariums.

Annually, the Philippines sells about 4.2 million dried seahorses, or 12.3 tons, that are usually exported to Hong Kong while 1.4 million live seahorses are traded to North America and Europe, based on Project Seahorse’s 2001-2002 trade surveys.

Project Seahorse

Aquarium trade: The following description was taken from the online webpage of a U.S.-based vendor of aquarium fish.

Pipefish reach an average of eight inches. Pipefish are relatively hardy and adjust well to aquarium life if maintained in water conditions with low current and plenty of branching gorgonias, algae, or coral decorations. Because pipefish have difficulty competing for food, they are best kept in a tank containing only seahorses and other pipefish. Live foods such as vitamin-enriched brine shrimp, small ghost shrimp, or copepods and amphipods found in live rock are usually preferred.

"Webpage describing a pipefish for sale" retirednoway

Webpage describing a pipefish for sale

Live animals can only be shipped overnight. FedEx overnight shipping adds another 35 U.S. dollars to the order so someone in the States who wanted a single pipefish purchased over the internet would spend 65 U.S. dollars (2,700 pesos).

Forbidden for trade

Dried seahorses fetch 9,000 pesos per kilo (214 U.S. dollars per kilo), he told me. But he didn’t catch them as they were forbidden by law. The Department of Agriculture, through its agency, BFAR, implements the law.

"The boys that accompanied him caught the dark seahorse. He freed it after this photo was taken." retirednoway

The boys that accompanied him caught the dark seahorse. He freed it after this photo was taken.

It was encouraging to note the hunter’s compliance with the law. Here is a cautionary tale from April 2008 about the consequences (economic devastation) of overfishing in another part of the Philippines, across several central Visayan islands.

Thousands of the poorest of families in the Danajon Bank area depend on seahorse fishing to put food on the table, no matter if a single catch fetches only between P5 to P8, and that in one night, when they are easier to find, only a handful of seahorses are netted.

“You don’t get rich by catching and selling seahorses. You do it because you are becoming desperate,” observed Dr. Amanda Vincent, a biologist whose journey to the country some 15 years ago led to the establishment of an international marine conservation organization in the country that adopted seahorses as its “flagship species.”

"One of these boys was his son. The banca is floating on a meter of water. Taken near the mouth of Puerto Princesa Bay." retirednoway

One of these boys was his son. The banca is floating on a meter of water. Note the tips of individual seagrass plants breaking the surface of the water. Taken near the mouth of Puerto Princesa Bay.

Seahorses used to thrive in the Danajon Bank and back in the 1960s, fishermen could catch hundreds in one night.

Project Seahorse

From hundreds to a handful. That’s the tragedy.

"Captive seadragons were stored in this 1.5-liter plastic bottle. The bottle lay inside the Styrofoam box he was pulling along." retirednoway

Captive seadragons were stored in this 1.5-liter plastic bottle. The bottle lay inside the Styrofoam box he was pulling along.