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.”
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).
It takes the hunter an afternoon to dry his catch. Dried seadragons are incredibly light. It takes half a sack to weigh a kilo.
The hunter wades through a thick but not overly dense forest of seaweed.
I took a 20-second video of this forest. Click here to watch it in YouTube.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Seahorses used to thrive in the Danajon Bank and back in the 1960s, fishermen could catch hundreds in one night.
From hundreds to a handful. That’s the tragedy.