An investigation has identified Mexico as a major contributor to a global seahorse trafficking network centered around China but this trade is also affecting other Latin American nations.
The report, published in February by Mongabay and Diálogo Chino, documented that close to 100,000 seahorses were trafficked illegally between Mexico and China, most often bound for Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They were usually packaged inside personal luggage on commercial flights, but were also sometimes sent by courier and even by ship, making it harder to determine if the contents are illegal.
The investigation explained that the seahorses were usually caught inside the large nets of shrimping boats, frozen and then dried, which allows them to be easily hidden and conserved for a long time.
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While it is technically possible to legally export seahorses from Mexico with the right environmental permits, the country has frozen the granting of such permits for the time being.
In China, seahorses are in demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as they are ground down into soups which are said to help with kidney problems and to cure impotence and infertility, according to Mongabay.
And while Mexico has strict laws against the trafficking of wildlife, those caught with dried seahorses seem to be getting off leniently. One case mentioned in the report, that of Chinese citizen Zhen Daquan in 2018, saw him escape with a fine and a ban from re-entering Mexico instead of prison time.
Authorities’ lax stance on seahorse trafficking, which has only had a fraction of the coverage given to more emblematic species, appears to have allowed a thriving black market to thrive, both inside and outside Mexico. In 2018, Animal Politico reported that dried seahorses could even be purchased on Mercado Libre, a popular online retail platform.
“The seahorse trade is vast and global. “We have known for some time that Latin America is a source of seahorses and international trade,” Sarah Foster, program manager for Project Seahorse, told InSight Crime, adding that a kilogram of the animal can be sold for over $1,000 at Chinese markets.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Mongabay’s investigation broke down the Mexico-China seahorse connection, the problem is widespread in Latin America.
InSight Crime found cases of thousands of seahorses being trafficked from Brazil, Panama, Peru and Ecuador, among other countries.
Some seizures even suggest that Latin America is starting to play the role of an intermediary transit point with a much more complex trafficking system than first thought. In 2017, for example, a shipment of West African seahorse species confiscated in Vietnam was found to have first passed through Peru.
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Complicating the situation is that targeting the demand of black market seahorses will not actually save the species. Unlike other fauna commonly trafficked out of the region, seahorses are mostly caught by accident by fishermen trawling for other fish.
“Even if we manage to cut the demand side of the equation, a lot of seahorses would still be dying. So from a conservation perspective, they wouldn’t be better off,” Foster said.
Many Latin American countries, including Mexico, have stopped issuing legal permits for seahorse trade but this has actually raised demand for black market seahorses. According to Foster, countries would be better off issuing permits again, but with a ramped-up monitoring system and tighter regulations, while working with experts to develop more sustainable practices.