Filmed off the coast of Senegal, the video shows a vibrantly coloured West African seahorse (Hippocampus algiricus) bobbing in the water, then being caught by fishermen and released, unharmed.
The footage is part of a joint investigation between ZSL’s Project Seahorse, Imperial College London, and the University of British Columbia (UBC) into West Africa’s burgeoning seahorse trade. Researcher Kate West was travelling on a local fishing boat off the Atlantic coast when she spotted and filmed seahorses in the wild, and spoke to local fishers about their interaction with the fascinating species.
“It’s shocking that so little is known about the West African seahorse when the amount of trade officially documented is in excess of a tonne,” Kate says. “This seahorse is one of two native species caught locally for export around the world.”
Poor visibility and general diving conditions off the coast of West Africa make field study more difficult than in other areas where seahorses are found, so no research has been done on this species, and nothing is known about its habitat, life cycle, or population status,” Kate added. “That is why this study, the first of its kind, is so important for future efforts in marine conservation.”
Project Seahorse research to date indicates that the number of West African seahorses in trade has risen dramatically over the past few years, to exports of about 600,000 seahorses annually. They are used primarily in traditional Chinese medicine.
“In recent years, the West African seahorse has become highly sought, along with many other seahorse species. Our fieldwork — the first ever study of this species — is revealing the fishing and trade pressures they face, and how populations can be sustained,” says Dr. Amanda Vincent, Director of Project Seahorse and Associate Professor at UBC.
A leading expert on seahorses, Vincent first uncovered the thriving global seahorse trade in the mid-1990s and co-founded Project Seahorse in response. The team’s efforts resulted in the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) adopting international trade controls for seahorses in 2002.
“Importantly, our findings will be shared with the Senegalese and other governments so they can meet their CITES obligations to ensure that the seahorse trade is sustainable,” adds Chris Ransom, West and North Africa Programme Manager at ZSL. “Together we will help seahorse populations thrive.”
The team are hoping to publish the results in the new year.