Hugo Swire MP: With millions killed and traded every year, the future of seahorses is under threat
Traditional medicine, curio and aquarium trades are threatening the future of seahorses, writes Sir Hugo Swire MP.
Taking some time to reflect on something other than regulatory borders, backstops, and barriers to trade may provide Parliament with some welcome relief this week. I would not diminish this moment of acute constitutional importance for our nation. But it is a Parliamentary quirk that time each sitting day is given to backbenchers to bring issues to the government’s attention.
Seahorses are a unique marine creature. Swimming upright in a manner unlike other fish, they change colour like chameleons, with an eponymous head and neck featuring segmented bony armour. The British coastline is home to two species: the Spiny Seahorse, occasionally known as the Long Snouted Seahorse – which Hansard will have to confirm is the Hippocampus guttulatus – and the Short Snouted Seahorse, Hippocampus. They are not as widespread across our Isles as many may assume, predominantly found in an arc from the Shetland Isles down the west coast to the south coast of England. Sightings on the east coast, North Sea and across the Channel in our dear ally and neighbour France are far more sporadic.
Tragically, the traditional medicine, curio and aquarium trades are threatening the future of seahorses. We know that 25 to 65 million seahorses per year are taken from seas and oceans across the world. However, these are official figures based on what might be termed the official trade. Environmental groups estimate in excess of 150 million per year are killed, based on counts during undercover operations.
All species of seahorse are protected under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species, abbreviated as CITES, though the illegal trade overshadows the legal trade by a greater margin.
We must be asking how we can take international leadership in protecting them, rather than wagging the finger at other countries.
The debate is not about our existing regulatory framework. It is about enforcement. There is no case where a CITES permit is not required for export, import, re-export or re-import of any seahorse, alive or dead, in part or as a whole. As such, all seahorses require a CITES permit and authorisation by a scientific management authority.
I believe we must tackle the ease with which one can purchase seahorses illegally online.
The whole struggle is that online platforms – including social media companies – are not insisting that CITES evidence is uploaded with the product listing.
Online platforms police themselves across their sales, as one would expect. When seahorse products are reported to them, they generally remove the listings. However, some major online platforms are not responding to customer reports of illegal sales. To have one central place that we can report illegal sales would be much more efficient in bringing about prosecutions of repeat offenders. This could be a portal that would also provide authorities a central pool of data to monitor trends across websites and areas of the United Kingdom. The government should evaluate the effectiveness of existing statutory regulations in allowing the fining and prosecuting of online platforms illegally trading seahorses.
I was delighted to recently meet with the excellent environmental charity The Seahorse Trust, based in the town of Topsham in my constituency. They are a small organisation punching well above their weight in getting the plight of the seahorse noticed by regulators, online marketplaces and the general public.
Now is the time to show leadership on the illegal trade in seahorses by targeting how they are traded. We cannot keep chipping away at our ecological wall and expect to get away with it.