Incidental Catch – What I Found In My Search For The Elusive Seahorse
After travelling and interacting with fishing communities along coastal India for six months, Tanvi Vaidyanathan is concerned for the future of the elusive seahorse.
Photo: Dheeraj M. Nanda.
A group of bewildered fishers in Odisha gathered around my field assistant, as he described a seahorse. Before he or I could get a word in, a passerby joined the group and excitedly said, “It looks exactly like a horse on land, and runs on the bottom of the ocean.” It took me a couple of minutes to understand what he was saying in Odiya, but by then the damage was done. Before I could explain to the fishers that seahorses do not run on the ocean floor, the conversation had overstayed its welcome. This incident, while funny, highlights why my work of determining the status of seahorses in India is important.
Over the last year, I travelled across nine coastal states and two union territories along mainland India to obtain a better picture of the prevalent seahorse trade. As I learnt very quickly, trying to understand the status of seahorses was not an easy task. Whether it was dealing with field assistants who have never seen a seahorse, or fishermen reluctant to talk to women, there were many hurdles to cross. Despite this, I managed a fairly successful field season.
Photo: Deepak Prashanth.
Marine Monogamy and More
Seahorses are flagship species that help researchers explain the need for marine conservation. They face threats to their survival from over-exploitation, by-catch and habitat degradation, all of which are major concerns for other marine species as well. Since seahorses feed on bottom-dwelling organisms, they play an important role in maintaining the ecosystem of their habitat, which include sea grasses, mangroves, coral reefs and estuaries. However, seahorses are more vulnerable than many other fishes because many seahorse species are strictly monogamous, making it difficult to find a partner if one of the mates dies. Depending on the species, an adult seahorse will produce anywhere between 5 and 2,000 offspring in their lifetime, which is also much lower than other fishes. Since they give birth to live offspring, the young depend on the survival of the parent for a much longer period of time. Unfortunately, every year, millions of seahorses are traded, to be used as ingredients in traditional medicine, displayed in aquariums, or sold as curios.
Seven species of seahorses have been identified in Indian waters, and of these, five are listed as Vulnerable under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Estimates on declared trade suggest that on an average, from 2004-2011, about 7.6 million individual seahorses were being traded annually around the globe. Seahorses are traded mostly in the dried form for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and live seahorses are traded for aquariums. However, estimates show that each year at least 40 million seahorses are caught, suggesting that the trade maybe of a much greater magnitude than the declared volume.
Photo: Sarah Foster/Project Seahorse.
Based on trade data from 1998-2000, India was listed among the top four exporters of seahorses in the world! In 2001, seahorses were included under Schedule I of India’s Wildlife Protection Act (1972), which prohibits their catch and trade. Subsequently, in 2002, seahorses were the first marine fishes to be included under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) since its inception. CITES, the biggest and oldest wildlife trade convention, calls for sustainable trade of these species without endangering their wild populations. Unfortunately, very little information is available about the current seahorse fisheries and trade in India.
In India, a bulk of the seahorse trade used to take place in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar. Across the coastline, seahorse habitats face severe stress from unregulated fishing and fishing for prawns using nets that indiscriminately sweep across the ocean floor catching several juveniles, inedible fish and destroying the seafloor habitat. There is, however, very little data available on the distribution and the abundance of seahorses in the country. To help improve knowledge on where seahorses were found, and to try and understand the fate of species that were caught by accident during fishing expeditions, I set out on my field season in July 2015.
Photo: Xiong Zhang/Project Seahorse.
Research Along the Coast
Armed with scientific knowledge, a moderate understanding of public transport in India, and the ability to speak two languages (Tamil, and a smattering of Hindi), I started my journey in southern Tamil Nadu. Six months of travelling across the coastline was a massive lesson on the intricacies of field research.
While fishers across the country have a variety of different issues, there are some that are common. Overfishing has resulted in a decline in fish populations, and fishers now sell even what was previously considered ‘trash’. In many places, fishers complained about there being fewer fish in the oceans. In these places, overfishing, the use of destructive fishing gear, pollution from industries, climate change, or a combination of these factors, were evident. I figured out early on that unless I took matters into my own hands, I would be struggling to conduct interviews. My first inkling of this was in a village in the Palk Bay region; I asked my first respondent her name, and before I could proceed to ask her any questions, she decided I needed to write down the names and ages of all the women in the village. When I look back at my field notes, I have pages filled with the names and ages of over 50 women! In the Palk Bay region, which is in close proximity to Sri Lanka, overfishing in Indian waters has resulted in fishers moving further out into the waters, crossing international boundaries. This has led to numerous tussles with enforcement officials in India and Sri Lanka. The arrest and detainment of these fishers by the Sri Lankan navy has been in the news for the past couple of years, and many have begun to see it as a way of life. “Our life is like a soap opera, but we need to fend for our families and unless we are shot at or our boats confiscated, we will continue to go,” said Gopu, one of the fishermen.
Photo: Clayton Manning/Project Seahorse.
Along with the fishers, the fate of incidentally-caught species like seahorses hangs in the balance. With thousands of fishers being unable to support their families, the general consensus is that all income is precious. Explaining to these fishers that male seahorses give birth to live young ones, too, met with incredulity. Few of them had heard of men getting pregnant, and explaining to them that they should let go of pregnant males was a difficult task. Eventually, I hope I got through to at least a handful of people. “There is no place for sentiment in our life and if we catch it we cannot release it, money is money,” as explained to me by one fisherman in Tamil Nadu.
When it came to seahorses, fishers in a large part of the country had never caught one in their lives. Outside of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, I found that very few fishers had ever seen a seahorse, and in many places, they had never even heard of seahorses. Despite this, most people were excited to talk to researchers. I was regaled with anecdotes of their fishing expeditions. One group of villagers explained to me how they appreciated the kind of fishing going on in Canada and the U.S. that they had seen on National Geographic, and there were others who advised me on how a woman shouldn’t travel alone in India. Despite a few hostile people, most villagers were warm and welcoming.
During my travels, I met hundreds of people from different walks of life, including a 10-year-old who accompanied me to the field and wanted to experience the thrill of scientific research before he made a career choice of becoming a doctor or an engineer. While I set out trying to educate people on the need for seahorse conservation, I now feel that I am the one who was being schooled.
To know more about our work, visit: www.projectseahorse.org
Author: Tanvi Vaidyanathan, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 2, February 2017.