The United States dried seahorse trade: A comparison of traditional Chinese medicine and ecommerce-curio markets using molecular identification Article

Boehm, JT, Bovee, E, Harris, SE et al. (2023). The United States dried seahorse trade: A comparison of traditional Chinese medicine and ecommerce-curio markets using molecular identification . 18(10 October), 10.1371/journal.pone.0291874

cited authors

  • Boehm, JT; Bovee, E; Harris, SE; Eddins, K; Akahoho, I; Foster, M; Pell, SK; Hickerson, MJ; Amato, G; DeSalle, R; Waldman, J



  • Tens of millions of dried seahorses (genus Hippocampus) are traded annually, and the pressure from this trade along with their life history traits (involved parental care and small migration distances and home ranges) has led to near global population declines. This and other forms of overexploitation have led to all seahorse species being listed in Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The signatory nations of CITES recommended a 10-cm size limit of seahorses to ensure harvested individuals have reached reproductive maturity, and have thus had the chance to produce offspring, to maintain a more sustainable global seahorse fishery. We assessed adherence to CITES recommendations using DNA barcoding and size measurements to compare two prominent U.S. dried seahorse markets: (1) traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and (2) non-medicinal ecommerce and coastal curio (ECC). We also estimated U.S. import abundance from CITES records. Of the nine species identified among all samples (n = 532), eight were found in the TCM trade (n = 168); composed mostly (75%) of the Indo-Pacific species Hippocampus trimaculatus, and Hippocampus spinosissimus, and the Latin American Hippocampus ingens. In contrast, ECC samples (n = 344) included 5 species, primarily juvenile Indo-Pacific Hippocampus kuda (51.5%) and the western Atlantic Hippocampus zosterae (40.7). The majority of TCM samples (85.7%) met the CITES size recommendation, in contrast to 4.8% of ECC samples. These results suggest non-size discriminatory bycatch is the most likely source of imported ECC specimens. In addition, CITES records indicate that approximately 602,275 dried specimens were imported into the U.S. from 2004-2020, but the exact species composition remains unknown as many U.S. imports records list one species or Hippocampus spp. from confiscated shipments due to difficulties in morphological identification and large numbers of individuals per shipment. Molecular identification was used to identify the species composition of confiscated shipment imports containing undesignated species, and similar to TCM, found H. trimaculatus and H. spinosissimus the most abundant. By combining DNA barcoding, size comparisons, and CITES database records, these results provide an important glimpse into the two primary dried U.S. seahorse end-markets, and may further inform the conservation status of several Hippocampus species.

publication date

  • October 1, 2023

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


  • 18


  • 10 October