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Conference Papers

Spreading the Word about Syngnathids
(Seahorses, Seadragons and Pipefish)

Astrida Mednis

Environment Australia
Biodiversity Group
Wildlife Population Assessment Section
GPO Box 636



There are approximately 220 syngnathid species (seahorses, seadragons and pipefish) world wide of which approximately half occur in Australian waters.

They are distributed globally in all but the coldest seas and some occur in fresh water. Syngnathids are found in the intertidal zone in protected bays and offshore in depths of more than 400 metres (Kuiter 1993).

Thirty six syngnathid species, mostly seahorses, Hippocampus spp., are listed as vulnerable under the IUCN 1996 Red list; one species is listed as critically endangered (river pipefish, Syngnathus watermayeri) and eleven species are listed as data deficient such as the two Australian endemic seadragon species, the leafy and weedy seadragons (Phycodorus eques and Phyllopteryx taeniolatus).

The IUCN listings relate to criteria such as declining populations projected or suspected in the future based on a decline in occupancy, extent of occurrence and /or quality of habitat and actual or potential levels of exploitation. It is however recognised that there are limitations to the IUCN list for syngnathids due to a lack of information.

There is considerable concern regarding the exploitation of syngnathids throughout Australia and worldwide due to the trade in these fishes for the traditional Asian markets and the aquarium industry.

The Commonwealth Wildlife Protection
(Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982

The Commonwealth Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982 (the Act) controls the export of Australian native wildlife and wildlife products and import and export of all wildlife which is recognised internationally as endangered or threatened through trade. The broad aim of the Act is to ensure that all trade in wildlife is carried out in a sustainable manner which is not detrimental to the survival of the species.

The Act provides the legislative base for meeting Australia's responsibilities under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Australia has been a party since 1976. Most Australian native wildlife species are subject to the Act, however Schedule 4 of the Act is a list of specimens that do not require the grant of an export permit.

Prior to 1 January 1998, native marine fish were listed as a group on Schedule 4 of the Act and therefore were exempt from export controls. During 1997, the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, Senator the Hon Robert Hill, consulted with State and Territory Environment and Fisheries Ministers, who predominantly supported giving greater protection to syngnathids.

On 4 September 1997, the Minister signed a declaration removing all syngnathids and solenostomids from Schedule 4 of the Act, effective as of 1 January 1998, thus making these species subject to export controls. This decision however does not impose import controls on these species. The Minister's decision is a precautionary measure enabling the regulation and monitoring of the export of syngnathid specimens.

So, as far as export controls on Australian marine fish, the only species subject to these controls now are the syngnathids and species which are listed under the Commonwealth Endangered Species Protection Act 1992. Namely the endangered spotted handfish Brachionichthys hirsutus, and the vulnerable great white and grey nurse sharks (Carcharodon carcharias and Carcharias taurus). These species will be listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, restricting their trade to captive-bred specimens.

Australian Syngnathid Export Trade

Vincent (1996) reports from her study of the international trade in seahorses that annual consumption just within Asian nations may amount to 45 tonnes of dried seahorses annually (approximately 16 million individuals) with China appearing to be the largest user, estimated at about 20 tonnes. Total global consumption of seahorses will be much greater.

This is because domestic consumption cannot yet be calculated for most countries as non-Asian countries also consume dried seahorses for medicines and curios. Further, the aquarium trade probably consumes hundreds of thousands of live seahorses, most for sale in North America, Europe, Japan or Taiwan. Demand for seahorses far exceeds supply, according to almost all people interviewed by Vincent (1996).

On the Australian scene, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) administers the Export Control Act 1982 and its subordinate regulations the Export Control (Processed Food) Orders. The primary purpose of the orders is to ensure that processed food intended for export is safe and wholesome for human consumption. It is important to note that the orders do not apply to fish exported as ornamental/aquarium specimens. Therefore AQIS are unable to monitor syngnathids exported for the marine aquarium trade. Export of syngnathids for human consumption is subject to AQIS permitting requirements.

AQIS has recently advised that 1559 kg of syngnathid specimens were exported from Australia between July 1995 to January 1997 including approximately 40 kg from News South Wales, 396 kg from northern Queensland, 854 kg from southern Queensland and 269 kg from Victoria. During 1997, AQIS advise that 632 kg were exported, all from Queensland and all but 64 kg (which was frozen) was dried product. Weight per seahorse varies with species, size and processing, however one kg of dried pipefish can comprise approximately 270 individuals.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has advised that currently there are no therapeutic goods included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods that contain any syngnathid species. However, persons wishing to export any product containing this material after 1 January 1998, in addition to TGA requirements, will be required to have an export permit from Environment Australia.

The Fisheries Department of Western Australia have provided limited data for some ten syngnathid species taken for marine aquarium purposes, where catch data on a yearly basis ranges from one to 556 specimens between the years 1978 and 1997.

Fisheries Victoria have advised bycatch of pipefish and pot bellied seahorses associated with trawling and seining in Victorian waters. Fishers generally discard the pipefish as they consider them unsuitable for trade purposes, while the latter species are consolidated and used commercially.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) has also recently advised that fishers operating in Commonwealth waters adjacent to Victoria occasionally take as incidental bycatch, spiny pipefish, Solegnathus spinosissimus and that operators are selling the specimens domestically and not themselves exporting. However, these operators may be selling to export companies.

Off Queensland waters, Pipefish, chiefly the pipehorse Solegnathus hardwickii and Duncker's pipehorse S. dunckeri, are caught by prawn trawlers. Queensland exporters have over the last few years exported approx 1200 kilograms of dried pipefish per annum at a total value of A$1.5 - 2.5 m. The fishery hence makes a small but significant contribution to the total value of the Queensland fishing industry.

Leading the Way

Australia's initiative in controlling syngnathid exports complements a few other initiatives throughout the world including the European Union's (EU) monitoring of seahorse imports since June 1997. The EU requires importers of such specimens, specifically live specimens and whole or substantially whole dead specimens of Hippocampus spp., to complete an import notification at the point of introduction to the EU which specifies the species, country of origin and quantity/s of items to be imported.

Further, the Commissioner for Census and Statistics recently informed the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (Hong Kong) that as of 1 January 1998 separate codes for seahorses and pipefish have been added to the Hong Kong Imports and Exports classification list. This will enable monitoring trade in seahorses and pipefish through Hong Kong.

Implications of subjecting Syngnathids
to export controls in Australia

Where it is proposed to export syngnathids (this includes live animals and products derived from syngnathids), the grant of an export permit from Environment Australia is now required. Permits will only be granted for captive bred specimens or specimens which have been taken from the wild under an appropriate management regime. The management regime would require approval under the Act to ensure that harvesting of syngnathids is not detrimental to the species.

Section 10 of the Act provides for management programs to be declared where there is sufficient information available on the biology the species proposed for harvesting to ensure that harvesting will not be to the irreversible detriment of the species or its habitat. Management programs are usually administered by State / Territory government agencies and reflect State / Territory wide management of the species. For example management programs have been approved for species such as crocodiles, kangaroos, muttonbirds and brushtail possums.

The controlled specimens provision (section I 10A of the Act) allows for commercial harvesting and trade, under strict conditions as appropriate, where it would be inappropriate to insist on a management program and where it is consistent with the object of the Act not to declare an approved management -program. Such circumstances might include short term salvaging operations, small scale harvesting of common species and the developmental stages of management programs. Under both these provisions of the Act, harvesting proposals are assessed in accordance with principles of ecological sustainability and conservation of biological diversity.

Products obtained from species which have been bred in approved captive breeding operations may be exported, provided the captive breeding meets the requirements of Regulation 8 of the Act. For an operation to be approved under this provision, it has to be capable of producing second generation offspring ie. offspring produced from at least first generation captive bred stock.

Wild Harvesting Operations recently approved
under the Wildlife Protection Act

The Minister for the Environment has recently declared as controlled specimens a number of syngnathid species harvested from Tasmanian, Victorian and South Australian waters which involve harvesting proposals from two companies.

The Wildlife Protection Act has strict requirements that have to ' be addressed when assessing harvesting proposals. To meet these requirements a harvesting proposal submitted by Seahorse Aquaculture Pty Ltd, which involves the wild harvest of 600 pot-bellied seahorses, Hippocampus abdominalis, from Tasmania underwent a rigorous assessment.

When the Minister makes a decision under the controlled specimens provisions of the Act there are a number of matters that he must consider, as stated under Regulation 5A of the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Regulations including the following:

"…the distribution of the species from which the specimens that would be taken would be derived and its national and regional status and abundance"

"...the likely effect of the taking of (the) specimens on the population from which the specimens would be derived..."

"...any existing management provisions under laws relating to the species, or the population, from which the specimens would be derived..."

"...advice from the Designated Authority following his or her discussions with any relevant body..."

"...advice from the Designated Authority as to..."

"...the nature and extent of controls over the taking, possession and disposal of the specimens..."

"...the nature and extent of any proposed or potential trade in the specimens for commercial purposes ... "

"...any management or monitoring procedures necessary to ensure the population from which the specimens would be derived will not be adversely affected by the proposed level of exploitation…"

The assessment process also involves a public comment period and the Minister is required to consider the comments received when making a decision on the harvesting proposal. The full assessment process is presented at Figure 1.

Based on the limited published information on these species and consultation with relevant experts it was found that the pot bellied seahorse is considered to be the widest ranging species of Australia's temperate seahorse and is perhaps the commonest of the temperate true seahorses of the genus Hippocampus.

No detailed studies on population size or structure have been done anywhere in Australia. However based on observations conducted by various sectors of the community, (government, non government and industry) the species is considered to occur in relatively large numbers in Tasmania particularly around man made structures such as wharfs, jetties and salmon cages.

Recognising the limited information regarding the species, a number of conditions have been imposed to ensure harvesting is conducted in a manner which will unlikely result in detrimental risk to the species and to further understand the ecology and biology of the pot-bellied seahorse. Conditions relating specifically to impacts of the harvest include inter alia that:

  • the total harvest of up to 600 adults is subject to a phased approach, based on successful performance in keeping the seahorses. This condition will minimise any risks involved in mortalities associated with the aquaculture operation,
  • the Company will conduct syngnathid resource assessments prior to harvesting and establish a monitoring program,
  • the harvesting operation is to be conducted solely for broodstock purposes and only captive bred stock are permitted for sale.

The second company which recently was granted approval was Ascidian Aquarium Systems where a similar assessment process was undertaken. Approval was granted for the wild harvest and export of fourteen syngnathid species from Victorian and South Australian waters for the marine aquarium trade. While the company does export wild captured syngnathids, it also has spent many years rearing and breeding some of these species eg pot bellied seahorse, leafy and weedy seadragons.

Conditions were also placed on this approval and those relating specifically to impacts of the harvest are similar to the previous company's approval ie the company is required to conduct resource assessments and monitoring programs of the harvesting sites. The Company is also restricted in terms of the numbers of specimens collected from the wild and specimens that can be exported ie wild or captive reared/bred specimens, which have been based on the information on species distribution and abundance.


Like many other marine species, there is a paucity of biological and ecological information regarding syngnathids. Further information is required to ensure these species are protected, managed and utilised so as they can continue to contribute towards the biodiversity of Australia's marine and coastal environments. Different sectors of Australia's broad society including government, non-government organisations, industry and the community have a role to contribute in this regard.

The Natural Heritage Trust's Coasts and Clean Seas Program provides funding for the conservation, sustainable use and repair of Australia's coastal and marine environments. This program includes a number of different programs which have the potential to, or currently fund various syngnathid studies.

The Marine Species Protection Program, administered by Environment Australia, aims to ensure that community and industry groups, fisheries managers, marine management and research agencies and governments, work together for the conservation and sustainable use of living marine resources. At this stage no syngnathid projects have been funded under this program, however several projects have been proposed and are being considered through the Coasts and Clean Seas assessment process.

Coastcare is funding the Dragonsearch community based seadragon monitoring project in South Australia and New South Wales.

The Fisheries Action Program, administered by the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, supports action to restore and protect fisheries habitats and promote sustainable fishing in estuarine and marine areas. This program provides an opportunity for community groups, government and industry to make Australia's fisheries more productive while protecting the surrounding aquatic environment.

Projects currently funded include a Western Australian seadragon monitoring project, a pipefish study in Western Australia investigating the biology and habitat requirements of pipefish in seagrasses and through Fishcare/Coastcare a Tasmanian weedy seadragon population monitoring study.


Humans throughout the world perceive syngnathids in various ways. Syngnathids, like any other living marine organism, provide an ecosystem function and contribute toward Australia's marine biodiversity. There is also significant worldwide demand for syngnathids, both in the aquarium trade and for use in traditional Asian medicine. A small export industry has built up in Australia to supply both markets. The source for the medicinal use currently being largely the incidental take of syngnathids in prawn and scallop trawling operations and potentially from cultured specimens.

Our leafy seadragons and other species are exported to other countries such as Japan, Singapore, and Switzerland so people can observe and appreciate them in marine aquaria. There is some concern that the demand for Australian syngnathids may increase as syngnathid populations elsewhere throughout the world decline. The conservation management of syngnathid species potentially includes a spectrum of measures from complete protection to consumptive use. The Minister's decision to bring syngnathids under export control is focussing attention on the species and requiring the introduction of management measures and controls.


Kuiter, R.H. 1993. Coastal fishes of south - eastern Australia. Crawford House Press.Bathurst, New South Wales.

Vincent, A. C. J. 1996. The international trade in seahorses. TRAFFIC International.