On 19 July 2018, Zhen Daquan boarded a flight in Belize bound for Shanghai, passing through Mexico City. When Zhen checked his luggage at Mexico City International Airport – a major transport hub for the region – customs agents noticed a strong fishy smell.
On searching Zhen’s suitcase, officials found six black bags containing 81 seahorses, sea cucumbers and swim bladders from unidentified fish. The majority of these marine species – sourced either in Mexico itself or transported via Mexico City – are for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), many due to their supposed aphrodisiac properties. Seahorses are crushed and ingested in medicinal brews or foods such as soups to improve kidney function, to balance the yin-yang energies and to treat male impotence and female infertility.
Mainland China is the world’s top consumer of seahorses, buying some 500 tonnes per year. Although the export of seahorses from Mexico without the proper permits could result in up to nine years in prison, trafficking has escalated in recent years, enabled by incompetence and impunity on both sides of the trade.
Between 2001 and 2019, 95,589 seahorses were seized during attempts to smuggle them out of Mexico, according to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (Profepa). It’s likely that the real figure is much higher given that there is considerable underreporting from Mexican authorities – and this figure can only hint at the volume making it through border checks.
Of this total seized, 64% was destined for Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, the records obtained under Mexico’s Transparency Law show.
Traffickers often route them via Hong Kong, where controls are more lax and traders have established routes that smuggle them into mainland China.
Smuggling seahorses: Zhen’s trial
On the same day he was arrested, Zhen appeared before Judge Angélica Lucio and admitted to committing an environmental crime. He was placed in pre-trial detention. In Mexico, seahorses are listed as species “subject to special protection” under the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection and the General Wildlife Law. All species of seahorse, including the four native to Mexican waters, also feature in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Mexico is a party. In these three legal frameworks, seahorses are considered vulnerable, but not yet in danger of extinction – some controlled trade is allowed, as long as this is not detrimental to populations. But even this controlled trade was brought to an end in 2012, when Mexico imposed a ban on exports.
Despite this ban, traffickers like Zhen rarely receive more than a fine. On this occasion, according to case files obtained by Diálogo Chino, the prosecution had sufficient evidence to send Zhen to prison and fine him US$22,696. But the judge let him off with a reduced fine of $6,600.
Israel Alvarado, former director general of Federal Crimes against the Environment and Litigation at Profepa, said that these types of cases typically end in this way due to corruption and the lack of training of both Profepa staff and legal professionals.
“The judges are inclined not to convict because it seems too harsh for someone to go to jail for having turtle eggs or totoaba guts or seahorses,” Alvarado said.
Zhen’s is just one of 56 cases brought by Profepa following seizures of seahorses between 2001 and 2019, according to their records. For at least 36 of these cases, the seizures took place at Mexico City International Airport.
Falling through the net
According to Sarah Foster, a seahorse specialist at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Oceans and Fisheries, dried seahorses are easy to move across borders: “They are small and when they dry, they keep well for long periods of time. They often move with shipments of other dried seafood, or in personal luggage, or by other hard-to-detect routes.”
Foster added that evidence suggests the vast majority of dried or freeze-dried seahorses that cross borders do so illegally, and are not managed or monitored, as required under CITES.
“A large amount are taken through DHL and other courier services,” said Alicia Poot, a researcher at Inapesca, Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute. “Only if the workers know it’s illegal is it reported, but mostly they do not know,” she added.
Mexico still occasionally permits seahorse exports for limited research purposes, providing parties have a management plan approved by the environmental authorities, according to Abraham Huerta, a former official at the Baja California Fisheries Secretariat.
But the 2012 ban means no export permits are being issued for domestic or commercial consumption, which has helped push the trade underground.
Hong Kong epicentre
Weak oversight and law enforcement on the demand-side have allowed the illegal seahorse trade to prosper. Partnering with Diálogo Chino, journalists from Hong Kong-based media HK01 visited stores in Hong Kong where seahorses are sold, finding staff willing and eager to smuggle them into mainland China.
Seahorses are easy to find in Hong Kong’s dry seafood stores, although the price tag is high. A hundred grammes can cost between US$120 and $200 (between 900 and 1,500 Hong Kong dollars), depending on the size and origin.
Their easy availability is not reflected in data from Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department, which shows a clear decline in legally imported dried seahorses over the past decade. Numbers have dropped steadily since 2010, when nearly 8,000kg were brought in, to just 221kg in 2019.
Between 2009 and 2011, according to Hong Kong’s records, imports from Mexico saw a sudden spike, jumping from 200kg to 900kg, equivalent to 250,000 seahorses. Mexico did not report these figures to CITES and has never explained the discrepancy, according to Foster.
Once in Hong Kong, seahorses can be sold without paperwork. Exporting over the border into mainland China, however, requires a licence, which can put off potential buyers.
“Don’t try carrying seahorses over the border yourself… You’ll be stopped at Customs,” a salesperson at a dry seafood shop in Mong Kok, a major Hong Kong commerce centre, can be heard saying on secretly filmed footage.
The seller claimed his shop’s dried seahorses come mainly from the Americas and are imported for use in medicines. He explained that no regular couriers would carry them into mainland China, but he could arrange delivery for an additional fee. “We have ways of doing it,” he said.
According to the owner of another dry seafood shop in Sheung Wan district, attempting to send dried seahorses to mainland China following the proper procedures would be pointless. “The only way to do it is by trafficking,” he said.
He explained that applying for an export permit would involve heavy taxes, but that he could help: “I can sort [delivery] out for you. There are people willing to take your money, so it can be done. You just need to pay for it.”
TCM drives demand
According to Zhang Shiping, associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Chinese Medicine, TCM believes that seahorses help strengthen the kidney and balance the yin and yang energies.
“The pharmacological ingredient is linked to sex hormones. Our sex hormones decrease with age, so older people may need to take them,” said Zhang.
Although some TCM practitioners prescribe seahorses, Zhang stressed that due to their presumed health benefits, many people buy them without a prescription for use in foods such as soups.
Zhang also said that seahorses can be replaced by herbs that share similar healing properties. But while substitute products are encouraged, demand for seahorses in Hong Kong and China endures.
For Foster, bans on the seahorse trade aren’t working, and difficulties in obtaining permits for their legal export, from Mexico as well as from Hong Kong into mainland China, serve only to encourage trafficking. In the absence of effective enforcement measures, the very least parties could do is ensure the trade works within the existing international framework for the protection of seahorses, she said.
“They can lift the bans and take steps towards a legal and sustainable trade. For the seahorse trade, at least, there are tools to do it correctly.”
This article was first published by Diálogo Chino.