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Seahorses: Illegal Trade in the UK

Volume 650: debated on Thursday 6 December 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gareth Johnson.)

And now for something completely different. I had hoped that more colleagues would have wanted to stay for this important debate and would, in fact, be rather envious of seahorses, who go about their business at the bottom of the ocean completely ignorant, perhaps, of regulatory borders, backstops and barriers to trade. Perhaps they have never even heard of Brexit or the withdrawal Bill; we must envy them in that respect.

Seahorses are unique marine creatures. Swimming upright in a manner unlike other fish, they change colour like chameleons, with an eponymous head and neck featuring segmented bony armour. For those Members grounded in the classics—I am sure that, of the few Members in this Chamber, there are at least one or two who are—their genus stems from the ancient Greek hippokampos, meaning “horse sea monster”. Such a translation would belie their elegance, gracefulness and mythical persona. Many are only an inch or two long. In practical terms, they range in size from a pine nut to a banana. Art and cultural works depicted the hippokampos quite literally as a sea horse—half horse, half sea monster—from the lamp posts of Dublin to the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Surely these delicate creatures are the cultural and artistic prism through which our fascination with the seas and oceans has been magnified.

I always research and rehearse these things, and from my research, I have become aware that some 33 known species of seahorses were classified as vulnerable. In 2002, there were reports of as many as millions of seahorses being taken out of the sea and put in the sun to dry—a slow and painful death—and then used as jewellery. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that something needs to be done with China to prevent these sales and what people are doing?

Clearly, I do, which is why I am having this debate. The hon. Gentleman has uniquely not managed to mention Strangford Lough in his intervention—I am sure that there are some seahorses there, or that there were at some point—but he makes his point well, and I will come to that in a minute or two.

Seahorses play an important role in coastal ecosystems, eating small crustacea such as mysis shrimp up to a remarkable 50 times a day. The seahorse is a highly adapted predator and is, in turn, preyed upon in very large numbers. Unusually, the male seahorse gives birth to thousands of fry per annum, although, sadly, out of every 2,000 born only one or two survive to maturity. They fulfil a role of maintaining the checks and balances of a natural ecosystem, and without them, one more brick in the wall of nature would be gone.

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 Hippocampus guttulatus—and the short-snouted seahorse, or Hippocampus. They are not as widespread across our isles as many may assume and are to be found predominantly in an arc stretching from the Shetland isles down the west coast to the south coast of England. Sightings on the east coast, in the North sea and across the channel in our dear ally and neighbour France are far more sporadic. In July last year, it was widely reported that short-snouted seahorses had been discovered in my part of the world, off the coast of Devon, although the species is more commonly found in the balmy waters of the Mediterranean and south-west of the Isles of Scilly. Having said that, I should add that they are indeed indigenous. We should be protective of them, and we should be pleased and proud that they are an important part of the natural ecosystem of the British Isles.

Tragically, the traditional medicine, curio and aquarium trades are threatening the future of seahorses. We know that 25 million to 65 million per year are taken from seas and oceans across the world. However, those are official figures based on what might be termed the official trade. Environmental groups estimate that in excess of 150 million per year are killed, on the basis of counts during undercover operations. All species of seahorse are protected under CITES, the convention on international trade in endangered species, although the illegal trade overshadows the legal trade by a greater margin.

I expect that Members who are watching or attending the debate, and the public watching at home, would blame the demise of those seahorses on traditional Chinese medicine, as they are purported to be an aphrodisiac and a combat against common ailments. However, according to some estimates, the curio trade and traditional Chinese medicine take roughly the same number from the wild. Both are devastating, cruel trades that have far-reaching consequences worldwide. Seahorses might be seen ground up in dodgy medicines, or being sold as souvenirs in seaside markets. Along with shells and starfish, they are deliberately taken from the sea and—as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—left to die in the boiling sun. I could not imagine a more unpleasant way of death.

However, what we do in this country can protect the seahorses around our coasts and islands, and further afield. The illegal trade is truly international, so I am not suggesting that all the seahorses circulating in UK marketplaces and shops are harvested from our shores; far from it. Indeed, the two species found off our coasts are among the most threatened of all species in the UK. These creatures are far more likely to be found imported in shipping containers hidden among other licensed goods from Malaysia or the seas of China, where they are far more abundant. Should we not be asking how we can take international leadership in protecting them, rather than wagging the finger at other countries? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has asserted that a ban on ivory sales would

“reaffirm the UK’s global leadership … demonstrating our belief that the abhorrent ivory trade should become a thing of the past.”

While the seahorse trade is regulated rather than prohibited, I know that my right hon. Friend is no less enthusiastic about our doing what we can to ensure that seahorses do not just survive, but can thrive within our fragile ecological wall.

This debate is not about our existing regulatory framework, but about enforcement. It is about practice rather than theory. There is no case in which a CITES permit is not required for the 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. Of course, questions remain as to whether police wildlife crimes officers, the Animal and Plant Health Authority, and Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise have adequate resources to carry out enforcement of existing regulations, so will my hon. Friend the Minister agree to look again at the resources required to support these agencies?

Fundamentally, 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. One major platform insists that it is not responsible for what its sellers sell. So brazen are traders in seahorses that they do not even need to go on to the dark web—although I am not over-familiar with the dark web, Mr Speaker, and nor will you be. 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 where we can report illegal sales would be much more efficient in bringing about prosecutions of repeat offenders. It could be a portal that would also provide authorities with 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 in seahorses. I therefore call on the Government, through the Minister, to encourage the reporting of illegal listings to online platforms by publishing straightforward guidance for the public, social media and online marketplace companies.

I was delighted to have a meeting with reprsentatives of the excellent environmental charity the Seahorse Trust, based in beautiful Topsham in my constituency. I know they are eagerly following this debate and are very grateful that I have managed to secure it and that they are waiting with anticipation to hear the Minister’s response, as indeed we all are. The Seahorse Trust is responsible for overseeing and working in partnership with a number of research projects around the world through a loose collection of seahorse groups called the Seahorse Alliance. It is a small organisation punching well above its weight in getting the plight of the seahorse noticed by regulators, online marketplaces and the general public. I am sure the Minister would like to pass on how delighted its representatives were to have the opportunity to bring their concerns before the Secretary of State earlier this year, when I took them to see him in his offices.

Mr Speaker, I would like to end—and indeed you would like me to end, as you have been in the Chair all day, which is staggering—by saying that now is the time. We are doing such things in many other areas of wildlife, and we are doing a great job. This Government are doing a tremendous job, but it is now time to show leadership on the illegal trade in seahorses by targeting how they are traded while simultaneously ensuring that those tasked with policing the trade are resourced so to do. We cannot keep chipping away at our ecological wall and expect to get away with it.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing this debate and on his support for the protection of seahorses, one of our most unusual and beautiful fish. He has most eloquently described their unique nature and their role in coastal ecosystems, and I join him in paying tribute to the Seahorse Trust and others for their work in raising awareness of their plight. While only two species inhabit UK waters from Shetland to Devon, there are over 50 species that inhabit many of the shallower coastal waters across the globe. As my right hon. Friend said, they are unlike most other fish in the way that they look and the way that they live. This even extends to their reproduction, as it is the males that take on eggs from the female and then take responsibility for giving birth to and raising the young seahorses.

Seahorses do not, however, differ from other species of fish in the pressures that they face and the threats to their survival. Seahorses are caught for the aquarium and traditional medicine trades, or sometimes simply for trade as curios. They are affected by pressures on their environment such as habitat loss, and they can be affected as bycatch as a side effect of fishing activities targeted at other species. Trade in seahorses to the UK is mainly in live animals, the majority of which have been bred in captivity. Between 2010 and 2015, the UK imported around 21,300 live seahorses that had been bred in captivity and 1,700 live wild seahorses.

As I said earlier, there are two species of seahorse in the UK: the short-snouted seahorse and the long-snouted seahorse. Both species are listed on the OSPAR list of threatened or declining species and habitats and, as a contracting party to OSPAR, we are committed to taking measures to protect them. Both native seahorse species have a wide distribution around the UK and are found all around the British Isles and Ireland, right up to the Shetland Islands. Seahorses feed mainly on very small marine crustaceans. Adult seahorses can eat between 65 and 70 of these a day, whereas the fry eat up to 3,000 plankton-sized bits of food every 24 hours. Seahorses are often taken by predatory fish, and they have to rely on their camouflage to avoid detection as they are poor swimmers.

The protection of endangered species around the world is a key priority for this Government. The wellbeing of our society depends on a healthy environment, and that requires policies to deliver healthy ecosystems, global biodiversity and the conservation of species. My right hon. Friend can be assured that we are taking action, bilaterally and through international agreements, to protect wildlife populations both around the UK and further afield, whether they are threatened by poaching, habitat loss or unsustainable use. The United Kingdom is rightly recognised as a global leader on environmental issues, whether by raising the illegal wildlife trade up the international agenda or through our commitment to tackling climate change, deforestation and ocean acidification.

At home in our waters, we are providing increasing levels of protection to marine life, including seahorses, through the designation of marine conservation zones. They provide a means for protecting seabed habitats and the species that live on and in the seabed, such as seagrass beds and the seahorses that live in them. We have so far designated 50 marine conservation zones—some of them, such as Torbay and Beachy Head West, with the specific objective of protecting seahorses. We have consulted on a third tranche of MCZs where we have proposed to designate a further 41 sites. Some of these, such as Studland Bay, Beachy Head East and Bembridge, will again specifically protect seahorse populations. We expect decisions on third tranche site designations by June next year.

As with illegal trade, we are also working to protect marine species on a global scale. The UK and our 14 overseas territories are custodians of the fifth largest marine estate in the world. We have committed to create a “blue belt” to protect and conserve around 4 million sq km of waters around the overseas territories. Seahorses also receive protection through the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and through the listing of seahorses under CITES—the convention on international trade in endangered species—and related EU regulations. Trade in seahorses is indeed regulated rather than prohibited. In the UK, it is an offence to trade in species of seahorse native to the UK unless there is evidence that the seahorses have been captive bred. Where there is illegal trade in seahorses—for example, where there is no evidence that the specimens were legally imported—we can prosecute under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species Regulations 2018.

In the UK, seizures of seahorses at our borders are thankfully few and far between. In the past calendar year, there have been 14 in total, and none has been of a significant nature. They have primarily involved traditional medicine products of which seahorses were identified as a component. As we have heard, though, protections are only as effective as the enforcement behind them. I can tell my right hon. Friend that there was a conviction with a fine in 2014 at Bromley for the offence of selling a product containing seahorses. There was a further case in 2015 in which someone was cautioned. Of the 14 seizures I mentioned, one involved five live seahorses for the marine trade in which permit errors were identified, one seizure of 13 dried seahorses that were part of a Chinese medicinal package, and 12 seizures of pills in which seahorses were identified as being one of the medicinal ingredients.

We recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime and have therefore increased funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit to provide intelligence and support for local police forces. The unit plays an important role in supporting police forces to detect and prevent wildlife crime, including the illegal trade in seahorses, and it has, for instance, acted on information from the Seahorse Trust, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, on potential illegal activity. Nevertheless, my right hon. friend has suggested that we should evaluate the effectiveness of the protections already in place. He will therefore be pleased to know that we made such a commitment when we hosted the illegal wildlife trade conference in London in October. We committed there to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of preventive and criminal justice responses and other measures related to the protection and monitoring of wildlife and forest products. That will be undertaken by the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime in the coming months and will help to identify any shortcomings in our regulatory regime.

With respect to the illegal wildlife trade, the Government have a strong record of leadership, and the UK is at the forefront of international efforts to protect endangered animals and plants from unsustainable and illegal trade. This trade is not limited to certain countries or regions and is a truly global phenomenon affecting plants, animals, fish, birds and insects, and the Government are committed to tackling all the elements. We are committed to working with our international partners around the world to tackle the growing problem, and our response must rest on international co-operation. It is working with other nations to reduce demand and disrupt this crime that will truly make the difference. To support those efforts, the Government are investing £36 million to try to reduce demand, strengthen law enforcement and develop sustainable livelihoods. We need to eradicate the market for illegal wildlife products, ensure our laws are strong enough to deter the criminals, rigorously enforce those laws and provide sustainable livelihoods for those who might otherwise be tempted by the short-term gains of poaching.

My right hon. Friend raised the fact that the trade in endangered species is being facilitated online, which can present particular challenges. That is why we are working closely with the private sector across the transport, financial, tourism, cyber and technology sectors to increase the levels of ambition and commitment by businesses to assist us in tackling the illegal wildlife trade. Some significant and hugely encouraging steps have been taken recently. In particular, the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online has brought together the world’s biggest e-commerce, technology and social media companies to join forces in shutting down online marketplaces for wildlife traffickers. NGOs and global companies such as eBay, Google, Microsoft and Facebook are working to unite the industry and maximise impact for reducing wildlife trafficking online. They are committed to reducing wildlife trafficking across online platforms by 80% by 2020. The related global wildlife cyber-crime action plan also includes commitments from its partners to work with companies to ensure that policies and reporting mechanisms for customers and users are easy to access and user friendly.

This has been an important debate, with a different conclusion from the debate we have been having all day on Brexit. It shows there is more to life than Brexit. The plight of our seahorses, which my right hon. Friend has highlighted, is important, and I hope I have been able to reassure him of the seriousness with which the Government take this issue, of the steps we have taken and of the global action we are taking to tackle this particular challenge.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.