AV: Seahorses are becoming very valuable. The best quality seahorses in traditional Chinese medicine -- the smooth pale, large seahorses -- now sell in Hong Kong for up to $550 U.S. per pound. Even the seahorses that are not quite such good quality are selling for a couple of hundred dollars per pound. There are about 39 countries around the world now involved in the seahorse trade, most of them trading dried seahorses for traditional Chinese medicine. So this is becoming quite big business, which is part of the problem.
NOVA: Is there any evidence that, chemically, there is something unique in seahorses that is medicinal?
AV: Traditional Chinese medicine doesn't usually do western-style pharmacological testing. Instead they tend to rely on past efficacy, past treatments and how they've worked. So there's a strong conviction that seahorses are one of the fundamentals of traditional Chinese medicine, but there's not any testing in a way that we would recognize as double-blind medical testing. Certainly there are Chinese medical treatments which have been well tested in the west and are proving incredibly useful. So it would be nice to investigate thoroughly the real value of seahorses.
NOVA: Are they used mainly as aphrodisiacs?
AV: No, they're used for a whole range of ailments. Seahorses are used to treat asthma, and arteriosclerosis, and incontinence and impotence and thyroid disorders and skin ailments and broken bones and heart disease. And even to facilitate childbirth, although it depends a little bit on the region. In Hong Kong, they're used primarily for asthma and for impotence. In Taiwan they're used an awful lot for an aphrodisiac or to promote sexual function.
NOVA: What sort of testimonials have you heard from people who have used seahorses and found them effective?
AV: We've talked a lot to traditional Chinese medicine users and they're convinced that seahorses work, which is one reason why we don't take the arrogant perspective of dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. Instead we're trying very hard to set up a new approach whereby we respect the conviction that these are medically useful, at the same time pointing out that the loss of these animals in wild populations would penalize Chinese medicine as much as it would penalize those who respect them for their conservation value. Really, when you think about it, the people who catch the seahorses need there still to be seahorses so that they can continue earning an income. The people who use seahorses for medicines need there still to be seahorses to treat their illnesses. And we, who primarily are concerned about the conservation issues, want there to be seahorses. And there's got to be a way of harnessing these three different converging needs for seahorses in the wild.