A conservation fund has called on the government to protect the city's seahorses after only six of a single species were found in local waters in a survey last year.
Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, which conducted the survey, said the sea creatures were endangered and should be protected in the same way as dolphins. The study, in waters off Sai Kung from September 2011 to October last year, found six yellow seahorses - up from five in a similar survey in 2010, but two species were found then. Three species - yellow, three-spot and great - have previously been recorded.
Hong Kong imports 7,000 tonnes of dried seahorses a year.
"They are in danger because of over-exploitation for Chinese medicine use, degradation of habitats and by-catch in commercial fishing," the foundation's senior scientific officer, Shadow Sin Ying-tung, also principal investigator of the survey, said yesterday. "Dolphins are protected [by law] but why are seahorses not when they are also endangered?" She said the long-nosed, curly-tailed creatures should be listed under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance which protects wildlife from being hunted, possessed or traded without permission.
Seahorses are used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure asthma and impotence. Sin said that of about 2.2 million imported into Hong Kong every year, 80 per cent are from Thailand.
The foundation will continue the survey work this year, with more sites in eastern waters and its first tagging project. "The tagging scheme will provide more systematic information to enable us to get a better understanding of the local seahorse population and its changes," Sin said.
A spokeswoman for the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department said it welcomed and supported the survey which would add to understanding of the ecology and distribution of seahorses in Hong Kong. She added that the trade of dried seahorses was regulated locally.
The life span of seahorses - classified as fish - ranges from one to five years. There are 54 species in the world, with 11 - including all three found here - listed as vulnerable or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.