Cost of a cure

January 24th, 2013 BY Hilary Feldman | 1 Comment

Traditional Chinese medicine relies on a wide variety of plant and animal products. The scale of the medical trade is huge and increasing, pressuring species with limited populations. A new initiative is promoting sustainable harvests of marine species. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong and University of British Columbia are leading the effort, along with government, conservation and traditional medicine groups.

More than 600 species of marine plants and animals are used in Chinese medicine. Some of the ingredients draw upon slow-growing populations that may be unable to rebound. Other ingredients require huge volumes. Impacted organisms include seahorses, pipefishes, sea moths, sharks, and pearl oysters. Seahorses were one of the first commercially valuable marine species protected under CITES, in 2004. However, there are always illegal ways to obtain regulated products – whether it’s tiger bone or bear paws. So recognition of the issue – by consumers and practitioners of traditional medicine – is extremely important.

One example of a problem is the large yellow croaker fish, native off China’s coast, and prized for its swim bladder. Unregulated fishing has led to the impending collapse of the fishery, and the species is now critically endangered. Ironically, if you “google” yellow croaker, far more recipes and food products appear than information about its threatened status.

Sea cucumbers off the Galapagos Islands have been the topic of many news stories over recent years. Sea cucumbers are a popular Chinese medicinal aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, fishing rights and marine reserve issues have been at boiling point over these slow-moving creatures.

Top predators are also marine animals under pressure. Shark fin soup is highly prized, while dried fins are used as traditional cures. But the devastating practice of catching sharks, removing their fins and then releasing them to die, has led to depletion of many shark species. Despite recent attention to this issue, many restaurants have shark fin on the menu, and one in Richmond, BC, has two huge fins displayed in the front window.

The new group will work directly with training centres in China and Hong Kong, enhancing the medical curriculum with conservation information. It is part of a new approach to consider environmental aspects along with traditional knowledge and beliefs. Some groups argue that using endangered species is bad for the soul, through damaging effects on the balance of nature. Whatever the philosophical framework, understanding and compensating for the pressure on threatened species can only benefit traditional medicine.

  1. aquagrrl

    This is tough. The cultures that use Traditional Chinese Medicine see westerners’ attempts to change/stop TCM as invasive and condescending. And in many ways, it is. Often times western groups make assumptions and report TCM as being used wastefully for non-necessities such as aphrodisiacs (this article does it to) when that is only a fraction of the medicinal uses that these animals are used for.

    The Chinese government doesn’t help. Lacking a way (or desire) of providing real health care to its people, the encourage the use of TCM.

    Project Seahorse has made some headway in this area by encouraging sustainable farming of seahorses rather than overfishing. Its too early to say its a success, but there are now a lot more farmed seahorses on the market.


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