Sparkling Fish, Obscure Methods: Something’s Wrong With the Global Aquarium Trade

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LES, Indonesia (AP) — After diving into the warm sea off the north coast of Bali, Indonesia, Made Partiana hovers above a coral bed, holding her breath and looking for flashes of movement. Hours later, exhausted, he returns to a rocky beach, towing plastic bags filled with his exquisite prey: tropical fish of all shades and shapes.

Millions of saltwater fish like these are caught every year in Indonesia and other countries to fill aquariums in living rooms, waiting rooms and restaurants around the world with vivid, unearthly life.

“It’s so much fun just watching the antics between different varieties of fish,” said Rhode Island fish enthusiast Jack Siravo.

But the journey from places like Bali to Rhode Island is perilous for the fish and the reefs they come from. Some are caught using cyanide jets to stun them. Many die along the way.

Even when caught with care, by people like Partiana, experts say the global demand for these fish is contributing to the degradation of delicate coral ecosystems.

Banggai cardinals swim in a tank at an export warehouse in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, April 12, 2021. About 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the United States each year.

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AP Photo/Alex Lindbloom

Banggai cardinals swim in a tank at an export warehouse in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, April 12, 2021. About 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the United States each year.

Efforts have been made to reduce destructive practices, such as cyanide fishing. But the trade is difficult to regulate and track as it spreads from small-scale fishers in villages to middlemen, export warehouses, international trading centers and finally pet shops in the United States, China, Europe and elsewhere.

“There is no enforcement, no management, no data collection,” said Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, founder of LINI, a Bali-based nonprofit for resource conservation and management. coastal marines.

This leaves some enthusiasts in the dark.

“Consumers often don’t know where their fish come from and they don’t know how they’re collected,” said Andrew Rhyne, professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Most saltwater ornamental fish species are wild-caught because breeding them in captivity can be expensive, difficult, and often impossible.

Nearly 3 million households in the United States keep saltwater fish as pets, according to a 2021-2022 survey by the American Pet Products Association. Approximately 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the United States each year. (Freshwater aquariums are much more common because freshwater fish are generally cheaper and easier to raise and maintain.)

For decades, a common fishing technique has involved cyanide, with disastrous consequences for fish and marine ecosystems. The fishermen crush the pellets in a bottle filled with water. Diluted cyanide forms a toxic mixture that fishermen inject onto coral reefs, where fish usually hide. Fish become temporarily stunned, allowing them to be picked from coral.

Many die in transit, weakened by cyanide, which means that even more fish must be caught to meet demand. The chemicals damage living coral and make it difficult for new corals to grow.

Cyanide fishing has been banned in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, but enforcement remains difficult and experts say the practice continues.

Part of the problem is geography, says Reksodihardjo-Lilley. In the vast Indonesian archipelago, there are approximately 34,000 miles of coastline on some 17,500 islands. This makes it difficult to monitor the first stage of the supply chain.

Another obstacle to monitoring and regulating trade is the rapid rate at which fish can move from place to place, making it difficult to trace their origins.

At a fish export warehouse in Denpasar, Bali, thousands of fish a day can be delivered in white polystyrene coolers filled with plastic bags of fish from across the archipelago. The fish are quickly unpacked, sorted into tanks or new plastic bags and fed with fresh seawater.

Some fish will sit in small rectangular tanks in the warehouse for weeks, while others ship quickly, fulfilling orders from the United States, Europe and beyond. Once the fish have flown from Indonesia to the United States, they are screened by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which cross-checks the shipment against customs declaration forms.

But this is designed to ensure that no protected fish are imported. The process cannot determine if the fish was caught legally.

Any fish caught using cyanide in a country where it is banned would be illegal to import or sell in the United States, thanks to a law called the Lacey Act. But no test exists to provide accurate results indicating whether a fish has been caught with cyanide, said Rhyne, Roger Williams’ marine biology expert.

In the absence of national enforcement, conservation groups and local fishermen have long worked to reduce cyanide fishing in places like Les, a saltwater aquarium fishing town in northern Bali.

Partiana started catching fish – using cyanide – shortly after primary school, when her parents could no longer afford her education. Each catch would help provide a few dollars of income for his family.

But over the years, Partiana began to notice that the reef was changing. “You could see there were less fish,” he said.

He became a member of a group of local fishermen who were taught by a local conservation organization how to use nets, take care of the reef and patrol the area to guard against the use of cyanide.

According to Reksodihardjo-Lilley, this type of local education and training should be expanded to reduce harmful fishing. “People can see that they directly benefit from healthy reefs.”

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