The Ornamental Fish Trade is a global business worth over $300 million annually and with somewhere in the region of two million people keeping marine aquaria. Unlike tropical aquaria where most fish are bred in captivity, almost all ornamental marine species are taken directly from coral reefs. The majority of these are not exploited for other purposes and if sustainably managed can support jobs for many rural coastal populations where alternative livelihoods are not available.
With over 15,000 islands and 50,000 km of coral reefs, Indonesia has the highest marine biodiversity anywhere in the world. Each year around 1 million fish are distributed globally placing Indonesia second only to the Philippines in terms of export numbers. Indonesia is also the leading exporter of hard corals and invertebrate species for the marine ornamental trade
The trade is extremely complex with a number of interested parties involved, including collectors, wholesalers, middlemen, exporters and importers.
Within Indonesia, Bali is the center for the Marine Ornamental Trade with over 40 traders dealing in the export of marine ornamentals. Fish, coral and invertebrate species are collected from reefs around Bali and other islands before being packaged and transported all over the world.
Since as early as the 1970’s the villagers of Northern Bali have collected ornamental fishes from the fringing reefs in the area. At the time many were collected near the villages but increasingly certain species have become rare with local extinctions taking place. Today the fishermen must travel as far as Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya to collect the species that are highly desirable in the aquarium trade. These long distances mean the fishers are away for up to three weeks at a time resulting in high mortality rates amongst the collected fish species.
The fishers, often illiterate, and from the poorest of communities receive little for the fish they catch. A collector will be given around 10 cents for a fish that may sell for $150 in the USA with middlemen taking much of the cut.
Although there are laws in place to prevent it, the use of Sodium Cyanide is still extremely widespread though out Indonesia where it is known locally as “potash”. Not only does Sodium Cyanide stun fish but it also destroys the habitat by killing non-target invertebrates and corals. Frequently smaller species of fish will seek refuge in branching corals that are deliberately broken to ease with collection. Another major concern with cyanide fishing is the high species mortality rate post collection. Often many fish will die a few days after having been taken from the reef. When combined with poor transport measures and inadequate storage facilities this rate increases further. Studies undertaken in the Philippines have shown mortality rates as high as 60% for cyanide-collected species in remote areas. For this reason collectors often capture far more fish than they require offsetting the loss though mortality. The middlemen who are often fully aware of the methods used to collect the ornamentals, sometimes even provide equipment to the collectors exacerbating the problem. This is still painfully obvious today with the majority of Marine Ornamental suppliers in Bali freely admitting to purchasing from collectors who use cyanide.
There are a number of initiatives currently underway to try and improve the Marine Ornamental Trade and preserve the reefs and many of their species. NGO’s are working with local fishers, providing education on safe catch techniques and some (although still not enough) suppliers are now refusing to purchase from collectors that use Sodium Cyanide.
The Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) has developed a certification scheme to display how and where a fish was caught in an environmentally sustainable way. Further work is being undertaken by Yayasan Alam Indonesia Lestari in Bali, training fishermen in sustainable, non-destructive capture techniques. You the consumer can do your part by only purchasing from MAC certified retailers, or marine organisms that have been tank-bred and not taken from the wild. Through effective regulation and the sustainable collection of marine ornamentals those businesses that continue to employ cyanide fishers will eventually have to change their practices. Stop and think before you next purchase a marine ornamental, ask about its certification and help to preserve the rich biodiversity of Indonesia's coral reefs for future generations.
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Chris is a wildlife photographer and conservationist currently living in the Seychelles. He is passionate about the marine environment and concerned about the many threats it is facing today.