The dark rules of the aquarium fish trade | International

19 October 2022, 15:47 ISTSource: AP

After a dip in the warm sea off the coast of Bali in northern Indonesia, Made Partiana hovers over a coral bed holding her breath, searching for glimmers of movement. Hours later, he returns exhausted to the rocky shore, towing plastic bags filled with his delicate quarry: tropical fish of all shades and shapes. “I started fishing in 1997, after finishing primary school, because my parents couldn’t afford my education. So that’s when I became an ornamental fisherman,” Partiana said. Millions of saltwater fish like these are caught each year in Indonesia and other countries to fill aquariums with vibrant, otherworldly life in living rooms, waiting rooms and restaurants around the world. But the journey from places like Bali to Rhode Island is dangerous for the fish and the reefs they come from. Some are caught with cyanide sprays to disorient them. Many die on the way. Even when carefully caught by people like Partiana, experts say the global demand for these fish is contributing to the degradation of fragile coral ecosystems. “The sea is big and has open access, so we can use it as long as we don’t use cyanide, respect nature and fish with nets that are environmentally friendly,” Partiana said. Efforts have been made to reduce destructive practices such as cyanide fishing. But the trade is difficult to regulate and monitor because it stretches from small-scale fishermen in villages to middlemen, export warehouses, international trade centers and finally pet stores in the US, China, Europe and elsewhere. “Most of the fish that come into the U.S. are caught legally. But there’s a portion of the fish that comes into the U.S., and we don’t know what the proportion is, that’s certainly illegal, and they’re mixed together. It’s not. Even and the person importing them can know which fish are properly harvested and which are not,” says Andrew Rhyne, a professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Most ornamental saltwater fish are caught in the wild because raising them in captivity is expensive, difficult, and often time-consuming. may be impossible. According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2021-2022 survey, about 3 million households in the U.S. keep saltwater fish as pets. About 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the U.S. each year. For decades, common fishing techniques have used cyanide with dire consequences for fish and marine ecosystems. or crushes. Diluted cyanide creates a toxic mixture that splashes onto coral reefs where fish normally hide. The fish are temporarily stunned, which allows them to be taken from the coral. Many die in transit, weakened by cyanide – meaning more fish must be caught to meet demand. The chemicals damage living coral and make it difficult for new coral to grow. Cyanide fishing has been banned in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, but enforcement remains difficult and experts say the practice continues. “If the fish is caught with cyanide or in a restricted area, then the fish will be illegal. But there’s no way for the consumer to really know which fish is which, because they don’t have a label like they have on their clothes, telling you where they came from,” Raine said. Another obstacle to monitoring and regulating the trade is the rapid pace at which fish can move between locations, making it difficult to trace their origin. At a fish export warehouse in Denpasar, Bali, thousands of fish a day can be delivered in white Styrofoam coolers filled with plastic bags of fish from all over the archipelago. The fish are quickly packed, divided into tanks or new plastic bags and given fresh sea water. Those who die on the road are thrown into the trash. Some fish will stay in storage in small rectangular tanks for weeks, while others are quickly dispatched, fulfilling orders from the US, Europe and elsewhere. As the fish fly from Indonesia to the United States, they are inspected by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which cross-checks the shipment with customs declaration forms. But this is to ensure that no protected fish are imported. The process cannot determine whether the fish were caught legally. A US law known as the Lacey Act prohibits the trade of fish, wildlife or plants that are illegally taken, captured, transported or sold under the laws of the country of origin or sale. This means that any fish caught using cyanide would be illegal in the country where it is prohibited to import or sell it to the United States, but there is no test that can tell for sure whether a fish has been caught with cyanide. “The onus is on the importer, the onus is on the importer. The importer has to choose an exporter that’s doing the right thing. You know, exporting animals the right way, complying with their country’s export laws and wildlife laws, as well,” says US Fish and Wildlife Service officer Carlos Pages. In the absence of national controls, 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 fishing – using cyanide – shortly after elementary school when her parents could not afford her tuition. Each catch would help provide a few dollars in income for the family. But over the years, Partiana began to feel that the reef had changed. Experts say such local education and training needs to be expanded to reduce harmful fishing. Rhode Island fish enthusiast Jack Siravo shares Partiana’s hopes for a more environmentally friendly saltwater aquarium industry. “You learn the impact of the collection,” he says. “I don’t want fish that are not harvested sustainably, because if I buy fish today, I won’t be able to buy fish tomorrow.”


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