Investigating the murky trade in aquarium fish and coral

Fisherman with coral
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Investigating the murky trade in aquarium fish and coral

LONDON: Every year, millions of ornamental tropical fish and pieces of living coral fly across the world to end up in home and business aquariums in Europe and other wealthy markets. While much of the trade is currently legal and provides livelihoods for low-income people in Asia and Africa who collect these goods, there are also big concerns about illegality and unsustainability.

In 2019, journalists Ingrid Gercama and Nathalie Bertrams used a grant from EJN’s Investigating Wildlife Trafficking project to shine a light on this poorly-understood and poorly-regulated trade. Interviewing fish and coral collectors in Kenya and Indonesia, international traders along the supply chain, and scientists and fish collectors in Europe, they produced stories in German for Süddeutsche Zeitung and Tages-Anzeiger, in Dutch for the GroeneAmsterdammer and MO*and in English for the BBC.

Unlike freshwater aquarium fish, which are mostly captive-bred, almost all seawater fish are wild-caught. Each year, tens of millions of them arrive at major European transport hubs such as Schiphol and Frankfurt airports. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, an estimated 80 percent of tropical fish do not survive the trip. While the industry disputes this, saying the mortality rate is just one percent, the true impact is unknown since the trade is so opaque.

Exotic fish in a bag
Exotic fish caught in Kenya pictured in a plastic bag / Credit: Nathalie Bertrams

Monica Biondo, a marine biologist at the Swiss conservation organization Fondation Franz Weber, told Gercama and Bertrams that “no country has a suitable data collection system” for monitoring the trade in ornamental fish. Moreover, Dr. David Obura, a Kenyan marine biologist working in Mombasa for CORDIO East Africa, said there are no legally-regulated quotas set in his country. As a result, "collecting is out of control."

The lack of regulatory clarity makes it hard to say for sure what is legal and what is not, but in some places illegal fishing practices are plain to see. Gercama and Bertrams reported from the Banggai Islands of Indonesia, where some fishermen use cyanide or dynamite to stun fish so they’re easier to harvest. Cyanide is used to catch the tropical fish for aquariums, while dynamite is used for fish for consumption – often an additional source of income for poor fishermen living precariously off the seas. Both practices are illegal. Each kills many fish — both of the species the fishermen want to catch alive and other species that happen to be around. They also damage coral, often beyond repair.

The coral— popular for its bright colors and unusual shapes — itself is in high demand from aquarium owners who like to use it for decoration. And while some coral is sustainably farmed, it is impossible to tell it apart from the coral taken illegally from reefs.

According to statistics compiled by wildlife trade watchdog TRAFFIC, in 2017, European Union member states intercepted more than 32,000 kilograms of smuggled coral, with half of all seizures coming from Indonesia. The following year, in an effort to protect its reefs, Indonesia banned all coral exports. The side effect was that hundreds of sustainable coral farms in the country collapsed and as many as 12,000 people lost their jobs. Indonesia reversed the ban in January 2020, and while coral farmers now hope to get back in business, environmentalists across the world fear an increase in illegal harvesting and further ecosystem-destruction. 

Marine biologists and industry actors advocate for better management and standards and believe it is possible that the aquarium trade could provide a livelihood for thousands of fishing communities, creating incentives for them to protect marine life and harvest it sustainably.

Rene Jorgensen, the Danish head of Kenya Tropical Sealife and a leading fish exporter in East Africa, told Gercama and Bertrams that his fish are caught sustainably – harvested individually by hand net. They command a price at least twice as high as those from Indonesia because, he said, "if you want quality, you have to be willing to pay for it."

Aquarium
Exotic fish fill aquariums in Kenya / Credit: Nathalie Bertrams

Efforts to market sustainably-caught fish more widely have stalled, as the experiences of the Marine Aquarium Council (better known by its acronym - MAC) have shown. It was set up in 1998 to certify sustainable production and identify it with an eco-label. But as Gercama and Bertrams report, the industry was unable to improve transparency, found it impossible to train thousands of fisherfolk, and buyers were largely unwilling to pay more for certified fish.

There are also concerns that international law is not adequate to clamp down on this trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), for example, regulates the international trade in endangered wildlife through quotas and import and export requirements. But as Gercama and Bertrams reported, CITES regulation has previously failed to stop all illegal harvesting of wild coral in Indonesia, as it was difficult for local law enforcement to monitor harvesting and export quotas effectively across Indonesia’s seas. The country has one of the longest coastlines in the world, and conservation efforts still face critical budget deficiencies. Furthermore, while most coral species are covered by CITES, only a few species of tropical marine fish are.

Attempts to rectify that gap got a boost in August 2019, at the 18th meeting of the Conference of Parties to CITES, in Geneva. Despite resistance from the aquarium industry, the conference adopted a proposal by Switzerland, the EU and the US to investigate the global trade in marine ornamental fishes. It is the first step in a process that could result in protection for marine fish under CITES, but it won’t happen quickly.

As Biondo told Gercama and Bertrams: "In ten years, we may be able to correctly evaluate some species and finally protect them."

Read the full stories in Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tages-Anzeiger, GroeneAmsterdammer, MO* and the BBC.

Read more about EJN’s Investigating Wildlife Trafficking project.

Banner image: A fisherman in Indonesia holds up a piece of coral / Credit: Nathalie Bertrams

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