Problem with the aquarium trade | Borneo Online Newsletter


Victoria Milko, Firdia Lisnawati and Kathy Young

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 searching for flashes of color and movement. A few hours later, exhausted, he returns to a rocky beach, towing plastic bags filled with his exquisite, slender 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 ever more elaborate aquariums in living rooms, waiting rooms and restaurants around the world with vibrant life. and from another world.

“It’s so much fun watching the antics between different varieties of fish,” said Rhode Island fish enthusiast Jack Siravo, who started building aquariums after an accident crippled him and now has four tanks. salt water. He calls the fish “an inexhaustible source of fascination”.

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

And even when caught with care, by the likes of Partiana, experts say global demand for these fish contributes to the degradation of delicate coral ecosystems, especially in major exporting countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Efforts have been made to reduce some of the most destructive practices, such as cyanide fishing.

Boats line the coast of Les, Bali in Indonesia. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE AND BELOW: Coral damaged by years of dynamite fishing; and dead fish in a container at a sorting station in

Workers sort captured aquarium fish and deliver them to an export warehouse in Denpasar, Bali

But the trade is extraordinarily difficult to regulate and track as it ranges from small-scale fishermen in tropical beach villages to local middlemen, export warehouses, international trading centers and finally pet stores in the United States (US) , in China, in 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.

That leaves enthusiasts like Siravo 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. The conditions they need to reproduce are extremely particular and poorly understood, even by scientists and expert breeders who have been trying for years.

Small-scale collection and export of saltwater aquarium fish began in Sri Lanka in the 1930s and the trade has grown steadily ever since. Nearly three million households in the United States keep saltwater fish as pets, according to a 2021-2022 survey by the American Pet Products Association.

Freshwater aquariums are much more common because freshwater fish are generally cheaper and easier to raise and maintain. Approximately 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the United States each year.

For decades, a common fishing technique has involved cyanide, with disastrous consequences for fish and marine ecosystems.

The fishermen crush the blue or white pellets in a bottle filled with water. Diluted cyanide forms a toxic mixture that fishermen inject onto coral reefs, where fish typically hide in crevices. The fish are temporarily stunned, allowing anglers to easily pick them up or remove them from the coral.

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


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

Part of the problem is geography, Reksodihardjo-Lilley explained. In the vast Indonesian archipelago, there are approximately 34,000 miles of coastline on some 17,500 islands. This makes monitoring the first leg of the tropical fish supply chain such a gargantuan task that it is virtually ignored.

“We worked at the national level, trying to push the national government to pay attention to ornamental fish in Indonesia, but it fell on deaf ears,” she said.

Indonesian officials counter that there are laws that require exporters to meet quality, sustainability, traceability and animal welfare conditions. “We will arrest anyone who implements destructive fishing. There are penalties for that,” said an official from the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Machmud.


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, thousands of fish a day can be delivered to the large, industrial-style facility located on the main road in Bali’s largest city.

Trucks and motorbikes arrive with white polystyrene coolers filled with plastic bags of fish from all over the archipelago. The fish are quickly unpacked, sorted into tanks or new plastic bags and given fresh seawater.

The carcasses of those who died in transit are dumped in a basket or on the sidewalk, then later thrown in the trash.

Some fish will sit in small rectangular tanks in the warehouse for weeks, while others are shipped quickly in plastic bags in cardboard boxes, fulfilling orders from the United States, Europe and elsewhere. .

According to data provided to The Associated Press by Indonesian government officials, the United States was the country’s largest importer of saltwater aquarium fish.

Once the fish have flown halfway around the world from Indonesia to the United States, they are checked 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, such as the endangered Banggai Cardinal, are imported. The process cannot determine if the fish was caught legally.

A US law known as the Lacey Act prohibits trafficking in fish, wildlife or plants illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold, in accordance with the laws of the country of origin or sale.

This means that any fish caught using cyanide in a country where it is banned would be illegal to import or sell in the United States.

But it helps little when it is impossible to tell how the fish was caught. For example, no test exists to provide accurate results on whether a fish was caught with cyanide, Rhyne said.

“The reality is that the Lacey Act isn’t used often because there’s usually no real record keeping or way to enforce it,” Rhyne said.


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