Toxic Tanks

By Sophia Read

For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ When I was just a little girl, I used to love going to the dentist. Not because he always gave us sweets (sugar-free, of course) when we left, but because one whole wall of the waiting room was a giant aquarium, full of the most amazing fish. Damselfish, angelfish, surgeonfish, butterflyfish – incredibly vivid, a sparkling, dancing multitude of life. And, to my 9-year-old mind, all the better because every time we went, there was a new tank full of fish, so I never got bored.

Unfortunately, now I realize why. In between my six-monthly visits, the tropical marine fish most probably all died. Approximately 2 million people worldwide now keep “tropical fish” and the annual value of the trade is estimated at US$200-300 million. Many freshwater species are farmed, but nearly all the marine fish we see swimming around in pet shops, shopping malls and office blocks are harvested from the wild, and the majority of those are caught near here, in Indonesian or Philippine waters.

Although poor husbandry after capture increases mortality rates, the major reason for the quick death of nearly all these creatures is the way they are caught, normally through the incredibly destructive method of fishing with cyanide. Ten years ago, a survey of US retailers revealed that “at least 33-50 percent of aquarium fish from Southeast Asia die shortly after arrival.” Of the remaining half, most will expire within a matter of weeks, from shock or from massive digestive failure.

Cyanide fishing involves the use of crushed sodium cyanide dissolved in water. The deadly mixture is sprayed into the coral where the fish lives. Those that do not die immediately are stunned and disoriented, and generally easy to capture. Cyanide blocks hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen through the blood, leading to effects similar to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The divers and fishermen using cyanide unknowingly face unacceptable risks to their own lives. They often dive to depths completely ignoring all safety guidelines, and thus often suffer from the “bends,” or even carbon monoxide poisoning itself due to poor air supplied through thin tubes from the surface. Ironically, the increase in cyanide as a capture method was probably triggered by better control and restriction of dynamite, or blast fishing. Cyanide fishing is quieter and – though equally illegal – much less detectable. Only the effects remain.

The target fish are not the only organisms affected by the introduction of the poison into the ocean. Their offspring, and the fragile coral polyps in which they make their homes, are even more vulnerable, and when the adult fish have been removed, the ocean floor is left littered with dead fish and coral. The captured fish themselves are no luckier – the effects of the cyanide, and poor post-capture handling, lead to “75 percent mortality within 48 hours.”

And of those 25 percent that might survive, when they arrive in the destination country, “33-50 percent die within a few days,” and an untracked proportion within weeks. So a best-case estimate of 12.5 percent of fish harvested with cyanide actually make it to the aquariums for which they are destined.

According to a 2003 paper produced by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre on the marine aquarium trade, there is “little doubt that aquarium animals are the highest value-added product that can be harvested from a coral reef,” and there are some serious statistics to back up that claim: in 2000, in the Maldives, 1 kilogram of live fish for aquariums was valued at $500,; 1kg of reef fish for food was worth only $6.

The more spectacular reef fish frequently come from isolated areas, from rural, low-income, coastal areas. The Western world can deplore the inefficient harvest methods, and preach endlessly about the necessity of protecting and preserving the coral reef habitats, but until the local communities have an interest in switching to environmentally friendly and sustainable methods, nothing will change.

In Indonesia, laws have prohibited cyanide and other destructive fishing methods for more than 20 years. Penalties range from 10 years in prison, to a Rp100-million ($11,000) fine. However, the realities of monitoring the coastline of the entire archipelago are daunting, and render the legislation toothless. Compounding the problem is the nature of the business itself. The vast profits available mean the middlemen (transporters, wholesalers, exporters, importers) are remarkably well-funded, and able to disburse large amounts to ease the path of their product.

Tracking cyanide caught fish is also difficult. In the majority of Southeast Asian nations, all fish exported for aquaria are simply reported as “tropical fish,” with no way to identify their origin, or even their species. Singapore and the Maldives require species-specific data to be recorded. In Vanuatu, Tonga and the Solomons, this data is required to be granted a fishing license, and Australia is forging forward – it requires actual “catch” data.

To protect the reefs we need to know what species are being caught, and where and how they are being caught. This basic information is vital for any form of plan to be formulated as to how the reefs can be fished in a sustainable manner. Without it, there is very little one can do.

Cyanide fishing is easy. Sodium cyanide is widely available, and basically, all you need is a squirt bottle. The high mortality rate matters little when the intrinsic value of the surviving individuals is so high – it simply means that more fish are caught. Retraining in safe harvest methods is expensive, time consuming and, until there is a clear economic incentive not to poison fish with cyanide, the practice will continue.

The poor tracking methods act as a disincentive to switch to better methods – the equipment itself required for the change, and the higher costs of time and energy for a significantly lower yield are simply beyond the price range of most rural coastal communities. As things stand, if they made the change, their better, healthier, sustainable caught fish would immediately vanish into the system, mixed in with fish caught using cyanide, at a much, much lower cost.

So what is to be done? Massive reeducation campaigns yielded positive results in the Philippines, but the simple fact is that until we stop buying cyanide-caught fish, people will keep catching them, and our reefs will die quicker and quicker. Testing labs need to be set up in the source countries to ensure that cyanide caught fish can be identified. This should show a two-fold benefit: It will not only allow easier tracking of those people using cyanide, but will quickly demonstrate to exporters and importers alike that non cyanide-caught fish do in fact have a higher value.

I am working on the assumption that people who keep aquariums would rather buy fish likely to survive, to enjoy them. Even in dentists’ waiting rooms.

The writer is sales manager of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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