Cartimar and Marine Fish Exporter by Gregg Yan
A shop attendant dutifully inspects a holding tank of brightly-hued butterfly, angel and surgeonfish. Despite the hopeful efforts of many hobbyists, most will die within a year. (Gregg Yan / WWF)

Though Finding Nemo introduced millions of viewers to the beauty of saltwater fish, Nemo and most of his friends may literally end up down the drain.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines) estimates that as many as 98 out of 100 wild-caught saltwater fish die within one year.

Due to the volatility of current capture, transport and shipping practices, about 80% of all marine fish die even before they are sold. Even more shocking is the fact that as much as 90% of those that are sold die within the first year. Only the hardiest – clownfish, damselfish, wrasses, gobies and blennies – or those lucky enough to be bought by elite hobbyists, survive.

Trade in Living Jewels

There are three basic types of fish – saltwater fish from the sea, freshwater fish from rivers or lakes, and brackish water fish from zones where fresh and saltwater mix. Because of the volatile nature of rivers, most fresh and brackish water fish have learned to adapt to dramatic fluctuations in water quality.

Freshwater fish like the country’s introduced tilapia species can for example, rapidly adapt to brown-water conditions each time monsoon rains engorge rivers with mud and silt. In contrast, brightly-hued saltwater or marine fish live in the single most stable environment on Earth – the ocean – where large-scale changes occur not in days, but in millennia. Because of this, most are unprepared for life in the average home aquarium, where water parameters fluctuate daily.

In the 1970s, new technologies such as canister filters, ultraviolet sterilizers, protein skimmers plus artificial sea salt finally allowed hobbyists to keep the sea’s living jewels. By 1992, the annual trade in marine ornamentals soared to $360M (PHP15B), involving 36 million fish. Today the trade is valued at over $1B (PHP43B), with 40 nations supplying some 2000 marine fish and 650 invertebrate species to a host of countries – primarily the United States (which imports half the world’s marine ornamental fish), Japan and Western Europe.

The Coral Triangle is the world’s epicenter of marine life abundance and diversity. Spanning the waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste, this extraordinary expanse of ocean covers approximately 6 million square kilometers. Within this nursery of the seas live 76% of the world’s coral species, six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, plus over 3000 fish species.

Today, the Philippines and Indonesia remain the world’s top exporters of wild-caught marine fish, supplying about 85% of global demand. In 1998, the Philippines netted an estimated $6.4M (PHP275M) in marine fish exports – buoying the lives and livelihoods of around 4000 aquarium fish collectors based throughout the archipelago.

However, 40 years of lightly-regulated collection compounded by cyanide use has decimated many reefs. In many fish collection sites, high-value ornamentals like emperor angelfish and clown triggerfish are conspicuously absent. Since Finding Nemo premiered, soaring demand caused clownfish populations to plunge by as much as 75% in some areas.

Steps to a Sustainable Trade

As the planet’s leading environmental solutions-provider, WWF through its Better Choices programme, recognizes that the trade in marine fish and invertebrates is a significant economic driver. However, it must be vigilantly managed to spare reefs additional damage and to minimize post-harvest mortality rates.

“Almost all wild-caught marine fish are taken from coral reefs. A 2004 study by the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) found that only 1% of the country’s coral reefs were in excellent condition,” reveals WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. “The world’s marine habitats continue to be assailed by climate change, pollution and unsustainable fishing. Obviously, poor fish and invertebrate harvest practices do little for conservation.”

A recurring issue is the use of sodium cyanide, thought to have originated in the Philippines in the 1950s. An efficient nerve-toxin, cyanide is squirted into coral heads or rock crevices to stun hard-to-catch fish. Unfortunately, the mixture burns both corals and the vital organs of fish – resulting in the deaths of up to 75% of all living things exposed to it.

“Regulated collection using nets and not poisons, better stocking and shipping techniques plus imposing sensible size, catch and species limits can provide collectors both sustainable livelihoods and a strong incentive to protect instead of exploit our reefs,” adds Tan. In the South Pacific nations of Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands, local communities are learning to sustainably farm hard and soft corals, giant clams and live rock (compacted corals or reef rock encrusted with marine life) for export to western markets.

WWF-Philippines now works on practical solutions for a sustainable marine aquarium trade. Its initial recommendations are the following:

  1. Avoid hard-to-keep fish, especially cleaner wrasses, mandarin dragonets, Moorish idols and all types of seahorses. Mortality rates for these fish are estimated at 99% so it is best to ban them entirely.
  2. Promote hardy fish. Many of the world’s most successful aquaria feature hardy but still colourful clownfish, damsels, gobies, wrasses and surgeonfish. Survival rates are far better and hobbyists end up spending much less for upkeep and stock replacement.
  3. Shift to artificial corals and invertebrates. Unless you are a reef aquarium expert with cutting-edge equipment and a bottomless bank account, steer clear of all stationary invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea anemones. Their care is dramatically more complex than already difficult-to-keep reef fish and mortality rates are alarming. Moreover, harvesting wild hard corals for both the pet and curio trades is illegal. If tank-raised corals are unavailable, then artificial corals and reef blocks are excellent alternatives. The best part? You’ll only ever buy them once.
  4. Shift to aquacultured fish and invertebrates. In stark contrast to freshwater aquarium fish, 95% of all marine fish and invertebrates remain wild-caught. Fortunately, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) recently approved a programme where fish farmers can apply for wildlife ranching permits, allowing aquaculturists to collect a preset number of wild individuals as brood-stock in exchange for the release of 30% of juveniles back into the wild. Farmed seahorses and clownfish are popular in other countries – they might soon be available for Filipino hobbyists.
  5. Raise the prices of saltwater fish and invertebrates. The reality of marine fishkeeping is that it is not for everyone. Higher prices limit the hobby to those with the time, resources and discipline to keep the animals alive. More importantly, this translates to better incomes for local fishermen, who will earn more from catching less fish.

The marine aquarium trade certainly has its merits. Corals, giant clams and a growing list of fish can now be cultured not just for profit – but to someday repopulate Earth’s denuded reefs. More importantly, the hobby cultivates a love and understanding of nature and its myriad processes.

Replacing delicate marine fish and invertebrates with hardy – even aquacultured – alternatives will keep mortalities at an absolute minimum. Remember that for each fish that survives, 90 are flushed down the toilet.

In the five years since Finding Nemo aired, rising demand for the aquarium trade has forced some clownfish populations to decline by as much as 75%.
In the five years since Finding Nemo aired, rising demand for the aquarium trade has forced some clownfish populations to decline by as much as 75%.
In the five years since Finding Nemo aired, rising demand for the aquarium trade has forced some clownfish populations to decline by as much as 75%. (Gregg Yan / WWF)
The end of the line. As many as 98 of every 100 wild-caught marine fish die within one year. “Marine fish are not expendable décor. They have lives and important ecological roles to play in coral reefs,” explains veteran aquarist Joseph Uy. WWF and its allies work to minimize alarming mortality rates for marine fish and invertebrates through its Better Choices campaign. (Gregg Yan / WWF)