International
Alex Lindbloom / AP Photo

World - Behind the colorful tropical fish trade loom perilous practices

The trade of saltwater aquarium fish has been growing since the 1930s, but destructive fishing methods can harm both the fish and their ecosystems. Local education and training may provide a solution to keeping reefs in good health.

After diving into the warm sea off the coast of northern Bali, Indonesia, Made Partiana hovers above a bed of coral, holding his breath and scanning for flashes of color and movement. Hours later, exhausted, he returns to a rocky beach, towing plastic bags filled with his darting, exquisite quarry: tropical fish of all shades and shapes.

Millions of saltwater fish like these are caught in Indonesia and other countries every year to fill ever more elaborate aquariums in living rooms, waiting rooms, and restaurants around the world with vivid, otherworldly life.

“It’s just so much fun to just watch the antics between different varieties of fish,” said Jack Siravo, a Rhode Island fish enthusiast who began building aquariums after an accident paralyzed him and now has four saltwater tanks. He calls the fish “an endless 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 captured using squirts of cyanide to stun them. Many die along the way.

And even when they are captured carefully, by people like Mr. Partiana, experts say the global demand for these fish is contributing to the degradation of delicate coral ecosystems, especially in major export countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

There have been efforts to reduce some of the most destructive practices, such as cyanide fishing. But the trade is extraordinarily difficult to regulate and track as it stretches from small-scale fishermen in tropical seaside villages through local middlemen, export warehouses, international trade hubs, and finally to pet stores in the United States, China, Europe, and elsewhere.

“There’s no enforcement, no management, no data collection,” said Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, founder of LINI, a Bali-based nonprofit for the conservation and management of coastal marine resources.

That leaves enthusiasts like Mr. Siravo in the dark.

“Consumers often don’t know where their fish are coming from, and they don’t know how they are collected,” said Andrew Rhyne, a marine biology professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Stunned by cyanide

Most ornamental saltwater fish species are caught in the wild 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 since. Nearly 3 million homes in the U.S. keep saltwater fish as pets, according to a 2021-2022 American Pet Products Association survey. (Freshwater aquariums are far more common because freshwater fish are generally cheaper and easier to breed and care for.) About 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the U.S. every year.

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