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Marine fish threatened by high demand

September 5, 2012

FMT LETTER: From S M Mohd Idris, via e-mail

The high demand for tropical reef aquariums has contributed to a growing market for marine fish, coral, and other reef invertebrates. These creatures often serve the same cleaning and pest control functions in an aquarium that they do in nature. Extracting these creatures poses a threat to the very ecosystems that aquarium hobbyists aim to replicate, depleting the seas as aquariums become more elaborate.

Hobbyists are attracted to using these invertebrate grazers and herbivores because they replicate the natural ecosystem and reduce the need for less-natural forms of tank maintenance. Over harvesting these species may lead to a cascading effect in the reef ecosystem, which can then lead to an overproduction of algae.

Collectors for the aquarium trade are both a peculiar and unprecedented type of generalist predator who targets both abundant and rare species. Species with critical ecological roles are particularly vulnerable and harvesting these species from the wild to supply the aquarium trade can lead to a loss of biodiversity.

The unsustainable collection practices of aquarium traders are being heavily criticized. Casual aquarium owners are often unaware of the consequences of purchasing wild-caught marine animals. Reef collectors are becoming willing participants in the destruction of fragile ocean environments. For almost all targeted species, there is no limit on the number or size of fish taken, nor is there any limit on the number of collectors.  There is only concern for a “race to fish” with total disregard for the future.

Destructive fishing practices commonly employed are blast or cyanide fishing.  The explosion in blast fishing shatters the stony coral and kills fish and invertebrates in large surrounding areas. Over time, blast fishing damages the entire reef and thereby destroys the resource base of many subsistence fishers.

In cyanide fishing, cyanide is injected into the reef cavities, often breaking branching coral to reach hiding fish. Over time, coral can come under severe stress from the cyanide with many smaller reef organisms often dying from overdoses.  Eventually, repetitively subjecting coral  to cyanide will cause it to die.

Apart from destructive fishing methods, reefs are also subjected to human impacts related to mass tourism development, run-off and land based pollution, and climate change with its associated effect of coral bleaching, a key threat to the future of coral reefs.

Left in the wild, coral reef fish that survive the larval stage can live for decades. When plucked from their natural homes, the journey to pet stores of importing countries takes a steady toll during each step of the process, from collector to wholesaler to pet shops. Fish collected with cyanide may survive many days after initial exposure to the poison, but become sick and die once fed.

Fish, even when healthy, may starve without their wild food sources, such as live coral or the parasites of other fish. Those who survive to live in saltwater aquariums may also die of improper water conditions or improper food. The movement of aquarium species from source to home aquarium, known as the “post traumatic shipping disorder”, has probably caused an  enormous amount of pain, stress, and fear to these fishes,  and they may not survive long.

The Fisheries Department has a critical responsibility to address the degradation and loss of coral reef ecosystems that may arise from the commerce of coral reefs species and products. It is vital to work with various stakeholders to develop public education and awareness aimed at reducing unsustainable harvesting practices. They must also work with the marine aquarium industry and various other stakeholders to eliminate destructive collection practices and reduce mortality rates during handling and transportation of coral reef species.

Hobbyists must also bear in mind that no matter how spacious an aquarium or tank is, it can never duplicate the conditions of the sea.

The writer is the president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)


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