Millions of saltwater fish captured from the ocean in Bali to be sent to aquariums around the world
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.
- Most species of saltwater fish are wild-caught due to the difficulty in breeding in captivity
- A common illegal fishing technique is to spray cyanide on coral reefs to stun fish
- Fishermen and conservation groups in Bali are working to stop the practice
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 just watching the antics between different varieties of fish,” says Jack Siravo, a Rhode Island fish enthusiast who started building aquariums after an accident crippled him.
He now has four saltwater tanks and calls the fish “an inexhaustible source of fascination”.
But the long journey from places like Bali to distant destinations like Rhode Island is perilous for 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 people like Mr Partiana, experts say the 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.
But the trade is extraordinarily difficult to regulate and track as it ranges from small-scale fishermen in tropical seaside villages to local middlemen, export warehouses, international trading centers and finally to pet stores in the United States, China, in Europe and elsewhere.
“There’s no enforcement, no management, no data collection,” says Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, founder of LINI, a Bali-based nonprofit for marine resource conservation and management. coastal.
That leaves enthusiasts like Mr. Siravo in the dark.
“Consumers often don’t know where their fish come from and they don’t know how they’re collected,” says Andrew Rhyne, professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
The cyanide technique has disastrous consequences
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 3 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.
Officials struggle to enforce laws
Cyanide fishing has been banned in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, but enforcement remains difficult and experts say the practice continues.
Part of the problem is geography, says Ms. Reksodihardjo-Lilley.
“We worked at the national level, trying to get the national government to pay attention to ornamental fish in Indonesia, but it fell on deaf ears,” she says.
In the vast Indonesian archipelago, there are approximately 54,720 kilometers 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.
There are official Indonesian counter-laws that require exporters to meet quality, sustainability, traceability and animal welfare conditions.
“We will arrest anyone who engages in destructive fishing. There are penalties for that,” says Machmud, an official with Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, who uses only one name.
“No real record keeping”
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 a 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 fed with 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 indicating whether a fish has been caught with cyanide, says Mr. Rhyne, Roger Williams’ marine biology expert.
“The reality is that the Lacey Act isn’t used often because there’s usually no real record keeping or way to enforce it,” he says.
Locals work to save the dying reef
In the absence of strong national enforcement, conservation groups and local fishermen have long worked to reduce cyanide fishing in places like Les, a famous saltwater aquarium fishing town nestled between mountains and the ocean in the north of Bali.
Mr. Partiana started fishing – using cyanide – shortly after primary school, when his parents could no longer afford to pay for his education.
Each catch would help provide a few dollars of income for his family.
But over the years, he began to notice the reef changing.
“I saw the reef die, turn black,” he says. “You could see there were less fish.”
He became a member of a group of local fishermen who were taught by a local conservation organization how to use nets, take care of the reef and patrol the area to guard against the use of cyanide.
He then became a lead trainer for the organization and has trained over 200 fellow aquarium fishers across Indonesia in the use of less harmful techniques.
Ms Reksodihardjo-Lilley says this kind of local education and training should be expanded to reduce harmful fishing.
“People can see that they directly benefit from healthy reefs,” she says.
For Mr. Partiana, now a father of two, it’s not just for his benefit.
“I hope the (healthier) coral reefs will allow the next generation of children and grandchildren to guide me,” he says.
He wants them to be able to “see what the coral looks like and that there may be ornamental fish in the sea”.
A world apart in Rhode Island, Mr. Siravo, the fish enthusiast, shares Mr. Partiana’s hopes for a less destructive saltwater aquarium industry.
“I don’t want fish that aren’t harvested sustainably,” he says.
“Because I won’t be able to have fish tomorrow if I buy (unsustainably caught fish) today.”