Do you know exactly where your marine fish come from?
The bottom line is that we all should know where our marine life is coming from and whether or not it was collected humanely and sustainably.
The reason for this is that the collection and handling practices used on the species we buy has a real effect on their health and longevity in the home aquarium, not to mention the negative effects unsustainable collection has on our oceans coral reefs…
Where do your fish come from and why should you care?
Most people have no idea where their marine life comes from (actually about 50% come from the Philippines or Indonesia) and may not even be aware that there are still some cowboys out there who collect marine creatures, handle and ship them in a cruel fashion to make a quick buck from the end consumer…you!
The reason you should care is because these species are often unsuitable for the home aquarium and/or they are collected unsustainably thereby depleting natural stocks and putting entire reef eco-systems at risk (which can easily collapse if enough key species are lost). But not only that, the species collected often arrive at the local fish store in such bad shape that they will die in the next few weeks, which means unsuspecting consumers lose, many of these unsuspecting consumers are first timers and give up the hobby completely because of this bad experience, which is very sad…
Did you know a whopping 98% of all marine life in the trade is collected from the wild (compared with just 30% of freshwater species) from a very stable environment in regards to physical and chemical conditions (temperature, pH, alkalinity, salinity etc). This equates to the real world statistic that up to 80% of saltwater species die before they reach their final destination: the home aquarium.
Unnecessary loss of life from underhanded tactics…
The reason there is so much loss of life is stress. As I have said previously the health of aquarium species (especially fish) is directly related to collection, handling, holding and shipping/packaging practices in the chain of distribution, from collector to fish store customer.
So what exactly are the practises that we as hobbyists need to avoid and become vocal about to protect the future of our planets reefs?
1. Sodium cyanide capture: This is a very large problem in the Philippines and Indonesia. Cyanide is a very toxic substance (ever hear of cyanide gas being used in wars?) that comes in tablets which are crushed into squirt bottles of seawater, divers then squirt this over coral reefs and collect the stunned fish who are unable to swim quickly, the theory is that “most” fish can recover from this chemical. Some fish escape into the coral heads before the drug takes effect; the divers respond by smashing up the coral until they find their fish! The poison also indiscriminately kills corals and smaller marine species and lingering toxicity will often kill captured fish weeks later and is strongly associated with “sudden death syndrome”. Treated fish can often (but not always) be spotted in your local fish store: they often have too bright colours and will seem “dazed” in the tank and unresponsive, completely in their own world. Angelfish are the fish family most often caught in this fashion.
The Philippines are starting to enforce the ban of this nasty chemical that is also very toxic to the divers that use it (through accidental exposure and poor equipment), but a high premium for live fish, weak enforcement and widespread corruption means it has been slow to take hold. The International Marine Life Alliance (IMA) has opened cyanide detection labs across the Philippines, which randomly test fish for export. The IMA has also trained many local fishermen to use fine mesh nets on the reef instead. Both these steps have seen cyanide capture reduce in the Philippines, but its use has instead risen in Indonesia.
Sadly cyanide capture has now spread to pristine reefs from the central Pacific to East Africa.
What can you do about this?
Make sure you only purchase fish from a retailer who guarantees the fish are not captured with cyanide! Be especially suspicious of fish from Indonesia or the Philippines.
2. Collection and retail of species unsuitable for marine aquariums: Species such as Damselfish, Parrotfish, Moray Eel, Cleaner Wrasse, Seahorse, Scorpionfish, Stonefish and many others have a very poor susrvival rate when they are taken out of their natural environments (despite what you may be told). Also check out this blog post to see what marine invertebrates and corals you shouldn’t buy.
Retailers that sell these species and encourage new tank keepers to try their hand at a species such as this not only cause grief with tank owners who lose money and time but also to the reefs themselves.
What can you do about this?
The truth is quite a few fish stores know that these species should not be sold to beginners or should not be sold at all, yet they still sell them, I consider this rather despicable. These stores give the industry a bad name and I encourage you to avoid them and tell others to do so as well.
3. Bad handling, husbandry and shipping practices: Many marine collectors, brokers and exporters poorly handle and house the fish through lack of knowledge, funds or share laziness, this is especially true in SE Asia. It really is the rule that the more hands that handle the fish in the chain of distribution the higher the mortality rates! Every step involves a transfer of liquid environment and so a stressful acclimation process.
A good handling procedure involves specimens being bagged separately with oxygen being used and plenty of space or systems for dilution of toxic wastes. Shipping containers should be protective and strong as well as capable of maintaining water temperature effectively.
Many holding tanks in the industry are too small and are overcrowded with unsuitable species put together that should be kept separate and less than optimal water quality. This all serves to create stress and as we all know stress lowers the immune system and makes the animal more susceptible to disease and death.
What can you do about this?
Do some research on your preferred marine life retailer, where do their fish come from? How are they handled? Do they have a certification from any marine life organisation? Can they guarantee the life of the fish you purchase?
If your retailer gets their stock from sustainable sources, they will go to great pains to tell you this in my experience!
Always purchase captive raised marine life and coral frags where possible!