Q. What is involved in capturing a fish from the ocean and bringing it into the aquarium trade? I have looked into this process and heard that sometimes cyanide is used to stun the fish. Is this true? How can fish survive the trip from the ocean across the world to our aquariums and how can I tell in what manner my fish were caught?
Key Largo, Florida
A. It is usually a long journey that fish take from the ocean to the aquarium trade. In many ways, at least for the aquatic industry, the entire process is not very glamorous. Cyanide fishing is not nearly as prevalent today as it once was, though it still takes place and has totally ruined many coral reefs around the world. The effect live capture has on coral reefs is one of the many reasons eco-conscious aquarists have become proponents of keeping as much captive-propagated livestock as possible.
For instance, fish are usually caught in the South Pacific by local islanders that capture fish for the aquarium trade. The problem is that some of these folks will be on the water for several days before the fish return to the dock and are placed in properly filtered water. Many of these collectors advertise that while the fish are in their care they change their holding water daily. Divers, oftentimes free diving, go down and net fish in what many conservationists call a “fish rodeo.” The desirable species are kept and once a quota is met the collectors return to dock and sell the captured fish to an exporter. Typically, once the fish are collected by an exporter they are placed in holding aquariums that contain properly filtered water.
The fish then go through a process called “purging.” Basically, this means that they are not fed to minimize waste and the risk of toxins building up during shipping. The fish are then sold to an importer often in the United States or Europe. They are shipped via air to the importer’s facility where they often receive a better standard of care than that received while in the custody of the collector or exporter. The fish are usually quarantined for several weeks before they are sold to local fish outlets, online suppliers, etc. It is after the exporter sale stage that hobbyists see the fish for sale. As you can see, the close quarters, severe stress and lack of nutrition all add up, making it very likely that new aquarium fish will arrive with either a parasite or stress related infection. It is for this reason that the implementation of quarantine procedures on the part of the aquarist is emphasized throughout the hobby.
Net-caught fish typically fare far better then those caught by chemical means. Cyanide capture damages different organs within fish, and while they may initially appear healthy you will quickly find your finned friends withering away. Sometimes just asking a fish outlet owner how the fish were captured can answer those questions. Buying fish that are “MAC” (Marine Aquarium Council) certified or from various regions in the world that have banned cyanide fishing can also guarantee that safer capture techniques were used. Parts of the Solomon Islands, Palau, Fiji and Hawaii are known to utilize safe hand capture techniques.
Taking fish from the ocean to the aquarium is a very real fact of life for aquarists. When safe and environmentally sustainable methods are used, not only does the aquarist get a healthy fish, but the impact to the natural coral reef is very small. When collectors use chemicals to capture fish, the reef is forever damaged and the fate of the fish is uncertain at best. Hopefully as we learn more methods for captive spawning of marine fish, more captive-raised specimens will become available to aquarists. While many fish are able to survive the extensive trip from their home ocean to the aquarium, many species do not. Typically it’s through the work of prudent collectors, good exporters and reliable importers that fish make it to the U.S. alive.
The best way to protest poor collection techniques and unreliable exporters/importers is to simply not buy livestock from these vendors.