Victoria Milko, Firdia Lisnawati & Kathy Young
LES, INDONESIA (AP) – 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 colour 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 Rhode Island fish enthusiast, Jack Siravo, who began building aquariums after an accident paralysed 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 Partiana, experts said 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 (US), China, Europe and elsewhere.
“There’s no enforcement, no management, no data collection,” said founder Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley of LINI, a Bali-based nonprofit for the conservation and management of coastal marine resources,
That leaves enthusiasts like Siravo in the dark.
“Consumers often don’t know where their fish is coming from, and they don’t know how they are collected,” said Andrew Rhyne, 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 three million homes in the US 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 US every year.
For decades, a common fishing technique has involved cyanide, with dire consequences for fish and marine ecosystems.
Fishermen crush the blue or white pellets into a bottle filled with water. The diluted cyanide forms a poisonous mixture fishermen squirt onto coral reefs, where fish usually hide in crevices. The fish become temporarily stunned, allowing fishermen to easily pick or scoop them from the coral.
Many die in transit, weakened by the cyanide – which means even more fish need to be captured to meet demand. The chemicals damage the living coral and make it more difficult for new coral to grow.
Cyanide fishing has been banned in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines but enforcement of the law remains difficult, and experts said the practice continues.
Part of the problem is geography, Reksodihardjo-Lilley explained. In the vast archipelago of Indonesia, there are about 34,000 miles of coastline across some 17,500 islands. That makes monitoring the first step of the tropical fish supply chain a task so gargantuan it is all but ignored.
“We have been working at the national level, trying to push the national government to give attention to ornamental fish in Indonesia, but it’s fallen on deaf ears,” she said.
Indonesian officials counter that laws do exist that require exporters to meet quality, sustainability, traceability and animal welfare conditions. “We will arrest anyone who implements destructive fishing. There are punishments for it,” said an official at Indonesia’s marine affairs and fisheries ministry, Machmud.
‘NO REAL RECORD-KEEPING’
Another obstacle to monitoring and regulating the trade is the quick pace that the fish can move from one location to another, making it difficult to trace their origins.
At a fish export warehouse in Denpasar, thousands of fish a day can be delivered to the big industrial-style facility located off the main road in Bali’s largest city.
Trucks and motorbikes arrive with white Styrofoam coolers crammed with plastic bags of fish from around the archipelago. The fish are swiftly unpacked, sorted into tanks or new plastic bags and given fresh seawater.
Carcasses of ones that died in transit are tossed into a basket or onto the pavement, then later thrown in the trash.
Some fish will remain in small rectangular tanks in the warehouse for weeks, while others are shipped out quickly in plastic bags in cardboard boxes, fulfilling orders from the US, Europe and elsewhere.
According to data provided to The Associated Press by Indonesian government officials, the US was the largest importer of saltwater aquarium fish from the country.
Once the fish make the plane ride halfway around the world from Indonesia to the US, they’re checked by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which cross-references the shipment with customs declaration forms.
But that’s designed to ensure no protected fish, such as the endangered Banggai Cardinal, are being imported. The process cannot determine if the fish were caught legally.
A US law known as the Lacey Act bans trafficking in fish, wildlife, or plants that were illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold – according to the laws in the country of origin or sale.
That means that any fish caught using cyanide in a country where it’s prohibited would be illegal to import or sell in the US.
But that helps little when it’s impossible to tell how the fish was caught. For example, no test exists to provide accurate results on whether a fish has been caught with cyanide, said, Rhyne.
“The reality is that the Lacey Act isn’t used often because generally there’s no real record-keeping or way to enforce it,” said Rhyne.