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Watch video footage of tropical reef fish in Christmas Island, Kirbati awaiting export.
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June 28, 2001
"The Tragedy of the Live Fish Trade: Part II"
  Real Audio

Narrated by Chris Johnson

This is Chris Johnson talking to you from the Odyssey in Papua New Guinea. Roger Payne talked last time about cyanide fishing, in which reef fish caught for ornamental purposes or for eating are dazed with cyanide that also destroys the reefs by killing everything exposed to it, particularly the coral. The tragedy is that a live fish trade would be an excellent source of income for people in tropical countries which have coral reefs if only it was pursued sustainably and without destroying the reef habitat that the fish they depend on require. When the same species are caught using nets close to 98% of the fish reach transshipment points alive versus only about 30% for fish caught with cyanide (and of course, the reef stays healthy and continues to produce fish for the fisher… endlessly). The problem is that using nets is harder work, and the fishermen get, say, three fish for a day's work, rather than the three fish per hour they can get using cyanide.

The problem is not laws; it is enforcement. In most of the major areas cyanide fishing is illegal. But payoffs guarantee that those killing the reefs get to operate without restraint. And now, Big Business has moved in and can pay bigger bribes, and afford large vessels that can cruise for several weeks to distant undestroyed reefs, stay there for months and return to port with up to twenty tons of live fish-each animal in its own private plastic bag, and the reef on which it once lived left behind to die.

It is estimated that over 90% of the fish that are overcome by cyanide are either unmarketable, dead, or float away to die later. As for the few 'lucky' survivors, they are captured and left to revive in holding pens, each fish kept in its own plastic bag to keep it from fighting with or eating its neighbors.

It is clear plastic bags that make this market possible. They are sufficiently permeable to oxygen that a small fish gets enough through the walls of its bag. The vast majority of the fish that make it all the way to ornamental fish markets will die a few months later in living room tanks, having finally succumbed to their exposure to cyanide. For fish suppliers, having the fish they sell their customers die a few weeks after reaching their customers' tanks is pure gravy; it increases the demand for more fish.

Once a reef fish has been caught and bagged, it is held in crude, floating, net pens filled to the brim with plastic bags or plastic containers the size of your fist-a single fish trapped inside each one. Sometimes the fish remain in this state for days under the harsh tropical sun-something entirely alien to the lives they lived back on their home reef where cover was always nearby.

The Odyssey crew witnessed first hand the collection and holding of tropical reef fish in several remote island groups of the central tropical pacific. The local people told us these fish were bound for markets in Hawaii and North America where a single specimen of the more exotic species can fetch prices over 100 US dollars, even as high as $500. The local divers who collect the fish receive, of course, very little of this, usually just a few cents per fish. The big profits are made overseas.

The species we observed were the Lemonpeel and the Flame Angelfish. We found them in pens, that were suspended from red surface buoys, in tiny cramped quarters, floating helplessly, awaiting export aboard the weekly flight to the mainland. Several fish were already dead; probably those collected first, which had experienced the greatest exposure to heat and stress.

It was heartbreaking to peer into the plastic buckets and observe these small, exquisitely delicate creatures of inconceivably beautiful colors, imprisoned and doomed, and to know that nearby, their reef homes lay poisoned and dying.

It is easy to be critical of such shortsighted practices, but people in developing nations need alternatives. It is all very well to blame the selfish fishermen or the callous, live-fish marketers for this problem, criticizing them for their short-sightedness and damning their officials for accepting bribes, but it is we, the heedless consumers who are the ultimate architects of wasteful industries like this-because it is we who create the markets that make them possible. And what causes us to do this? It is our ignorance and our insatiable addiction to an oblivious lifestyle that is its genesis. We find it ever so convenient to assume that if something is available to buy that it's OK to buy it. But the fatal consequences of such a view are now written in the world's dead and dying reefs, in laterized soils that once supported rainforests before they were cut and burned to make way for cattle ranches to raise the beef for fast-food chains, and so on. Our willingness to accept the benefits of the global economies we build Must be accompanied by taking the responsibility to inform ourselves about what things are safe to buy and what things cause devastation. It is a high price to pay but we must pay it.

If we buy colourful tropical fish without knowing-or without having set up some mechanism that can enable us to know whether the fish we are buying were obtained by cyanide fishing, we are as guilty as the corruptible politician who accepted a bribe to turn his back while it was exported into our hands. Unless we are hopelessly naïve we cannot possibly assume that exotic species like tropical reef fish, or rare and beautiful shells, or exotic hardwoods, or anything you can name made from rare and unusual species, are being harvested sustainably. We should realize that the chances that they are are almost infinitely small.

There is nothing but our own inertia to stop us from uniting to create a mechanism whereby we buy live fish only from suppliers who fish sustainably and who are not destroying their reefs. It may seem extreme that I can seriously be proposing that anyone should start to invest the time and effort to educate themselves as to who or what is a responsible live fish supplier when what we're talking about here is just a couple of fish for the home tank, for heaven's sake. And besides all of us have dozens of other purchases to make and lots "more important" things to get on with. But that's the whole point. If we are willing to live the multinational, borderless, consumer life we now live then we will destroy the world unless we take responsibility for avoiding the products that do serious damage. For what, after all, is at stake when one is buying live fish? Coral reefs are at stake. And if you, who have listened through this argument don't make an effort to solve this problem, who, pray tell, do you believe will? Each of us can make a difference, but only if we are responsible enough to first become informed, and then to act.

There are suppliers starting to provide responsible markets with responsibly caught fish.. For example: a former cyanide fisherman in Nasugba village, in the Philippines, has become a provincial fish examiner and now leads a three thousand member group formed to end destructive fishing practices. He did this because he had first hand experience with the horrors of cyanide fishing, having known fishers who died underwater after swimming through milky clouds of cyanide they had released. He also knew a fisher who died after eating with cyanide contaminated hands, and several children who died after eating fish that had come home in cyanide contaminated bags.

In an effort to point out the problems of cyanide fishing, biologist Carl Safina has written:

"At this point, just stopping cyanide fishing would be a victory. Never mind catch limits. Never mind quota restrictions. An unrestricted hook-and-line fishery-what we consider uncontrolled, unmanaged fishing in the West-would seem a blessing in the Indo-Pacific, compared to what's now happening here."

(c) 2001 Written by Roger Payne

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