Unknown to most aficionados and beginning ornamental fish fanciers, however, is the threat of depletion now facing the Philippine’s marine fish.
Sea Creatures for Sale
There are three basic types of fish—marine fish from the sea, freshwater fish from rivers or lakes, and brackish water fish from zones where fresh and saltwater mix. Because of the volatile nature of rivers, most fresh and brackish water fish have learned to adapt to dramatic fluctuations in water quality. Freshwater fish can for example, rapidly adapt to brown-water conditions each time monsoon rains engorge rivers with mud and silt.
By contrast, brightly hued marine fish live in the single most stable environment on Earth—the ocean—where large-scale changes occur not in days, but in millennia. Because of this, most are unprepared for life in the average home aquarium, where water parameters fluctuate daily.
In the 1970s new technologies such as canister filters, protein skimmers plus artificial sea salt finally allowed hobbyists to keep many types of marine fish. By 1992 the annual trade in marine ornamentals soared to $360M (PHP15B), involving some 36 million fish.
Today, about 40 nations supply over 2,000 marine fish and 650 invertebrate species to a host of countries—primarily the United States (which buys half the world’s marine ornamental fish), Japan and Western Europe.
Part of the Coral Triangle, the Philippines and Indonesia supply 85 percent of the world’s wild-caught marine fish. In 1998, the Philippines netted an estimated $6.4 million (PHP275M) in marine fish exports—buoying the lives and livelihoods of around 4,000 aquarium fish collectors based throughout the archipelago.
However, 40 years of lightly regulated collection compounded by cyanide use has decimated many reefs. In many fish collection sites, high-value ornamentals like emperor angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) and clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum) are conspicuously absent. In Cartimar, the low-value fish of the 1990s—grey chromis, damsels and blennies—are filling-in for their more colorful but now rarer counterparts.
Due to the volatility of existing capture, transport and shipping practices, an estimated 80 percent of all marine fish die even before they are sold. Even more shocking is the fact that about 90 percent of those that are sold die within the first year—meaning roughly 98 in 100 wild-caught fish die within a year. Each month, millions of fish take the great trip down the toilet in their swim to the afterlife. Only the hardiest—clownfish, damsels, wrasses, gobies and blennies — or those lucky enough to be bought by elite hobbyists, ever survive.
An alarming case—in the five years since Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” aired, clownfish populations declined by as much as 75 percent in some areas. The trade must evolve, or finding Nemo might become impossible tomorrow.
Tips for a Sustainable Trade
Numerous local conservation groups now work on practical solutions for a sustainable marine aquarium trade. Among their initial recommendations are the following:
- Avoid hard-to-keep fish, especially cleaner wrasses, mandarin dragonets, Moorish idols and all types of seahorses. Mortality rates for these fish are estimated at 99 percent so it is best to ban them entirely.
- Promote hardy fish. Many of the world’s most successful aquaria feature hardy but still colorful clownfish, damsels, gobies, wrasses and surgeonfish. Survival rates are far better and hobbyists end up spending much less for upkeep and stock replacement.
- Shift to artificial corals and invertebrates. Unless you are a reef aquarium expert with cutting- edge equipment and a bottomless bank account, steer clear of all stationary invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea anemones. Their care is dramatically more complex than already difficult-to-keep reef fish and mortality rates are alarming. Moreover, harvesting wild hard corals for both the pet and curio trades is illegal. If tank-raised corals are unavailable, then artificial corals and reef blocks are excellent alternatives. The best part? You’ll only ever buy them once.
- Shift to aquacultured fish and invertebrates. As of 2013, this accounts for just 5 percent of the global trade and is not yet readily available in the Philippines. Fortunately, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) recently approved a programme where fish farmers can apply for wildlife ranching permits, allowing aquaculturists to collect a preset number of wild individuals as brood-stock in exchange for the release of 30 percent of juveniles back into the wild. Farmed seahorses and clownfish are popular in other countries—they might soon be available for Filipino hobbyists.
- Raise the prices of saltwater fish and invertebrates. The reality of marine fishkeeping is that it is not for everyone. Higher prices limit the hobby to those with the time, resources and discipline to keep the animals alive, while ensuring that local fishermen earn more from catching less fish.
Finally, hobbyists, pet stores and traders must self-regulate to ensure that new inductees are accorded the proper knowledge, training and respect for life needed to keep marine fish mortalities at an absolute minimum.
The marine aquarium trade certainly has its merits. Corals, giant clams and a growing list of fish can now be cultured not just for profit, but also to someday repopulate Earth’s denuded reefs. More importantly, the hobby cultivates a love and understanding of nature and its myriad processes.
“Replacing delicate marine fish and invertebrates with hardy—even aquacultured—alternatives will keep mortalities at an absolute minimum,” says Filipino hobbyist Vincent Santos. “Remember that for each fish that survives, 90 are flushed down the toilet.”
Gregg Yan serves as the Communications and Media Manager for WWF-Philippines. He has written hundreds of stories on the environment, ranging from renewable energy shifts to satellite tagging for whale sharks. His goal is to convince people that sustainable living offers excellent economic and holistic returns. For more information, add him up on Facebook.