Saving Nemo

A shop attendant dutifully inspects a holding tank of brightly-hued butterfly, angel and surgeonfish. Despite the hopeful efforts of many hobbyists, most will die within a year. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

It is dank and humid—a bustling, bubbling world illuminated only by rows of lit aquaria. Inside each, dozens of multicolored fish jostle for space and survival rights. Comprising about a hundred shops offering arowanas, tarantulas and everything in between, the complex has seen many changes but remains the country’s top aquarium fish hub. Welcome to Marine Fish Central, the Cartimar pet complex in Metro Manila’s Pasay City, where thousands of marine fish—and pesos—change hands daily.

Unknown to most aficionados and beginning ornamental fish fanciers, however, is the threat of depletion now facing the Philippine’s marine fish.

At an export facility in Paranaque, fish are readied for their journey to Japan, a top marine fish importer. “Last night we shipped out thousands of fish in 24 boxes,” reveals a slipper-clad operator. Today, the Philippines and Indonesia supply 85% of the world’s wild-caught marine fish. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

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.

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.

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.

The end of the line. As many as 98 of every 100 wild-caught marine fish die within one year. “Marine fish are not expendable décor. They have lives and important ecological roles to play in coral reefs,” explains veteran aquarist Joseph Uy. Numerous conservation groups are working to minimize alarming mortality rates for marine fish and invertebrates. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

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.

Specialist feeders, all seahorse species are difficult to keep. Mortality rates are estimated to breach 90%. Certified Philippine tank-raised seahorses are good alternatives. Under a new BFAR ruling, they might soon become available for local consumption and export to international markets. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

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.

Despite being one of the most iconic marine fish, Finding Nemo’s ‘Gil’ rarely eats in captivity and almost always succumbs to a slow death. Sadly, it remains one of the trade’s most common offerings. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

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.

Once a common sight in Philippine coral reefs, cleaner wrasses perform an important service by picking reef fish clean of parasites – sometimes swimming into the gaping jaws of large predators to clean teeth. Unfortunately, their extremely specialized diet makes them difficult aquarium inhabitants. They are best left in the wild. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

  • 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.

Probably the world’s most colourful fish,  Mandarinfish nevertheless take poorly to captivity and are usually overpowered by more aggressive tank-mates. By halting the local trade in these four fish and shifting to hardier fish like clownfish, damsels, wrasses, gobies and blennies, marine mortality rates shall be greatly minimized. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

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

Gregg Yan

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.