Reef-friendly fishing takes off

SUCCESS STORY

Posted: 24 June 2003

Author: Linda B. Bolido

In the waters off the Cook Islands, Christopher Boeta spends his days diving around coral reefs looking for live fish, catching them to sell to dealers and pet stores around the world. But Boeta is among a new breed of fisherman. He is one of the first divers here to have been trained to collect live fish in a sustainable manner. Linda B. Bolido reports.

Christopher BoetaDiver Christopher Boeta, who is trained in sustainable aquarium fish harvesting, shows some of the tools of his trade.© Linda B. Bolido

That means he does not use cyanide to stun fish so they can be easily collected; he does not break corals to get access to hiding marine animals; and he is careful not to take too many fish that populations cannot recover.

In the past few decades collecting fish for home aquariums, together with harvesting live fish and other seafood from reefs for high-end restaurants, has taken a heavy toll on the world's coral reefs. The market in live fish from reefs generates an estimated $500 million to $1 billion annually, according to Farming the Reef, an upcoming report from the World Resources Institute that will be released at the World Parks Congress in September. The study estimates that the trade in "ornamental" fish generates $28 million to $44 million each year. And the live-fish trade continues to grow.

An estimated one-quarter of the world's coral reefs have been lost in recent years due to extensive coastal development, pollution from runoff, climate change, and overfishing, among other pressures.

Sustainable fishing

But awareness of how human practices are damaging reefs is growing. And an increasing number of customers are refusing to buy fish caught using cyanide and other destructive practices, said Chip Boyle, Boeta's boss at Cook Islands Aquarium Fish Ltd. That's why he hired Boeta, a native of the Solomon Islands who had trained in Australia to learn sustainable aquarium fish harvesting.

Reefs aren't the only beneficiaries of a more sustainable live fish catch. Fish caught without cyanide live longer. A healthy fish caught by sustainable methods will survive for five to seven years, while a cyanide-caught counterpart tends to last about six months, according to Charles Barber, a former WRI scientist who is now vice president of the International Marinelife Alliance. While sustainably collected fish often cost three to four - sometimes six - times more than unsustainably harvested species, longer life spans more than make up for the higher costs.

Certification program

The US-based Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) has put together a certification system, which is now in its initial phase, to document whether aquarium fish are harvested in a sustainable manner. The certification process is still a work in progress. Issues are still being worked out, such as how to verify that no cyanide has been used, how to provide proper training for divers, and how to ensure economic viability for fishers.

Other efforts to reduce the pressures of the live-fish trade on reefs include a move to aquaculture, where fish are grown and harvested near the shore. "In some cases, small-scale aquaculture could help to satisfy the demand for live fish, relive the pressure on coral reefs, and help provide another source of income for the communities responsible for over-fishing," said John Parks, co-author of the Farming the Reef report.

Importers and retailers are welcoming these changes. The certification program helps guarantee higher-quality products. "Having the assurance that these animals were caught and handled properly before they come under my care makes me a lot more comfortable when I sell them to my customers," said Rick Preuss, owner of the Preuss Animal House in Lansing, Michigan. "For some more delicate organisms, I would rather wait for a MAC certified one than have ones in stock that were not."

Sustainable harvesting is more labor-intensive than the more destructive practices, and results in fewer fish being caught. Cook Island fish dealer Chip Boyle said his divers, who go out to sea five days a week, average only four to eight fish per day. They have to make certain to catch only mature and undamaged species. And then must use at least three different nets depending on the species being harvested. The divers also had to take care when resurfacing not to cause trauma to the fish.

Boyle's outfit also takes extreme care in shipping any fish they catch. He said they place no more than 15 to 22 fishes in each bag they use to ship the fish - far fewer than in normal practice.

Linda B. Bolido is an environmental reporter for the Philippines Daily Inquirer and a contributor to WRI Features. © WRI Features. Reproduced with kind permission.Related link:Read the WRI report, Farming the Reef: Aquaculture as a solution for reducing fishing pressures on coral reefs