21 September 2011

Resorts World Sentosa: will it kill half a million fishes?

Resorts World Sentosa just revealed it has started shopping for 100,000 fishes from at least 500 species by visiting fish farms for stock for its Marine Life Park.
Photo by James Cervino, Ph.D. from Cyanide Fishing Makes a Comeback
by Andy Bruckner, NOAA Fisheries on Fish Channel Aug 2008
Where do these farms get their fishes from? Were the fishes sustainably harvested? Captive bred? It seems Resorts World Sentosa is NOT looking at these issues when purchasing their fish stocks.

A recent study reveals that today 99.9% of fish sold in the the saltwater ornamental market is wild caught. A popular method to harvest wild fish is using cyanide, which has devastating impact on the reef. 80% of such harvested fish die even before reaching a tank. If this is true and if Resorts World Sentosa uses cyanide-caught fish, this means the 100,000 fishes they purchase supports a process that would have killed 400,000 fishes even before the exhibit opens. This number will continue to grow as dying fishes are replaced with new fishes from the cyanide trade.

In its recent blog post, MLP Aquarium Curatorial team goes fish-ing, Resorts World Sentosa said "Some of the things the team looks for in suppliers are those that takes good care of their animals, uses proper husbandry techniques and maintains cleanliness of their facilities." There is no mention of checking on the source of these animals and how the animals were harvested from the wild.

Other aquariums have supported efforts to sustainably harvest wild reef fish and to develop sustainable captive breeding. Will Resorts World Sentosa and Marine Life Park adopt this approach?

I've left a comment asking these questions on their blog post.

[Update: On 26 Sep, Marine Life Park posted a response to my questions on their blog post. Updated on wild shores of singapore too.]

What is involved in cyanide fishing?

From Cyanide Fishing Makes a Comeback by Andy Bruckner, NOAA Fisheries on Fish Channel Aug 2008

Most commonly, sodium cyanide is dissolved in seawater in plastic squirt bottles. Divers using hookah dive equipment squirt the milky solution at the target fish, which often then retreat into crevices in the reef or within coral thickets.

These corals may be subsequently broken apart by the diver to capture the fish. Cyanide tablets may also be secured to sticks and held close to a fish, or cyanide is mixed with bait and thrown overboard or placed into fish traps. There are also reports that fishermen occasionally pump the cyanide into the water from surface boats, mainly to target grouper spawning aggregations.

The stunned fish are then captured with handnets or attached to lines and hauled to surface-support boats, where they may directly enter the trade or be held in floating cages until export.

Cyanide fishing is a nonselective, destructive fishing technique that adversely impacts coral health and kills nontarget organisms, such as other invertebrates and fish.

Exposure of corals to cyanide causes rapid signs of stress and bleaching, and at high concentrations, progressive tissue sloughing that can lead to colony mortality. Fishermen often spray cyanide into crevices and coral thickets where fish often hide, and then they break apart the corals to access the stunned fish, which leads to substantial damage to the habitat.

Large percentages of the target fish captured with cyanide die during collection or in transit due to their weakened state, which requires fishermen to capture significantly higher numbers of fish than would otherwise be needed. In fact, some studies indicate that as many as 75% of fish collected with cyanide die within hours of collection, and another 30% of the survivors die prior to export. In addition, more than half of those fish exported may die shortly after arrival in the U.S. due to a combination of the poisons used in the capture and the stress associated with handling and transport.

The marine aquarium trade consists of a high diversity of fish, most of which are taken from the wild. More than 1,400 species of reef fish are traded worldwide for home aquaria at an annual volume of about 30 million fish, with approximately 16 million imported each year into the United States. Between 50 to 60% of these are from Indonesia and the Philippines, where cyanide use is most widespread.

What about certifying and managing fish harvest to ensure more sustainable harvest?

The Marine Aquarium Council is an organisation that aims to "stop destructive practices from unregulated and uncontrolled aquarium trade that has been known to use chemicals and dynamite to collect marine species". This is achieved through The MAC Certification System which "promotes a sustainable, environmentally sound trade that provides incentives for reef stewardship and responsible management". They have quite an extensive list of certified fisheries, operators, retailers and licensed retailers.

Will adopting a 'non-destructive' harvesting method mean we can harvest wild reef fish forever?

From Even 'non-destructive' fishing can threaten coral reef fish by Society for Conservation Biology EurekAlert 23 May 03;

Fish importers argue that with the use non-destructive methods such as hand-net fishing, this means coral reef fish can be harvested continuously – but new research suggests otherwise. Kolm and Berglund studied the effects of a non-destructive fishing method on the Banggai cardinalfish, which is about two inches long and is silver with black stripes. Popular in North America, Japan and Europe, the fish has been found only in the Banggai archipelago off the east coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia, and is fished throughout its range.

Banggai cardinalfish live in groups near long-spined sea urchins and seek shelter in the urchins when threatened. Fishermen take advantage of this behavior by pushing urchins into a cage with a stick, which tricks the fish into swimming right in after them. The researchers monitored the Banggai cardinalfish at eight sites in the archipelago and interviewed local fishermen to assess the fishing intensity, which ranged from low (never or rarely fished) to high (frequently fished).

Kolm and Berglund found that fishing cut the size of Banggai cardinalfish groups by half. Specifically, while the average number of fish per group was 11.5 at low-intensity fishing sites, it was only 5.7 at high-intensity fishing sites. This is troubling because at the time of the study, the species had been commercially fished for only six years and the industry is still expanding. "Our data suggest that the popular Banggai cardinalfish is under threat from the aquarium trade industry," say the researchers.

The fishery could threaten the Banggai cardinalfish in two ways. First, fishermen move to new sites after depleting the old ones, and depleted populations are unlikely to be replenished because young Banggai cardinalfish apparently do not disperse far. Second, pushing the sea urchins with a stick often damages them, and the researchers found that the size of a given Banggai cardinalfish population depends on the size of the associated urchin population.

There is, however, an easy way to turn this into a win-win situation for both the fish and the fishermen. Banggai cardinalfish can be raised reliably and cheaply in aquariums, and the researchers are currently encouraging local people to do so. "A fruitful industry could be developed with little or no negative impact on the Banggai cardinalfish," say Kolm and Berglund.

Are there alternatives to harvesting wild reef fish?

From Captive Breeding Could Transform the Saltwater Aquarium Trade and Save Coral Reefs from ScienceDaily 20 Sep 11 (also on wildsingapore news).

Marine biologists at The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute are developing means to efficiently breed saltwater aquarium fish, seahorses, plankton and invertebrates in captivity in order to preserve the biologically rich ecosystems of the world's coral reefs.

These scientists believe their efforts, and those of colleagues around the world, could help shift much of the $1 billion marine ornamental industry toward entrepreneurs who are working sustainably to raise fish for the aquarium trade.

"It's the kind of thing that could transform the industry in the way that the idea of 'organic' has changed the way people grow and buy fruits and vegetables," says Joan Holt, professor and associate chair of marine science at The University of Texas at Austin. "We want enthusiasts to be able to stock their saltwater tanks with sustainably-raised, coral-safe species."

"One popular method is to use a cyanide solution," says Holt. "It's squirted into the holes and crevices of the reef and it anesthetizes the fish. They float to the surface. Then the collectors can just scoop them up, and the ones that wake up are shipped out."

This method, says Holt, has a number of unfortunate effects. It bleaches the coral. It kills or harms other species that make the coral their home, particularly those that can't swim away from the cyanide. It can deplete or distort the native populations of the species. And it contributes to 80 percent of traded animals dying before ever reaching a tank.

Unlike the freshwater ornamental market, which relies mostly on fish raised in captivity, the saltwater ornamental market is 99.9 percent wild caught.

Several big aquariums, including SeaWorld, have committed to assisting in the breeding and egg collection effort, and to integrating into their exhibits information about how the aquarium trade impacts the coral reefs.

Holt and her colleagues envision, ultimately, is a "coral-safe" movement. The science, the economics and the social awareness could together result in a sea change in how saltwater aquariums are populated and how saltwater tank enthusiasts think of themselves and their passion.

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