December 12, 2007

Is a sustainable marine aquarium trade possible?

by Reef Check Executive Director, Dr. Gregor Hodgson

As a marine conservation organization, Reef Check would like governments to protect as much of the ocean as possible from development. The reality is that the oceans have long been used for commerce, such as shipping, mining, oil extraction and of course, fishing. All forms of development and commercial use have potential negative impacts on the environment. Marine fisheries remove organisms from the ecosystem and when overfished, the ecosystem can be badly damaged. Therefore, many conservation organizations have favored a ban on the importation of wild-caught coral reef fish and invertebrates (including corals) for the marine aquarium trade. In contrast, since 1999, Reef Check has been working to determine if it could be possible to create a sustainable trade for two reasons. One is the fear that if banned e.g. in the United States, the trade would go underground to serve a growing market in Asia, and would be uncontrollable. Secondly, a ban would threaten the livelihoods of thousands of poor village fishermen in several countries, especially Indonesia and the Philippines, and this could put even more pressure on the coral reef fishery for food fish.

Under the IFC/GEF funded MAMTI (Marine Aquarium Market Transformation Initiative) project, Reef Check has been developing scientific methods to monitor and manage coral reef fisheries for fish and invertebrates to determine what level of catch could be sustainable. As detailed in a previous newsletter, Reef Check has successfully used a coastal management process in the Philippines and Indonesia to leverage local governments and village fishermen to agree to set up Marine Protected Areas so that they could better manage their aquarium fisheries. Initial results indicate that a sustainable fishery may be possible with proper attention to management, but it is not yet clear if this can be cost-effective in the long-term.

Reef Check will continue to work towards a sustainable marine aquarium trade through science-based management, consumer education and research on coral reef rehabilitation. The monitoring and management methods developed by Reef Check half-way around the world are now being applied to a project involving aquarium fishing cooperatives in the Gulf of California.

Local fishermen trained by Reef Check survey the reef at Hambongan Island, Inabanga Bohol, Philippines