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Demand for seafood 'damaging' marine ecosystems

Publication Date : 12-07-2012


Planning to dine like a king on luxury seafood? Want to give a new touch to a corner of your home with colourful reef fish-filled aquarium? Think again.

Scientists said that such plans would trigger rising demand for live fish for the food trade and ornamental reef fish for aquariums, harming coral reefs, one of the world's richest marine ecosystems, in the process.

Professor of marine science at the University of Hong Kong Yvonne Sedovi said that in Hong Kong, the centre of global trade in live fish from reef for food, large tanks full of colourful fish outside restaurants could be seen.

In the 1980s and 1970s, she said live fish for food came from northern sector of the South China Sea, but with increasing demand, while supply declined due to overfishing, traders searched further to the east and west.

"You see fish today in Hong Kong's restaurants from the Indian Ocean and far into the Pacific Ocean," she said at the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia.

"It's all pushed by high demand. From the surface, the business seems like a good thing, a sort of an added value to fish when they're [being sold] alive rather than dead. But deep down, the business raised many concerns."

The growing market for live reef fish, primarily in Hong Kong and China, is estimated to be worth more than US$1 billion a year, while the aquarium industry with its primary markets in the United States and Europe supports global trade worth $28 to $44 million a year.

Without the right management, rising demand for live reef fish could trigger overfishing.

"By overfishing, it means you take too many fish too quickly for the population to recover. If you do this on long term basis, the fish population will go down and down," Sedovi said, citing the Napoleon fish, which fetched a $150 retail price but had been listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) Appendix two list, which prohibits its trade.

The solution was to manage the process from reef to restaurant, from the source through to traders, from those who transported the species right down to consumers in making good choices of sustainable seafood, she added.

Currently, protection was far from effective.

"We can think of adult [fish] as money in the bank and the eggs they produce as the interest. The best way to manage it is to protect the capital and live off the interest. It can be done."

"Make good selection of what we eat and understand why the selection is actually necessary."

The ornamental fish trade has also put Indonesia in the spotlight. The country is listed by Elizabeth Wood, a marine resource management and biodiversity conservation consultant at the Marine Conservation Society, as the second ornamental fish exporter to the US after the Philippines.

"Considering the pressures currently faced by reefs it is important that aquarium fisheries are monitored and managed to ensure they are sustainable," she says.

The use of cyanide in the capture of aquarium fish is widely known, a practice believed to have begun in the Philippines in the 1960s, spreading to other Southeast Asian countries afterward.

"The practice is universally outlawed but it's still a significant problem. Toxic chemicals kill other reef organisms indiscriminately, including coral," Wood says.

Indonesian marine researcher Dirhamsyah from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences said that the country did not have a regulation on aquarium fish but was aware of the illegal practice applied to capture them.

He cited in Padang's Bungus Beach in West Sumatra as example where fishermen were suspected of using tranquiliser to stun reef fish.

"There’s no detailed research and regulations on ornamental fish in place," he said


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