Coral reefs, the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet, are being plundered for the aquarium industry. Millions of coral fish and corals as well as other invertebrates are prey to unregulated and uncontrolled trade: There are virtually no protection provisions or management plans, and 4 out of 5 fish die before they even reach an aquarium. Once in an aquarium, they usually do not survive for long either. Almost all of the over 2,000 species of traded coral fish come from the wild, the coral reef, because it is difficult to breed them.
Coral reefs are some of the richest habitats on earth, that’s why they are also called the rainforests of the sea. They make up less than 0.2 per cent of our oceans and are home to over 4,000 species of fish. Not forgetting, of course, the about 800 reef-building corals and countless other organisms such as invertebrates and sponges.
Coral reefs are the work of billions of tiny animals, and only grow a few centimetres each year. These little creatures have created the biggest natural structure on earth: the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which can even be seen from space.
But coral reefs are under threat: overfishing, pollution and climate change endanger them all over the world. Almost one third of coral reefs have already been destroyed and another quarter will be lost in just twenty years' time.
One problem that hardly receives any attention is the trade of coral fish for the aquarium industry. So-called marine ornamental fish are difficult to breed or farm (unlike freshwater ornamental fish, of which over 90 per cent are bred). Of the over 2,000 species of coral fish available commercially, only two dozen reproduce in captivity. The rest are captured from the wild – from the coral reef. But demand is so huge, even for commercially available coral fish such as anemone fish that only around half come from farms.
As there are no protective safeguards (except for seahorses and the humphead wrasse, which is often eaten as a delicacy), all these coral fish are at the mercy of uncontrolled trade. In 2003, the UN estimated that around 24 million coral fish, 12 million corals and 10 million invertebrates are traded every year. If you consider how ubiquitous marine aquaria are – now also found in restaurants, doctors' clinics or shopping centres – the number must be far greater.
Up to 80 per cent of coral fish die in the process of capture, transport and handling. In the main export countries Indonesia and the Philippines, fish continue to be drugged with toxin - not only does this kill many coral fish, it also kills corals and other invertebrates as well. The fishermen poison themselves too.
Another problem is that many key species are caught. For example, the cleaner wrasse, which removes parasites from other fish and thus helps to keep the coral reef healthy. Studies have shown that if this coral fish disappears, the coral reef becomes strongly depleted within just four months. Another example is the surgeon fish, which removes algae from the coral reef. If it vanishes, the coral reef will be overgrown by algae and die. There is also predilection for catching juvenile coral fish of some species, because they display special markings. As these fish have not yet reached sexual maturity, they leave no offspring behind and the coral reef becomes depleted. Further information is available at: www.korallenriffe.ch.
The FFW is campaigning for coral fish
The FFW aims to bring this problem to light and is committed to the protection of the most endangered coral fish. For example the Banggai cardinalfish, which has been on the IUCN's Red List since 2007 as "endangered". This means that there is a higher risk of this species dying out in the wild in the near future.
In January and March 2015, Fondation Franz Weber visited Indonesia, where this little coral fish occurs in an area spanning just 23 km2. It is not eaten; it is caught only for the aquarium industry. It was first discovered in the 1990s. Since then, 90 per cent of its stock has already been fished for the aquarium industry and certain populations have already died out. The Banggai cardinalfish is very sedentary and lives in small groups in shallow lagoons: this makes it easy to catch but difficult to repopulate in areas where it once died out.
Instead of keeping coral fish in private tanks or public large aquariums, FFW is advocating for the creation of a marine reserve: a place where coral reefs are protected, there is no fishing, and fish can reproduce. Not only will this enable stocks of coral fish and corals to recover, but the surrounding marine areas will also be repopulated. The result: local people will once again be able to source fish for their own use.
Today and in the future, we can dive into the marine world with the aid of state-of-the-art technology: Vision NEMO is the very first virtual and interactive multimedia gateway to the ocean. It is an idea developed by FFW, which allows marine animals to be displayed, observed and researched without sticking them in an aquarium. Not only will it entertain and inspire, it will also support research, education and the true protection of the oceans. Vision NEMO will do justice to our ocean habitats far better than a private tank or large public aquarium ever could. Further information on Vision NEMO: www.vision-nemo.org.