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The Dark Sides of the Aquarium Trade

The fishing of ornamental organisms for the aquarium trade in Indonesia is based on a patron-client system with archaic traits. Scientists from the ZMT have taken a closer look at it.

The collection of marine organisms for the aquarium trade has increased significantly in recent years. Worldwide up to 46 million animals are traded each year at a value between 200 and 330 million U.S. dollars.

Indonesian fisher catching a clownfish, Spermonde Archipelago
Photo: Leyla Knittweis, ZMT

Assorting the catches, Spermonde Archipelago
Photo: Leyla Knittweis, ZMT

Indonesia is one of the most important countries of origin for aquarium animals from coral reefs. In a recently published study researchers of the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) in Bremen have investigated why the governmental regulation of the collection of ornamental corals is not effective in the island country.

Only 1-2% of the traded reef corals are captive bred in aquariums; the lion’s share is still collected from the wild. Stony corals, which are mainly exported to the U.S., Europe and Japan, account for a quarter of the world’s traded aquarium organisms. About 80% of these come from Indonesia, where many fishermen earn their livelihood by collecting coral. Also ornamental organisms like clownfish and damselfish are a popular catch for the fishermen.

To suggest possible protection interventions, the reef ecologist and social scientist Sebastian Ferse and his colleagues from the ZMT studied the living conditions of the fishermen in the Spermonde Archipelago and how they are involved in the trade with ornamental organisms. The archipelago off Southwest Sulawesi is a densely populated island region and has a particularly brisk trade with aquarium animals. The researchers were especially interested in the social conditions and interdependencies on which the work of the fishermen is based. On several expeditions they interviewed inhabitants of the islands, as well as merchants and government officials in Makassar, the nearby capital of South Sulawesi and monitored the collection of the ornamental organisms.

As the researchers found, the fishermen of the archipelago are part of an archaic hierarchical system. “The fishermen work for middlemen, so-called patrons,” Ferse said. “They deliver their catch to them and are paid a fee, which is usually below the market price. What, how much and the means used to make the catch is ultimately an issue that is decided by the client.” If the fisherman agrees to deliver his catch to “his” patron on a regular basis, this patron will offer him a kind of social security that he would not receive from the government. The patron grants small loans, assistance in case of illness or for material losses due to natural disasters.

The middlemen are well connected with the national and international trade and pass on the demand directly to the fishermen. Most of the patrons have specialised in specific animal species, so that a market has been created for a wide variety of reef organisms. Many reef animals off Sulawesi have therefore become very rare. Furthermore, the use of destructive fishing methods such as poison and dynamite fishing is still quite prevalent in Spermonde. The Indonesian government has set fishing quotas to protect the reefs and issues fishing licenses, which are passed on to the fishermen via the patrons. “However, little attention is paid to government regulations,” Ferse said. “The patrons also allow unlicensed fishermen to work for them.” Thus, many catches do not appear in the official catch statistics.

According to Sebastian Ferse and his colleagues, patrons are an important contributing causal factor to the ecological problems, but they could also be an approach to a solution. These – until now often overlooked – links between fishermen and the market exercise a decisive influence on the behaviour of the fishermen and should be included in management activities to help achieve a sustainable use of marine resources.

More information:

Dr. Sebastian Ferse
Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology, Bremen, Germany
Tel: 0421 / 23800 – 28

Dr. Susanne Eickhoff | idw
Further information:

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