Aquarium group fights 'cyanide fishing' . . .

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Toxic trap: the use of cyanide to stun fish destined for aquaria is widespread in Indonesia. Credit: MARK ERDMANN, USAID

The Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), an international non-profit consortium based in Honolulu, Hawaii, hopes to eliminate reef-threatening practices such as 'cyanide fishing', by launching a voluntary certification programme next year.

Tactics such as cyanide fishing — stunning fish by spraying them or the crevices in which they live with cyanide — are rampant in some sectors of the trade in live marine aquarium animals. They are used widely in key exporting countries such as Indonesia, where local governments often lack the resources to enforce bans.

The poison causes severe damage to corals and often leads to premature death of the fish. Another major problem is the overharvesting of targeted species, which include reef fish, invertebrates (such as sea slugs, shrimps and crabs) and corals that are collected for use in aquaria.

The MAC plans to address these concerns by issuing guidelines banning the use of all chemicals in such fishing. The guidelines would be enforced through spot checks, with businesses that comply receiving certification for their products.

The incentives for following the guidelines include an enhanced environmental image, and increased demand for certified animals, as these would be healthier. Paul Holthus, executive director of the MAC, says it is unclear yet what effect the programme will have on prices. But, he says, “the marketplace is already paying for the quality when and where they can verify it”.

The council is also working to begin monitoring the number of any given species imported and to increase communication between importers and exporters. Fishermen can then be kept informed of which species are not currently needed, thus avoiding unnecessary harvesting.

At present, these data are available only for designated endangered species — which includes many corals, but no fish and few invertebrates. Such information would allow measures in response to any signs of overharvesting.

The US Coral Reef Task Force, a government panel, has worked with the council to develop the certification system. “We're trying to build something that we both see as beneficial,” says Barbara Best, a member of a task force subgroup that has drafted a proposal for new legislation for the aquarium industry.

The task force wants a separate set of certification guidelines that would probably be broadly similar to that of the MAC. Importers would have to state that their products were obtained according to the guidelines. Although the United States would not monitor collection, evidence from government or other sources abroad would lead to prosecution, with penalties for falsifying documents.

The task force and the MAC differ on some points. For instance, the proposed legislation calls for the identification of species that should not be imported because of factors such as low survival rate in transit or soon after purchase. Trade in these species would then be banned.

Holthus says this would be premature, as the data are not available on which to make an informed choice. The first priority, he says, is to generate such data.

The current plan calls for certified animals to be offered to key markets in the United States, the largest importer of marine aquarium animals, beginning in about September 2001.

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