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November 21 is World Fisheries Day! According to a United Nations report, the world’s population is estimated to grow to 8.5 billion people by 2030, and reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. One of the biggest concerns regarding this rapid population expansion is sustainable food security. Aquaculture, the fastest growing food production sector, could be one such way to ensure this. As of 2016, more seafood is sourced through aquafarming than is being caught in the wild. Aquafarms are uniquely positioned to address the growing demand for seafood protein. However, as they continue to become more prevalent, the need to ensure that their sustainable development also increases. 

What is Aquafarming?

Aquafarming, also known as aquaculture, is the farming of aquatic organisms, such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs and plants. Aquafarming can occur in both marine and freshwater environments. There are numerous aquafarming methods, but most follow the same basic production chain. Beginning at a hatchery, a combination of a laboratory and a farm, the fish are spawned, hatched and cared for until they are large enough to move to the next stage; the farm. The fish remain on the farm where they are fed by food produced at farm mills (another stage of the production chain) until they are ready to be harvested. Once they have reached harvest size, the fish are transported to processors where they are packaged and sent to food retailers. The exact details of the farm-to-table method vary based on species and location. Some farmers choose to farm their fish in net pens or cages in water. This method is sometimes referred to as ‘cage cultures’. These enclosed cages need to be carefully monitored to ensure that they do not harm the surrounding ecosystems. Marine shellfish can be ‘seeded’ on the seafloor, grown in bottom cages, or grown in floating cages. 

Farmers that are farming freshwater fish, or who don’t have access to oceans or estuaries, use ‘pond cultures’. Here the fish are kept in earthen ponds or tanks on land. Ensuring that the fish have continuously filtered and oxygenated water is especially important in these systems. Two ways to ensure this are recirculating systems and integrated multi-trophic aquaculture systems. In recirculating systems, the fish, shellfish and/or plant-life are farmed in ‘closed-loop’ systems that continuously filter the water and recycle waste. In an integrated multi-trophic aquaculture system, several species are farmed in one system, so that the waste or by-products of one species serve as food for another. 

The Benefits of Aquafarming 

According to another UN report, since 1961, the annual increase in fish consumption has been double the population growth of people. To meet this growing demand, the seafood industry will need to increase production by over 1.6 million tons each year. This demand can no longer be sustained by ocean fishing, as many fish stocks are on the brink of collapse from overfishing. Aquafarming is able to bridge the widening gap between seafood supply and demand. 

One of the major advantages of aquafarming over agriculture is that fish require far fewer calories than cows, pigs or sheep. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, fish are coldblooded, meaning they don’t expend energy maintaining their own body temperatures. Secondly, fish live in a buoyant environment, so they use less energy fighting gravity than terrestrial animals do. In order to produce one pound of body mass respectively, a cattle farmer will need approximately 6.8 pounds of feed, a chicken farmer will need approximately 1.7 pounds of feed, while a salmon farmer will need approximately 1.1 pounds of feed (this varies between different species). These ratios suggest that farming salmon is almost seven times more efficient than farming beef. 

While most commonly associated with fish farming, aquafarming also involves the farming of shellfish, molluscs and marine plants. A common belief in the sustainability community is that, in order to ensure global food security, people will need to learn to eat further down the food chain more regularly. Shellfish are considered to be one-step up from the bottom of the food chain. They are high in nutrients and omega-3s and low in fats, making them a healthy protein. Shellfish filter excess nutrients (such as nitrogen) which makes more oxygen available for other species. They also feed on phytoplankton (microscopic plankton) which allows more sunlight to reach the ocean floor, as the presence of phytoplankton can physically prevent sunlight from reaching the ocean floor; this in turn increases aquatic vegetation. 

Marine oyster farms have been found to hold more biodiversity than the adjacent wild water. As these farms can be grown in otherwise uninhabited areas, the increased biodiversity within the farms can positively impact the surrounding waters. Another food source that aquafarming can produce is kelp, a nutritious vegetable that is particularly popular in Chinese and Japanese cuisines. The kelp industry in East Asia alone is a USD$5billion industry. Certain species of kelp can grow at incredibly fast rates, some as much as 12cm a day. Kelp farms can be successfully sustained without freshwater, arable land, pesticides or fertilisers. This, coupled with their fast growth rates, make kelp farms more efficient and environmentally friendly than many traditionally grown terrestrial vegetables.  

Aquafarming is particularly important in developing countries, where it both directly and indirectly affects food security. It directly affects food security through the increase of food availability and accessibility, producing a relatively healthy and affordable protein source. Fish is important for developing countries because it contains many of the vitamins and minerals that combat some of the most prevalent and severe nutritional deficiencies. Fish have high fertility rates and low feed conversion ratios, making it a more biologically efficient food source than terrestrial livestock. 

The UN estimates that over 100 million people rely on aquafarming for their living; with the increase in aquafarming in developing countries, more people will have access to job opportunities. Aquafarming acts as a driver for economic development, and through this allows more people indirect food security, as their ability to access food is no longer hindered by economic hardship.

The negative consequences of modern agriculture have been well documented. The habitat destruction, water pollution and the food safety scares due to overcrowding and disease have cast a dark shadow over industrialised farmers. In order to sustain humanity’s growing protein consumption, several studies have suggested that a dietary shift towards sustainable seafood protein could be a solution. It is predicted that seafood consumption will increase by 27% by 2030, and that the aquafarming sector will grow by 62% in the same period. This immense growth offers significant opportunities for many people, but also highlights the need to ensure that the growth of the sector is handled in an environmentally sustainable manner.  

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Downsides of Aquafarming 

During the aquafarming boom of the 1980s, large areas of tropical mangroves were bulldozed to create space for shrimp farms. Mangroves are of critical importance to the health of coastal ecosystems as they protect shorelines from erosion, serve as nursery areas for many different species of fish and invertebrates and support a number of threatened and endangered species. While the destruction of mangroves for shrimp farms has reduced since the 1980s, it is important to ensure that the predicted expansion of the aquafarming industry does not follow in the habitat-destroying footsteps of the agricultural industry. 

A second concern regarding the expansion of aquafarming is pollution. Aquafarming pollution mostly involves nitrogen, phosphorus and dead fish. When a large number of individuals are enclosed in a confined space, their waste matter becomes concentrated. Aquafarming pollution is currently a widespread hazard in Asia, as 90% of farmed fish are farmed there. One way to mitigate the problem of concentrated waste matter is to use an integrated multi-trophic system, recycling one species waste matter as food for another. Another way is to use a recirculatory system, where the waste matter is filtered out and fresh water pumped back in. However, recirculatory systems are expensive to run, often requiring massive water treatment systems and immense amounts of electricity to keep the pumps running. This is costly both for the farmer and the environment, as land will need to be claimed for the water treatment facility and most electricity is generated from fossil fuels. Better technology needs to be developed in order to make recirculatory systems more sustainable, but as they are not one of the most popular forms of aquafarming, it is hard to foresee when/if this technology will be developed. 

As has been seen in agriculture, enclosing large numbers of individuals in a small space creates a breeding ground for bacteria and diseases. In an attempt to combat this, some Asian farmers have been using antibiotics and pesticides. Many of these antibiotics and pesticides  are banned in the US, Europe and Japan, as they are known or suspected carcinogens. It is estimated that the US, which imports 90% of its seafood, only inspects about 2% of the imports. The use of antibiotics and pesticides not only threatens the health of those that eat the fish, but can also increase the prevalence of antimicrobial resistant bacteria (AMR). In a study published in the scientific journal, Nature, scientists found that aquafarms have high levels of AMR, which causes over 35 000 deaths each year in the US alone. It is predicted that these numbers are much higher in developing countries, and that they will continue to increase with socio-economic development. Antimicrobials are often administered to fish through their feed. However, it is estimated that around 80% of these antimicrobials are dispersed into the surrounding environments where they can remain active for months. These concentrations of antimicrobials put selective pressure on bacterial communities, which causes the development of AMR. The study also found that “higher AMR levels of aquaculture-related bacteria were correlated with warmer temperatures”. As ocean temperatures continue to rise as a result of global warming and the aquafarming industry continues to grow, the need for immediate, co-ordinated international intervention to limit the use of antimicrobial drugs in aquafarming is great. 

A point of conflicting views is the effect of aquafarming on greenhouse gas emissions. According to one study, aquaculture has a much lower GHG emissions intensity than ruminant meat, and a similar emissions intensity to pork. However, the study goes on to note that the moderate emissions intensity does not justify complacency, especially as post-farm emissions were not included in the calculations. Another study found that the conversion of rice paddies into aquafarms in China was resulting in a “globally significant [rise] in CH4 emissions.”  Quantifying the effect of aquafarms on GHGs is an intricate process, but given the rapid expansion of aquafarming, it is an area that needs further investigation. 

Looking to the Future

In 2015, the Member States of the UN adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The aim of the agenda is “to shift the world to a sustainable and resilient path that leaves no one behind.” Food and agriculture play a key role in achieving all of the 17 SDGs. Many of them are relevant to fisheries and aquafarming, no more so than SDG 14, which is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” In order to end poverty by 2030 while mitigating degradation, food production needs to be increased in a way that ensures that practices are sustainable and non-detrimental to the environment. This needs to be the focus of the aquafarming industry moving forward. 

While the expansion of aquafarming is still in its infancy, the concept of using polycultures dates back hundreds of years. Over 1 000 years ago, Chinese farmers developed an integrated multi-trophic system that utilised manure from ducks and pigs to fertilise pond algae. The algae was grazed on by young carp in the pond. When the carp were bigger, they were caught and placed in flooded rice paddies. There they ate insects and weeds, and fertilised the rice with their excrement. Finally, when the carp had grown to a suitable size, they were eaten by the farmers. This system is still used in over seven million acres of rice paddies in China, and perhaps holds an important lesson for the future of aquafarming. In the haste to expand and capitalise on the ever-growing demand for seafood, it is important to take time to understand how the natural world maintains balance between different species, and to ensure that aquafarming policies are aligned with and respect this balance.  

Featured image by: Flickr

Tristan da Cunha, a four-island archipelago in the south Atlantic Ocean with 245 permanent residents, is creating a massive marine protected area (MPA), set to become the fourth largest completely protected marine area in the world, and the largest in the Atlantic. 

The government of Tristan da Cunha made the announcement last week, saying that the protected area will span almost 700 000 sq km, making it almost three times larger than the UK, and will protect 90% of the waters around the island chain by making them a “no-take zone,” in which fishing, mining and other extractive activities are banned. 

Why Does This Matter?

The UK- which has a duty to protect wildlife in all its territories- will be responsible for the long-term monitoring and enforcement of the MPA. The new sanctuary is the result of a collaboration between the Tristan da Cunha and U.K. governments, and a number of other conservation groups, including The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has worked in the region for 20 years, and the National Geographic’s Society’s Pristine Seas initiative.

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Conservationists say that this will help bolster a small lobster fishery outside the sanctuary, and it will also protect foraging grounds for the tens of millions of seabirds that roost on the island and the habitats for seals, sharks and whales. The island also serves as a critical nursery for blue sharks.

James Glass, Tristan da Cunha chief islander, says, “Our life on Tristan da Cunha has always been based around our relationship with the sea, and that continues today. The Tristan community is deeply committed to conservation: on land, we’ve already declared protected status for more than half our territory.

However, some NGOs have criticised the UK government’s support for marine protection in its overseas territories when its own record on protecting its domestic marine habitats is less-than-superb. An investigation by the Guardian revealed that all but two of Britain’s offshore MPAs were being bottom trawled. 

Jonathan Hall, head of UK overseas territories for the (RSPB), says, “We should also be looking at protecting UK waters. The contrast is stark. We have this small community that is showing leadership in protecting their waters, but there have been lots of examples this year where more effective management of our existing protected areas is needed.”

MPAs are seen by experts as a silver bullet for conservation. A study found that MPAs worldwide protect food supplies by producing larger catch yields. Fisheries that are left undisturbed can produce a “spillover” effect in which an abundance of fish from a protected area spills over into fishing hotspots. The study found that expanding the current network of protected areas by just 5% could boost global fish catch by at least 20%.

Featured image by: Flickr 

In late October, nearly 200 Loa water frog tadpoles hatched at the National Zoo of Chile, a little more than a year after a team of conservationists in Chile evacuated the last-known 14 frogs from dry habitats and brought them to the zoo. This offers a glimmer of hope for the critically endangered frog.

In June 2019, herpetologist Andrés Charrier discovered that the only known stream home to the Loa water frog (Telmatobius dankoi) had dried up as a result of extraction of water for mining, agriculture and real estate development. In a small muddy pool, scientists discovered 14 malnourished and dehydrated individuals. With the help of the Chilean government, the 14 frogs were airlifted to the National Zoo of Chile in the capital, Santiago. The hope was to begin a conservation breeding programme, but first the scientists needed to stabilise the remaining individuals. “When we brought these animals to the zoo, I didn’t even know if they were going to survive the transfer from Calama on the plane to Santiago,” said Charrier. Zoo staff were able to save 12 of the 14 individuals. 

The rehabilitation of the rescued individuals was the first objective of the conservation effort. The second objective was the successful reproduction and the hatching of the tadpoles, which has now also been accomplished. Yet the final objective, reintroducing the species back into their natural habitat, may prove to be the most challenging.

The city of Calama is located in the middle of the Atacama desert. In the driest non-polar desert on Earth, water is a scarce and precious resource. Calama is considered the mining capital of Chile. Various industrial processes led to the contamination and shrinking of the only stream the Loa water frog is known to inhabit. It is against these threats that conservationists have to contend if they hope to accomplish their third objective. Sadly, these threats are not unique to the Loa water frog, and it is believed that many species of water frog are threatened by human activities. 

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There are 63 species of water frog found in South America, with about 10 species in Chile. Many species of water frogs (including the Loa water frog) are micro-endemic, meaning they are only found in a small region. Water frogs are either semi-aquatic or entirely aquatic, making them incredibly sensitive to changes in their environment and particularly vulnerable to climate change. Habitat destruction, invasive trout species, disease and pollution are also threatening South America’s water frogs.

The achievements of the team involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and reproduction of the frogs is no small feat, as no one is known to have attempted to care for the species before. It is almost certain that without intervention, the species would have become extinct. It is important to celebrate the success of this conservation effort, but it is also a stark reminder of the impact humanity is having on all areas of the natural world. 

The Loa water frog is considered critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and was once found only in a single stream in Chile. Experts say there may be between five and eight individuals still living in the wild. Returning the species to the wild someday will require identifying a safe home for the frogs and protecting that habitat from the threat of illegal water extraction and habitat destruction. 

Featured image by: Smithsonian Mag 

Marine scientists have discovered 30 new species in the waters off the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, after a five-year expedition that shows just how little we know about the deep sea and how unexplored the environment is. 

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) and an international team of deep-sea experts identified 30 new deep-sea invertebrate species within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. 

The species were found on seamounts, which are underwater mountains that do not break the ocean’s surface. According to a release, the team used Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to explore depths of up to 3400 meters. The new species found include: 10 new species of bamboo corals and four new octocorals, including the first giant solitary soft coral in the Tropical Eastern Pacific, one new species of brittle star, 11 new sponge species and four new species of squat lobsters. 

Nicole Raineault, chief scientist at OET, says, “The many discoveries made on this expedition showcase the importance of deep-sea exploration to developing an understanding of our oceans.”

The Galapagos Islands became famous for their biodiversity and endemic species after Charles Darwin first visited in 1835 and spent five weeks surveying the archipelago. While he found that most of the species were ‘aboriginal creations, found nowhere else’, the plants and animals he studied still showed a relationship to those on the mainland, which led Darwin to form the seeds of his Theory of Evolution. After publishing “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, Darwin’s theories cemented the Galapagos Islands as ‘hallowed scientific ground,’ a reputation that continues today.

The isolation of the islands allowed for and forced species to adapt and evolve over time to survive their unique habitats. Even today, as conditions change, animals and plants on the islands continue to develop into new hybrids and species. In 2017, a group of finches were discovered in the process of becoming a new species. In 2019, a species of giant tortoise that scientists hadn’t seen alive for 110 years was found and in February, 30 giant tortoises that partially descended from two extinct species were studied. 

The Galapagos Marine Reserve protects seamounts from fishing activity and deep-sea mining. The discovery comes after Ecuador raised concerns about a massive fishing fleet of mostly Chinese vessels operating on the edge of the Galapagos’ protected waters. China has since issued new regulations for its fishing fleet, including harsher penalties for captains and companies found to have engaged in illegal fishing activity. 

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Ecuador is trying to establish a corridor of marine reserves between Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia to seal off important areas of marine diversity. Efforts are also being made to extend the exclusive economic zone to a 560km circumference around the islands. 

For years, reports of illegal fishing activities have dogged China’s distant-water fishing fleet. Now, China is significantly tightening regulations governing these fishing vessels for the first time in 17 years, with a slew of new rules taking effect throughout 2020, including harsher penalties for captains and companies found to have broken the law.

Estimated at a minimum of 2,900 vessels, the country’s distant-water fleet, active outside its maritime borders, dwarfs that of other nations. Since 2003 it has grown by at least 1,000 boats and doubled its reported annual catch.

The rule changes from China include revisions to the Distant-Water Fishing Management Regulations, new Management Measures for High Seas Squid Fishery and a new Rule for High Seas Transshipment released earlier this year; as well as a revision to the Administrative Measures of the Vessel Monitoring System released in 2019. They all take effect between January 2020 and January 2021. Leaving less space for illegal activities, the changes are geared toward increasing transparency and promoting more sustainable practices.

“China is the country that will shape what the future of ocean health becomes,” said Douglas McCauley, professor of marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “No other nation has more say as to what will become of the future of our ocean.”

The country hauls in around 15% of the world’s reported wild fish catch, according to a 2020 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report. Discrepancies in reported fish catches and lack of transparency over fleet sizes globally mean no one really knows how much seafood humans remove from the ocean. But studies indicate an alarming drop in marine fish and invertebrate populations over the past 50 years.

More than a third of the planet’s fish stocks are overfished to biologically unsustainable levels, the FAO report said, with a further 60% of stocks fished to the sustainable maximum. Those numbers have far-reaching implications not only for marine ecosystems but for humans: fisheries provide direct employment for almost 60 million people globally and around 20% of essential protein intake for more than 3 billion people, according to the report.

China has previously signalled its intent to promote sustainable fishing practices. In 2017, the country pledged to cap its distant-water fleet at 3,000 vessels by 2020 and outlined comprehensive intentions in its 13th Five-Year Plan for the Development of Distant-Water Fishery. However, it has taken little concrete action until now.

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china fishing regulations
Chinese and Guinean crewmembers sort fish on the Fu Yuang Yu 380, a Chinese fishing boat operating in Guinean waters in 2017. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

The New Rules

Changes to the Distant-Water Fishing Management Regulations, which took effect April 1, include harsher punishment for those caught breaking the rules, a clamp-down on vessel monitoring, new port management procedures, stricter certification requirements, and clarification of penalties, responsibilities and enforcement measures, industry experts said. The country’s Wildlife Protection Law joined the list of acts that transgressions at sea are punishable under.

The revised regulation shifts the focus from “rational” to “sustainable” use of marine resources from the first paragraph. Prohibitions on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activity, a term not mentioned in the previous version, are now prominent in four separate clauses, and references to protection and sustainability have doubled in frequency, according to a comparative translation provided by Tabitha Mallory, founder of the Seattle-based consulting firm China Ocean Institute.

The Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) of 2016 is the first internationally binding agreement aimed at combatting IUU fishing. The idea is to prevent vessels engaging in IUU activity from landing catches by denying them entry to ports globally. While China committed to joining the PSMA in 2017, it has yet to follow through. However, the updated distant-water fishing regulations seem to pave the way for China to do so. Newly added Article 38 explicitly prohibits ships on IUU lists held by international fishery organizations from entering Chinese ports except in special circumstances. The new rules place responsibility for investigating and handling ships entering illegally or under special circumstances with Chinese authorities, in line with both Chinese law and international treaties agreed to by China.

Previously, punishment meted out to companies blacklisted for IUU fishing transgressions was limited, according to Pan Wenjing, a Beijing-based forest and ocean project manager with Greenpeace East Asia. “The company only needed to pay the fine then could head back to sea fishing again,” she said. Now, ship captains will lose their captain’s licence for five years and company managers will be stripped of their managerial role for three years.

Insurance companies, creditors and other fishing industry support businesses will likely be less willing to work with high-risk businesses such as those on China’s blacklist, said Philip Chou, an expert on distant-water fishing with international conservation group Oceana. That highlights how the country’s new rules have the potential to bring about real change at all levels of the industry, he said.

The new rules address the issue of ships committing transgressions while “going dark” by switching off their transponders so their locations can’t be identified. Hourly transponder reporting is now a legal requirement, up from every four hours before Jan. 1, 2020. Chou said this increases the potential to investigate suspicious activity, such as ships meeting up at sea or approaching marine protected areas, and provides clearer measures for frequent violators.

China hasn’t previously monitored high-seas transshipment — the practice of transferring cargo from one ship to another at sea, which fishers can use to hide the true origin or volume of their catch — at all. The new Rule for High Seas Transshipment introduces reporting and onboard independent observers for such transfers, and bans pollution during operations, Pan said.

The other first for China is seasonal closures of squid fishing. The new Management Measures for High Seas Squid Fishery bans Chinese vessels from fishing squid in the southwest Atlantic from July to September and in the eastern Pacific from September to November, in an effort to protect overfished stocks.

“These strong measures make the regulation a tiger with sharp teeth,” Pan said of the update to the distant water fishing management regulations from China. “But it still depends on whether it can be effectively enforced.”

China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which oversees the country’s fisheries, did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

Dodgy Fishing Practices

IUU fishing is so pervasive that one in five wild-caught fish is estimated to have been caught illegally, with a total annual value of up to $23.5 billion, according to a 2018 Pew Trust report. China’s distant-water fleet has been widely implicated in illegal practices, ranking worst out of 152 coastal states on a global IUU fishing index developed by U.K.-based Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management and the Geneva-based non-profit Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

February 2019 saw 294 fishing boats making the most of peak squid season in the southwest Atlantic Ocean, just outside Argentina’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Of them, 256 turned off their vessel monitoring system, and 87% of the vessels that did so were flagged to China, according to a 2019 report by Washington, D.C.- based security analyst C4ADS. Dark fleets of Chinese squid boats have also been implicated in $440 million worth of flying squid (Todarodes pacificus) illegally taken from North Korean waters in 2017 and 2018, according to a recent study in the journal Science Advances.

While not always illegal, going dark is useful cover for fishing illegally inside protected areas or during seasonal closures, or simply for nipping into the EEZ of a country whose waters you have no permit to fish. China’s revised regulation prohibits this kind of intentional interference with vessel monitoring systems.

The Indonesian crew of a fleet of Chinese tuna longliners fishing the Western Pacific recently reported they had been illegally shark finning. Pictures they provided indicate they were targeting endangered species, such as oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) and hammerheads (Sphyrna spp.).

Four crew of one boat, the Long Xing 629, died of an unidentified illness while in service between December 2019 and April 2020. Three of their bodies were dumped at sea. Crewmates reported human rights abuses including forced labor.

“This incident clearly shows the need for policy change related to workers’ rights on board fishing vessels and for better monitoring, control, and surveillance measures,” Chou said. Regulations that took effect in April mean that going forward companies like the one that owns the Long Xing 629 and its sister ships, Dalian Ocean Fishing Co Ltd., should be publicly blacklisted. The company did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Another common practice among fleets of many nations is to hide the true owner of a fishing boat or fleet with a front, or shell company, a practice that causes huge transparency issues. For instance, Ghanaian law bans international companies from its commercial fishing sector and prohibits joint ownership of enterprises between Ghanaians and foreigners. Yet an estimated 90% of industrial trawl vessels plying Ghana’s waters have links to Chinese ownership, according to a 2018 report from the U.K.-based NGO Environmental Justice Foundation.

Public data from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs confirms that several ships with previous sanctions and fines for IUU offenses that are registered to Ghanaian companies are in fact owned by a Chinese company, according to a 2019 investigation by China Dialogue Ocean.

China’s 13th Five-Year Plan for the Development of Distant Water Fishery included the intent to abide by regulations of countries where China ’s fleet operates, and the revised distant-water fishing regulations include measures to make the flagging of distant water vessels more transparent. Together these suggest that, as of April 1, China should be cooperating with countries like Ghana to police illegal shell companies.

Is it Enough?

“The current revisions are a commendable step to make China’s DWF management regime more in line with international norms and practices,” Chou said. He pointed out that resolving systemic issues of IUU fishing and sustainability globally would require international improvements to implementation of existing policy and further reform, and that China’s revisions are not a standalone panacea.

Even so, the increasing willingness of China to better manage its distant-water fishing, plus the new regulations, could substantially improve fishing and supply chain management globally because of the country’s position as the largest distant-water fishing power on the planet, Pan said. But that can happen only if China enforces its new rules.

If it does, and the country ranked worst in the world for IUU fishing can change course, the implications for the sustainability of global fisheries are huge, experts consulted for this story agreed.

“A solution waiting to happen,” is how McCauley referred to China’s potential to lead fishing reform. “If China elects to govern its fisheries more sustainably, not only does China benefit, the world benefits. China can act fast — when it wishes to do so.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Fitt, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.


International conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) along with partners Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) and British Marine have received an award of over £1 million to boost the native oyster population in Britain, in the biggest project of its kind in the UK. 

The funding was raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and awarded as part of the Dream Fund, which gives charities the opportunity to bring a dream project to life. It will help the ‘Wild Oysters’ project to recover the native oyster population which will in turn see cleaner water, healthier fisheries and improved and plentiful marine biodiversity in Britain. 

Across Britain and the UK, wild native oyster populations have declined by over 95% due to a combination of over-harvesting, habitat loss, pollution and disease. Healthy oyster beds are hugely productive, providing important fish nursery ground habitats and supporting commercially important species such as seabass, bream and edible crabs. Oysters also purify the water in which they grow, removing and storing nitrogen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Bringing conservation and industry together, the unique partnership between ZSL, BLUE and British Marine will allow oyster nurseries, suspended under marina pontoons, to release the next generation of baby oysters to the seabed. The young oysters, known as spat, will settle across the three oyster reefs created across British Estuaries including the River Conwy (Wales), Firth of Clyde (Scotland) and Tyne and Wear coastal water body (England). The project will work together with local partners to commence the restoration of the 20 000 sq km of oyster reefs that have been lost from around the coastline of Britain. 

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The oyster nurseries will provide a ‘unique window into the ocean’ which the project’s backers hope will allow them to inspire the next generation to protect and enhance the marine environment. The ‘Wild Oysters’ project will engage thousands of volunteers, from schools, Girlguides and Scouts to University students and local community groups to spread the word about the importance and significance of increasing oyster populations. 

ZSL Senior Conservation Programme Manager, Alison Debney said; “It’s wonderful to celebrate this win for oysters- they are the superheroes of our oceans. Despite their small size they’re capable of making huge changes in our marine environment.  

“Our dream is to grow a self-sustaining population of native oysters in the UK. This funding awarded by Postcode Dream Trust means we now have the potential to release nine billion native oyster larvae into the ocean, creating oyster nurseries in UK waters, work with local communities to care for our oceans superheroes and connect people and wildlife.   

“Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery we hope to see healthy, resilient, coastal waters and make a remarkable difference to the future of wild oysters.” 

BLUE’s Senior UK Project Manager, Morven Robertson said; “Our oceans are our lifeline, they are capable of absorbing over a third of our CO2 emissions, but they are in crisis. Marine life populations are continuing to decline at a rapid rate. The incredible support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery marks a turning point for the recovery of UK seas and native oyster restoration. The Wild Oysters project will set a global precedent for the restoration of oysters and will help our ocean to breathe once again.” 

British Marine Environment Executive, James Scott- Anderson said; “This incredible funding award will allow the project partners a unique opportunity to bring together marine industry, science & expertise. Together we will implement a game changing solution to benefit and restore the UK seas ecosystem, water quality and biodiversity. Furthermore, the project connects with coastal communities and shares resources and knowledge to build a sustainable future for UK marinas, along with raising awareness of water pollution and the impacts of our actions on the environment for beach users, paddle boarders and anyone swimming in the sea.”

This article comes from the frontline activities of the Zoological Society of London, Blue Marine Foundation and British Marine, whose mission it is to create a world where wildlife thrives, address overfishing and protect the marine environment for the sustainability of the UK leisure, superyacht and small commercial marine industry respectively. 

About the Zoological Society of London

The ZSL is an international conservation charity working to create a world where wildlife thrives. From investigating the health threats facing animals to helping people and wildlife live alongside each other, ZSL is committed to bringing wildlife back from the brink of extinction. 

The ZSL engages in field conservation work around the world and educates millions of people through its two zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. 

For more information, visit www.zsl.org.   

About British Marine  

British Marine is a not for profit trade association for the UK leisure, superyacht and small commercial marine industry. Its members come from a broad range of businesses including boat builders, chandlers, brokers, marinas, passenger boats and engines.  

It represents the interests of members and the boating community alike. It aims to deliver water experiences for everyone. The marine environment is a fundamental aspect of this strategy.  

For more information, visit https://britishmarine.co.uk/

About the Blue Marine Foundation 

Known as BLUE, this UK registered charity was set up in 2010 by some of the team behind the award-winning documentary film ‘The End of the Line’. 

BLUE aims to restore the ocean by addressing overfishing.  BLUE is dedicated to creating marine reserves, restoring vital habitats and establishing models of sustainable fishing.  

BLUE’s mission is to see 30% of the world’s ocean under effective protection by 2030.   

For more information, visit https://www.bluemarinefoundation.com/

Featured image supplied by Zoological Society of London.

How will the climate crisis affect biodiversity in the deepest depths of the ocean? In a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers have found that even under the most optimistic greenhouse gas emissions scenario, the deep ocean will experience accelerated warming in the coming decades, as a result of anthropogenic climate change. This poses a serious threat to biodiversity in these deep ocean ecosystems which many people worldwide depend on for their livelihoods.

There is a preconceived idea that because the surface ocean warms twice as quickly as the deep ocean, defined by this study as deeper than 200 m, the risk to biodiversity is greatly reduced in Earth’s most under-explored habitats. However, a recent international study led by researchers at the University of Queensland challenges this, providing evidence that biodiversity in the deep ocean is more exposed to the climate crisis than previously believed.

Researchers analysed horizontal climate velocities, which measures the rate at which marine species migrate laterally within the ocean, in response to ocean warming, in order to reach more preferable temperatures. Climate velocities were measured at four depth levels within the ocean: the surface (0 – 200 m), mesopelagic (200 – 1000 m), bathypelagic (1000 – 4000 m) and the abyssopelagic (> 4000 m). 

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The team analysed climate velocities from the past 50 years and found that between 1955 and 2005, the deep ocean experienced faster climate velocities than the surface waters.

Not only did the team discover that the deep ocean experienced faster climate velocities during this time, but they were also able to use climate models to predict that climate velocities will become faster at all ocean depths between 2050 and 2100. Even under RCP 2.6, the most optimistic greenhouse gas emissions pathway whereby carbon emissions will decline by 2020 and drop to zero by 2100, climate velocities are expected to increase, highlighting concerns that the future threats to ocean biodiversity may be unavoidable. 

University of Queensland Professor and senior researcher on the study, Anthony Richardson, stresses that “because of the immense size and depth of the ocean, warming already absorbed at the ocean surface will mix into deeper waters.” The implications of this is that “marine life in the deep ocean will face escalating threats from ocean warming until the end of the century, no matter what we do now”. 

Climate velocities in the mesopelagic layer are projected to increase by seven times under the emissions pathway RCP 2.6, which is four times the velocity experienced at the surface, and the abyssopelagic layer will see velocities five and a half times faster than those currently seen in the surface ocean. Under RCP 8.5, the highest emissions scenario whereby emissions continue to rise throughout the century, the mesopelagic layer could experience climate velocities over 20 times faster than it currently witnesses due to rising ocean temperatures. Therefore under this scenario marine life will undergo significant spatial redistributions, migrating much more quickly than they currently do, in order to reach more favourable ocean temperatures for their survival.

How does climate change affect the deep sea?

The climate crisis poses serious implications for biodiversity as it can cause major shifts in the distribution of species within an ecosystem. The majority of species migrate towards the poles as a result of ocean warming, causing intricate connections within food webs to be compromised as the reorganisation of species takes place within the ocean, affecting biodiversity worldwide. This redistribution of species can also have a profound socio-economic effect on ecosystem services provided by biodiversity, such as fishery yields.

Relatively stable temperatures characterise much of the water below the surface layer and therefore deep sea species have adapted to these conditions leaving them particularly vulnerable to even the slightest shifts in temperature. Professor Jorge García Molinos, co-author for this study, says, “Our results suggest that deep sea biodiversity is likely to be at greater risk because they are adapted to much more stable thermal environments.”

However, relatively little is known about how biodiversity responds to climate change below the surface ocean. Research has predominantly focused on the surface waters, where the rate of warming is fastest, and therefore most of the knowledge of how biodiversity re-organises itself spatially in response to climate change is of the upper 200 m of the ocean.

Areas at highest risk of biodiversity threat from the climate crisis can be identified by comparing the magnitude of climate velocity with species richness. Making these comparisons can also highlight areas which could act as potential areas of climate refuge, which could play a key role in marine conservation. 

As well as experiencing faster climate velocities, ocean food webs face the additional challenge of having their vertical connectivity threatened by the difference in climate velocity direction, which varies at depth. For instance, whilst the dominant direction in which marine life migrates is poleward in the surface waters, this effect decreases with ocean depth, where climate velocities are in multiple directions. This could present a significant challenge to species which depend on organisms in other layers for survival, which will in turn have repercussions for the entire marine food web.

Isaac Brito-Morales, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, who led the study reveals that “in an interesting twist, not only is climate velocity moving at different speeds at different depths in the ocean, but also in different directions which poses huge challenges to the ways we design protected areas”. 

The mesopelagic layer faces the greatest change in climate velocities of all ocean layers. This is concerning since it is home to an abundance of one of the world’s most common vertebrates – small mesopelagic fish from the genus Cyclothone. The role these fish play not only in providing biomass to support tuna and squid fisheries but also in their ability to transfer carbon to deeper layers of the ocean, through respiration and excretion, is of great significance and a role that is at increased and uncertain risk under future warming scenarios. 

For the bathypelagic and abyssopelagic ocean layers, as well as faster climate velocities posing a serious threat to biodiversity, the simultaneous decrease in pH and oxygen levels could result in an additional threat for resident species.

Crucially, the challenges faced by the deep ocean demands international cooperation and an interdisciplinary approach. Professor Richardson suggests that in addition to combatting the climate crisis, focus also needs to be put on creating new protected areas at deep ocean depths by controlling seabed mining and deep-sea bottom fishing in order to preserve marine life.

With the deep ocean occupying some of the most remote and uninhabited regions in the world, outwith the limits of national jurisdiction, a recognition of global responsibility is important to effectively conserve these areas and mitigate the effects of the climate crisis on the biodiversity in some of the most mysterious ecosystems on Earth.

Climate change is doing something unusual to the fish in our oceans: As water temperatures rise, this causes fish to morph in size. Some shrink, but others grow.

How Does Climate Change Affect Fish?

In a new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers analyzed data from more than 10 million visual survey records to understand the phenomenon of fish shrinking and growing in size in response to climate change, and to consider the effects on the marine environment and the management of fisheries.

Similar studies have tended to look at species that are commercially fished, mainly because there’s plenty of data on them. This investigation, however, looks at a wide range of fish living in the waters all around Australia.

“We looked at all species,” Asta Audzijonyte, research fellow at Australia’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and lead author of the study, told Mongabay. “The beauty of this study is that we didn’t choose any species selectively. We looked at 335 species, which were all of the species that we had enough data on, so I had that criterion as some kind of filter.

“That included tiny species … to giant fish and sharks, included species that are fished, but mostly species that are not fished, like puffer fish.”

The researchers were able to gather a large amount of data thanks to a reef monitoring program that has run for three decades, as well as a rigorous citizen science program.

“The citizen science component is the most exciting part,” Audzijonyte said. “About 100 divers … volunteered their time to collect all of this information. There was a standard method to how they do these underwater surveys: they dived and they had a transect of 50 meters [164 feet] … and they recorded all of the species they saw” within this span.

The researchers investigated size in two main ways. First, they looked at fish of the same species living in different locations around Australia, and analyzed how warmer or cooler waters in the species’ natural distribution affected their size. Second, they examined how fish species living in one location would be affected by climate change-induced warming over time.

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climate change fish size
An infographic showing differences in fish size throughout a species’ distribution. Image by Asta Audzijonyte.

Why Are Fish Shrinking in Sizes?

Changes in temperature through time, in response to climate change, had much stronger impacts on size than changes of temperatures in space, throughout the species’ natural distribution, Audzijonyte said.

“Different populations living (for a long time) at warmer or cooler parts of species natural distribution were about 4% different in body length for each degree of temperature change,” she said. “However, when water temperature changed through time in one place due to global warming, a population experiencing this warming was changing by nearly 20% for 0.5 degree [Celsius, or 0.9° Fahrenheit] of warming, observed over the last two decades.”

To Audzijonyte, one of the most surprising findings was that some fish grew, instead of shrank, in response to warming waters.

“If you looked at my earlier papers, they basically said that we expect species to get smaller with warming because that’s the generally accepted belief, and what we saw from commercially fished species,” she said.

What she and her colleagues ultimately found was that 45% of species grew in response to climate change, while 55% got smaller. Moreover, it was the bigger fish that tended to get bigger, and the smaller fish that usually got smaller.

“One of the reasons this study is important is that it shows the complexity of species’ responses to warming in our oceans,” Nicholas Payne, assistant professor in zoology at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Much of our understanding of the temperature-size relationship comes from the laboratory; taking our predictions to the wild shows us there is a lot we still need to learn about this hugely important phenomenon.”

The implications for these size changes are not fully understood, but these fluctuations would certainly have an impact on the marine food web, Audzijonyte said.

“As fish get smaller, they’re more vulnerable to predation,” she said. “It means that they will have a higher mortality from predators. All of these sized-based interactions will be changing quite a lot, and we don’t know what that means. We need to study that.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

As people around the globe stock their pantries for long stretches at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, sales of tinned tuna are going through the roof. In the U.S., consumption has increased 142% compared to the same time last year. But a new report released last month by environmental NGO Greenpeace highlights concerns about the ethical and legal credentials of many top tuna brands. The report is based on interviews with migrant fishers on three vessels operating in the Atlantic Ocean that are flagged or linked with Taiwan, including two longliners and a carrier that transports crew and fish to and from longliners. It suggests that forced labor and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing continue to occur within major tuna supply chains, despite efforts by companies and governments to stamp them out.

One of the vessels that interviewees accused of these practices supplies tuna to the Taiwan-based Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Company (FCF), one of the world’s largest tuna traders and the new owner of major U.S. canned-tuna brand Bumble Bee. Another of the accused vessels supplies tuna to a refrigerated cargo ship that FCF works with.

The fishers’ allegations included deception, physical violence, wage deductions, debt bondage, passport confiscation, and excessive working hours. For example, several fishers reported working 18-hour days, on average, and as many as 34 hours straight: “We only got to sleep for five hours if and when we caught some fish,” said one interviewee. “If we didn’t catch anything, we’d just have to keep working.” Crew were also transferred illegally between vessels.

The fishers also provided evidence that the vessels took part in unlawful fishing practices, such as shark finning and transferring shark fins between vessels.

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illegal tuna fishing
Tuna fish (Source: Pixabay).

Systemic Issues

Reports of human rights abuses and IUU fishing have plagued the tuna industry in recent years, and several investigations have identified the practices of Taiwanese distant-water longliner vessels as particularly problematic. In 2015, the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) gave Taiwan a “yellow card” for insufficient cooperation in combatting IUU fishing, warning the country that if it did not improve, it would not be able to export products from its vessels to the EU. Recently, the Taiwanese government has implemented new controls to prevent IUU fishing and reformed its fisheries legal framework in an effort to improve its products’ traceability. In June 2019, the European Commission lifted Taiwan’s yellow card in acknowledgment of these efforts.

FCF did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment. The company has also made considerable effort to improve its track record in recent years, including releasing a new corporate social responsibility policy and participating in two Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs), which are multi-stakeholder efforts to improve the environmental sustainability of particular fisheries.

But Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Pearl Chen told Mongabay in an email that FCF’s efforts are insufficient and out of step with national and international standards. For example, she said the company’s policy fails to specify a guaranteed amount of rest time for crew, which is not compatible with either Taiwan’s domestic regulations or the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing convention. Chen also pointed out that the FIPs that FCF participates in cover only a fifth of the longliners the company sources from, so its environmental commitments don’t apply to most of its supply.

In response to a 2018 report from Greenpeace that also linked FCF to human rights abuses on longliner vessels, a company statement said, “we are … disappointed that they are implicating FCF in old incidents and cases that have since been in all instances addressed in coordination with the Taiwanese Fisheries Department.”

But the cases the new report cites are from 2019, Greenpeace senior oceans adviser Andy Shen told Mongabay. “These are fresh cases,” he said. “That’s why we wanted to let the public know — and let FCF know that we know — that this is still occurring, and it’s occurring because there are systemic issues with the Taiwanese industry.”

Lost at Sea

The distant-water fishing industry is difficult to regulate because the vessels spend long stretches in remote parts of the ocean. Instead of returning to port when they’ve fished to capacity, many longliners offload their catch onto other boats that deliver it to shore, a practice known as transhipment at sea. “So they can stay out for months or years at a time,” Shen said. “And there’s no way to check on the real conditions of workers when they’re at sea.” Greenpeace and other prominent environmental and human rights organizations have called for transhipment at sea to be banned so companies and authorities can keep better track of the fishing and labor practices on distant-water vessels. In its latest report, Greenpeace also asks companies to ensure their suppliers commit to maximum periods of time at sea and to returning to ports that have labor inspection systems in place.

According to independent fisheries consultant Francisco Blaha, a former longline tuna fisher and fisheries observer, many island countries have been pushing for a ban on transhipment at sea for years, but China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have consistently opposed the move. “So this is not an issue of FCF per se,” he said. “It’s an issue that goes beyond the company and it goes to the level of politics, of flag states’ relationships.”

Labor conditions are further obscured by the international nature of the workforce, Blaha said. “In the past, the flag of the vessel and the crew of the vessel were the same [nationality],” he said, “but that’s not the case anymore.” Taiwanese vessel owners often contract crew agents to recruit workers from neighboring countries, such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar. Theoretically, Taiwanese labor laws, which include a minimum monthly wage, apply to anyone working on a Taiwanese-flagged vessel. “But if [those crew agents] offer less pay than what the law says, it’s quite difficult for Taiwan to put pressure on them,” Blaha said, “especially because Indonesia doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a country.”

Shen said he would like to see companies like FCF enact policies ensuring that each vessel supplying the company is assessed for human rights violations, that each violation is addressed and measures put in place to prevent future occurrences, and that the companies publicly report on their findings to ensure transparency. “That’s a system that a lot of companies just don’t have in place, but it’s something that makes sense, and it ultimately will protect the workers and it will protect their business,” he said.

But Blaha said he thought Greenpeace’s focus on FCF was misguided. “The issue of work conditions on vessels is massive, but it’s not exclusive to one company. Of course the company has influence, because it’s a big company, but there is a limit to the influence it can have,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the whole fisheries spectrum, from regulators, to industry, to civil society and consumers. If you point fingers at just one element you’ll just antagonize them, and nothing gets solved.”

Pandemic Planning

Shen and Blaha agreed on one thing: now is a particularly important time to spotlight the tuna industry’s fishers and factory workers’ conditions. Because food production is deemed an essential service in many countries, these employees will be under pressure to continue working as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads. “Companies need to really ensure they’re putting measures in place, including occupational safety and health measures and special protective equipment: measures to really help prevent the spread of the virus within these facilities,” Shen said.

But it will be challenging for the industry to keep up with demand in this context, Blaha said. “If you need to do social distancing in the factories, production will go down, because people there are normally working shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “And if people are getting sick, that’s fewer people on the front lines.” If production slows down, lots of fish will be lost, he said, because there’s not enough freezer capacity to store it while it’s waiting to be processed.

Fishers may also be reluctant to take observers and inspectors on board their vessels for fear of catching the virus from them, Blaha said. In fact, the requirement for purse seiner tuna boats to have 100% observer coverage has just been suspended in parts of the Pacific Ocean, in light of crews’ concerns. It’s an understandable move, but one that works against the advance of transparency in an industry that operates far beyond the horizon.

Featured image by: Daniel Case

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Monica Evans, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


Saltwater aquariums are aesthetic displays of reef systems that are placed inside homes or public spaces to evoke a sense of calm. Less calming is the process of harvesting these marine organisms, which is severely deteriorating sensitive coral reef systems.

Approximately two million people are believed to be keeping marine aquariums, and the trade is estimated to be worth up to USD$330 million annually. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), over 1 400 species of fish are traded globally with up to 24 million individuals traded annually and about 140 species of coral species are traded globally, with up to 12 million pieces of coral traded annually. Finally, more than 500 marine invertebrates are traded globally, with an estimated 10 million individuals traded annually.

The Truth About Aquariums

Some countries, like Hawaii, lack regulations that protect their reefs- anyone is free to take reef fish; unless a net with holes smaller than two inches is used, people are able to catch fish for home aquariums without permits. Other countries may have stricter regulations such as the Philippines, that ban visitors from taking marine organisms and ban the use of destructive fishing methods. Despite this, marine animals are still collected through unsustainable practices, including using cyanide as a sedative to collect reef fish, physically chiselling corals and snapping off branch corals to scare fish into nets. These practices are highly destructive to reefs, causing massive trauma to slow-growing corals. The marine aquarium trade is an added pressure on the planet’s reef systems, along with the climate crisis, overfishing and accidental damage by tourists. The Banggai Cardinalfish is an example of a reef fish that has been harvested to the point of endangerment. 

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The Destructive Truth Behind Aquariums
Close up photo of the Banggai Cardinalfish (Source: Amada44).

Some countries have banned some of the most destructive techniques of harvesting reef species, for example the Philippines’ Fisheries code of 1998, however, it is difficult to monitor and educate locals on better harvesting techniques as most fish harvesters for aquariums are individuals or small families that sell to exporters that ship the animals, with the largest markets being the US, Europe and Japan. This is exacerbated by government corruption and poor enforcement, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. 

However, the trade is essential for communities living in the Coral Triangle, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia. Named for its incredible number of coral (nearly 600 different species of reef-building corals alone), communities in this region are usually limited in job opportunities due to the lack of development and with the aquarium trade booming in demand, the trade provides vital jobs.

Aside from reef destruction from harvesting, countries are reporting invasive species introduced by the aquarium trade. An example of this is the lionfish that has wreaked havoc in US waters. The fish, native to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, has been introduced to Atlantic waters through accidental or mercy releases by aquarium owners. The lionfish is a predatory fish that poses a considerable threat to native species due to competition and predation. A study by Oregon State University revealed that over a five-week period, the presence of lionfish on reefs prevented 79% of small larval fish reaching adulthood in coral research sites. These important species include herbivores that graze on algae that grow on corals; without them, the health of corals drastically decreases. Common snapper and grouper populations are decreasing as the lionfish competes with them for food. Economic damage from the lionfish invasion was analysed in Jamaica and was estimated to be approximately USD$11 million for June of 2011 alone. A more recent study conducted on the smaller Island of Tobago shows that the welfare loss due to lionfish invasion was valued at USD$130 000 per year. Some other popular fish for aquariums seen as invasive include the clownfish, tang fish and angelfish.

The only international agreement that makes provision for the protection of coral reef wildlife is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The agreement has 183 signatory countries, including China, US, Coral Triangle countries and Japan. However, a key issue with this agreement is that numerous species that are popular within the trade are not listed, making their conservation difficult. 

Developed nations (importers) should take the lead in implementing laws on the trade, since countries in the Coral Triangle, for example, do not have the resources to implement and enforce regulations. 

Besides regulations, developed nations can support developing nations through the provision of resources, like educating local fish harvesters on safer methods of collection, educating communities on aquacultures of local corals and marine fish, avoiding the capture of endangered species and supporting local governments to enforce regulations.

Currently, there are varying levels of success for certain regulations in the marine aquarium trade in both source and importing countries. Gear restrictions, Fish Recovery Areas, bans and catch limits, seasonal regulations and precautionary regulations are successful management methods that show the significant potential for wide-scale sustainable transformation of the trade.

However, the trade provides some environmental benefits; firstly, it increases the valuation of marine aquarium species. Although this can result in increased catches, conservation efforts have also increased. For instance, to keep up with the demand for corals in the trade, aquarists have grown corals in tanks for sale. As a result, after decades of coral propagation, extensive scientific information gained from coral aquacultures can be used in the restoration of coral reef systems. By manipulating environmental factors such as lighting, nutrition and water flow, there is greater quality, productivity and growth rates of corals. 

Another benefit of increased valuations is the reduction in exploitative practices, such as indiscriminate coral limestone extraction and overfishing. In a UNEP report, one kilogram of fish for aquariums was valued at US$500, whereas one kilogram of reef fish harvested for consumption was valued at US$6. Similarly, one tonne of coral traded for the aquarium hobby was valued at US$7000 meanwhile one tonne of coral used for limestone extraction was valued at US$60. 

The marine aquarium trade has also benefited science by providing easy access to marine species for research as well as educating the younger generation in the hopes that there will be more future awareness and conservation efforts. All these benefits further reflect the importance of creating a sustainable marine aquarium trade.

Coral reef systems are important ecological hotspots for ocean biodiversity and many vulnerable communities rely on them for their livelihoods. It is a shared responsibility between importing and exporting countries to improve the practices within the marine aquarium trade so that oceans and livelihoods are protected.

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