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Moving towards sustainability: The problems with the aquarium trade in Indonesia – By Kimberley Turrell

Indonesian waters are home to an eighth of the world’s coral reefs (Cesar et al. 1997). The massive biodiversity (Cesar et al. 1997) makes it perfect for the aquarium trade. An enormous 85% of fish (Barber and Pratt 1998) and 36% of coral exports are from Indonesia (Harriott 2003). Europe and North America lead the charge (Barber and Pratt 1998) and demand has grown rapidly over the past two decades (Rhyne et al. 2014). It continues to grow. But we must question this industries sustainability.  Indonesia’s fishing community uses destructive fishing methods to supply the trade. These are totally unnecessary.  The Kona enterprise in Hawaii shows moving toward sustainability is possible when governments and fishery science is taken into account (Rhyne et al. 2014). But what needs to be done to make the shift from destruction to sustainability in Indonesia?

Cyanide is a cheap and popular method of fishing for the aquarium and food trade (Cesar et al. 1997). Bottles are filled with cyanide and squirted on the coral reefs to stun the fish (Cesar et al. 1997). Fishermen are also known to damage the reefs by using crow bars to collect stunned fish within crevices (Barber and Pratt 1998). The result is serious reef degradation. Corals bleach and die and non-target species are killed (Johannes and Ripen 1996). Less destructive methods exist but also have associated issues. Kolm and Berglund (2003) investigated effects of trade fishing on Banggai Cardinal Fish in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The fishermen used sea urchins to lure these fish into cages. Urchins were damaged by the sticks used to force them into cages. Traditional fishing is less destructive but overfishing is an issue. Overfishing leads to lower biodiversity hence lesser value to tourists and divers (Cesar et al. 1997) and endangered species are threatened with extinction.  Kolm and Berglund (2003) observed fishermen moving to new areas when they had emptied a reef of target species. Shifting from reef to reef could mean empty reefs become widespread and there will be no sources of new recruits.

Cyanide Fishing - James Cervino. 11.Bruckner, A.W. and G. Roberts (editors). 2008. “Proceedings of the International Cyanide Detection Testing Workshop”. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-40, Silver Spring, MD 164 pp.

Cyanide Fishing – James Cervino. Bruckner, A.W. and G. Roberts (editors). 2008. “Proceedings of the International Cyanide Detection Testing Workshop”. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-40, Silver Spring, MD 164 pp.

Destructive methods and overfishing are not sustainable and the reef ecosystems will collapse – posing an issue for those using reefs for food security, tourism, science and protection from coastal erosion (Cesar et al. 1997). A move toward sustainable trade is possible; the first important step is eradicating cyanide fishing. Barber and Pratt (1998) state that through a combination of higher law enforcement, new policies and public awareness, cyanide fishing can be reduced.

Cyanide Fishing

Cyanide fishing is illegal and its prevalence shows how corrupt the government and law enforcement is (Pet and Pet-Soede 1999).  Current rules and laws are not being enforced in Indonesia and Pet and Pet-Soede (1999) describe a system where bribes are taken at lower government levels and cases rarely go to court. There is a huge lack in support for banning this method and greater public awareness is needed.  Consumers should know how the creatures in their aquariums get there. The horrors of cyanide fishing and its ecosystem impacts must be common knowledge. Barber and Pratt (1998) believe consumers can reduce numbers of cyanide caught fish. They must demand better practises and purchase fish from cyanide free catches. This pressures the industry to introduce cyanide-free certification and better techniques.

Improved policies and rules must be developed to allow for a system of certification. Currently all fishermen should be registered but according to Ferse et al. (2012) none of the fishermen interviewed in a village they visited were registered. A nationwide log registry is a crucial step towards sustainability. It will ensure trade fishermen are equipped with species knowledge and sustainable techniques. Registers also allow any offenders to be tracked down. To be registered a fisherman must go through training – as seen in the Phillipines (Barber and Pratt 1998). Alternative techniques will be taught involving different types of net enabling a variety of species to be caught (Barber and Pratt 1998). To eliminate reef destruction and to protect non-target species, training should involve how to behave when diving on reefs and how to avoid causing damage. Exported catches must be associated with registered fishermen. Payment should follow export meaning fishermen will be motivated to become registered.

The law against cyanide fishing needs to be enforced. Cyanide detection tests should be performed on fish prior to export and import (Barber and Pratt 1998, Bruckner and Roberts 2008). Sustainably caught fish will receive a cyanide-free certification. Usually the larger players in the trade, rather than the fishermen and divers, are going to be responsible for illegal actions and they should be held responsible for any misconduct (Barber and Pratt 1998). Offenders should be made known to all countries of import and export (Bruckner and Roberts 2008). Clear, tight policies shared by all countries will avoid confusion and corruption and the United States can provide strong incentives for change (Bruckner and Roberts 2008).

A corrupt system is one of the greatest barriers to overcome and can take time. Incentives for water police, such as commission for offenders brought to justice, could initially be introduced. Hopefully as demand for certified fish increases so will law enforcement as greater financial gain will be involved.


Introducing closed seasons and creating reserve areas will help prevent overfishing (Cesar et al. 1997). Closed seasons aid ecosystem recovery but will also allow fishermen to collect species living there that are less abundant elsewhere. Closed seasons can be determined using life histories for example after breeding and recruitment processes.

Reserves should be implemented in areas where there are high numbers of endangered species. A closed season program will not suffice as lower population numbers means recovery after fishing is not guaranteed. Certain species should not be certified and exported if they are classed as endangered as further fishing will lead to extinction. If an endangered species is discovered then certifiers should alert the local police to track down the offenders who will be issued a warning. Species identification and life history training would be included in the registration process to discourage fishermen from selecting endangered species and field guides could assist with identification in the field.

Job (2005) believes mariculture is a livelihood alternative to fishing that is more effective for conservation. Communities can be fully involved as young, small fish are more valuable hence operations are small scale (Job 2005). These fish are also in high demand by hobbyists because of their “conservation-friendly” label (Job 2005). However, wild fishing will only decrease if the demand is fulfilled by mariculture and conscious effort is required for development of mariculture in Indonesia (Tlusty 2002).

Harriott (2003) mentions cultured coral could replace coral in the wild but Rhyne et al. 2014 believes this could result in short sighted policy that will negatively impact the coral reef socio-ecological system. Working towards sustainable fishing instead of sourcing from mariculture will allow local fishermen to keep their jobs. If certain species require mariculture Rhyne et al. 2012 state the importance of continuing financial benefits of the trade to the small collector communities. Therefore it is agreed that mariculture should be local so community livelihoods are not destroyed and should only be initiated where appropriate, as shown below:

Tlusty, M. 2002. “The benefits and risks of aquacultural production for the aquarium trade”. Aquaculture. Vol. 205. Pg 203-219.

Tlusty, M. 2002. “The benefits and risks of aquacultural production for the aquarium trade”. Aquaculture. Vol. 205. Pg 203-219.

Life history is an important factor in the coral aquarium trade. Having this knowledge means fishermen can collect the species that are going to be able to recover quickly. Currently the coral market is selecting large, polyped species and these tend to be slow growing (Harriott 2003). By gathering ecological data on coral species a sustainable plan for collection could be developed. The corals that should be focused on would be species with high growth rates and high accretion capacity (Harriott 2003). This is important for conservation as these species are able to recover at greater rates. Species that will not recover are those that are slow growing. Slow growth means the species may never reach levels where it will flourish especially if extraction continues. High demand for slow growing coral could switch to rapid growing coral by manipulating the market. Prices seem to depend on perceived market abundance rather than actual supply (Rhyne et al. 2012). Hence marketers could use this to devalue the slow growing corals.

Sustainable aquarium trade in Indonesia still has a long way to go. For such a huge industry with many livelihoods involved care needs to be taken and changes must be gradual when applying new plans and policies. Acting on sustainability is better than eradicating the trade altogether as aquariums are an excellent resource that brings about awareness of coral reefs and the problems they face (Rhyne et al. 2014). There is a top down effect in the unsustainable fishing situation. By acting on the consumers demand for aquarium fish will switch to sustainably caught fish. Communication between all parties involved (Rhyne et al. 2014) must improve or they will see detrimental effects on the trade. Switching to sustainable techniques and management could provide jobs for more locals, scientists, teachers, and open up positions for fishery managers at different sites. Not to mention preserve our beautiful reef ecosystems.


  1. Barber, C.V., Pratt, V.R. 1998. “Poison and Profits – Cyanide Fishing in the Indo-Pacific”. Environment. Vol. 40. Number 8. 4-9, 28-34.
  2. Bruckner, A.W. and G. Roberts (editors). 2008. “Proceedings of the International Cyanide Detection Testing Workshop”. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-40, Silver Spring, MD 164 pp.
  3. Cesar, H., Gustaf Lundin, C., Bettencourt, S., Dixon, J. 1997. “Indonesian Coral Reefs: An Economic Analysis of a Precious but Threatened Resource”. Ambio. Vol. 26, Number 6. 345-350.
  4. Ferse, S.C.A, Knittweis, L., Krause, G. Maddusila, A., Glaser, M. 2012. “Livelihoods of Ornamental Coral Fishermen in South Sulawesi/Indonesia: Implications for Management”. Coastal Management. Vol. 40. Issue 5. 525-555.
  5. Harriott, V.J. 2003. “Can Corals Be Harvested Sustainably?” Ambio. Vol. 32. Issue 2. 130-133.
  6. Job, S. 2005. “Integrating marine conservation and sustainable development: Community-based aquaculture of marine aquarium fish”. SPC Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin #13. Pg 24-29.
  7. Johannes, B., Ripen, M. March 1996. “Environmental, economic and social Implications of the fishery for live coral reef food fish in Asia and the Western Pacific”. SPC Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin #1. 18-20.
  8. Kolm, N., Berglund, A. 2003. “Wild Populations of a Reef Fish Suffer from the “Nondestructive” Aquarium Trade Fishery”. Conservation Biology. Vol. 17. Issue 3. 910-914.
  9. Pet, J.S., Pet-Soede, L. April 1999. “A note on cyanide fishing in Indonesia” SPC Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin #5. 21-22.
  10. Rhyne, A.L., Tlusty, M.F., Kaufman, L. 2012. “Long-term trends of coral imports into the United States indicate future opportunities for ecosystem and societal benefits”. Conservation Letters. Vol. 5. Pg 478-485.
  11. Rhyne, A.L., Tlusty, M.F., Kaufman, L. 2014. “Is sustainable exploitation of coral reefs possible? A view from the standpoint of the marine aquarium trade”. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. Vol. 7. Pg 101-107.
  12. Tlusty, M. 2002. “The benefits and risks of aquacultural production for the aquarium trade”. Aquaculture. Vol. 205. Pg 203-219.

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