Devin Bartley

Fishery Resources Division


At the invitation of the organizers,
Dr Devin Bartley attended the World Conference on Ornamental Fish (Aquarama 1999) in Singapore. The conference was attended by people from industry, academia, non-governmental organizations (primarily trade NGO’s), and hobbyists. The following article contains the main points from Dr Bartley’s presentation entitled, “Responsible Ornamental Fisheries” given at the special session on Trade and Conservation; additional information presented by other participants is also included. See also a related story on Ornamental Fish on the FAO News & Highlights web site at:

The ornamental fish sector is an extensive and global component of international trade, fisheries, aquaculture and development. However, the scope of this sector and the impact on human and aquatic communities are often unappreciated and often not accurately known. Global statistics reported to FAO from Members indicate that the export value in 1996 of ornamental fishes was US$206,603,000, while the import value was US$321,251,000. Since 1985 the value of the international trade in ornamental exports has increased at an average growth rate of approximately 14 percent per year (Figure 1). Developing countries account for about 63 percent of the export value. The value of the entire industry, when non-exported product, wages, retail sales and associated materials are considered (Figure 2), has been estimated at US$15,000 million. Such a vast and important industry has the potential to contribute to the sustainable development of aquatic resources, but may face challenges due to increased attention to environmental and social issues.

With the levelling or decline in production form many capture fisheries (Figure 3), people are trying to find other ways of using aquatic biodiversity. One option is the sustainable harvest and culture of ornamental fishes. In many developing areas the harvest of fresh and marine ornamental fish provides income where little other options exist for practical employment.

The conservation and sustainable use of ornamental fishery resources, as well as ensuring that benefits are equitably shared by resource providers, are important issues in the face of habitat loss and degradation, harmful fishing practices (over-fishing and destructive fishing, such as the use of cyanide), international trade and introduction of exotic species. These issues are now being addressed by the international community through the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and others (Table 1).

According to Dr Kevan Main of Harbor Branch Oceongraphic Institution, the majority (> 90 percent) of freshwater ornamental fish are captive bred whereas only about 25 of 8,000 marine ornamental species can be easily raised. However, there is also a strong push to breed and domesticate many high value marine species. The ornamental fish industry relies on the export and import of introduced species, therefore, industry NGOs have taken steps to educate importers, retailers and consumers on the proper handling of ornamental fish to minimize environmental risks. The industry also uses coral, both as dried decoration and as living components of fish tanks. International trade in hard corals is restricted by CITES, and many soft corals, which are not restricted have hard coral bases to which they are attached and as such, the soft corals also become restricted under CITES. Industry NGO's point out that about 3,000 mts of coral are traded in the ornamental fish industry, but hundreds of thousands or millions of tonnes and live coral are mined for


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Figure 1. Export value of the ornamental fish
trade in developed and developing countries,
according to FAO Statistics.

construction purposes (Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association information).

Although the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries does not specifically mention ornamental fisheries, they are assumed to be covered by the Code.The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA) has also created a Code of Conduct for the aquarium industry in the UK (http://www.ornamental Other technical publications and diploma and certificate programmes on water quality, biology and fish health have also been created by industry NGOs . These industry guidelines will help ensure fish welfare and environmental protection.

Although FAO has not been too involved with the ornamental fish industry, there are issues that emerged during the Conference that are of concern and may warrant some involvement from the Fisheries Department:

  • Improvement of fishery and trade statistics - It was reported that approx. 8,000 species of marine fish are traded in the industry and most of these are missing from FAO statistics; reporting to FAO is inconsistent due to different countries evaluation of commodities;

  • Destructive fishing practices - Some estimates indicate that 20,000 fishers may be using sodium cyanide to capture coral reef fishes that destroys coral reefs and other organisms, and results in eventual death of harvested fish.

  • Aquaculture development - of the 8,000 marine species traded, approximately 25 can be bred and cultured. There is a strong move to breed and domesticate high value marine species and endangered species (Figure 4). However,

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Figure 2. Ornamental fish, sold in plastic bags in Bangkok's "Chat o Chak" market, support activity in related articles such as fish food, aquarium supplies and plants.


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Figure 3. East Africa, example of an area, i.e. the Great Lakes of Africa, where capture of ornamental fish trade is practised in light of stagnating food fisheries and increased population growth. Capture food fishery production total from seven East African countries and their population total (FAO and UN Statistics).


farming runs of the risk of displacing small-scale
harvesters in areas such as Sri Lanka.

  • Income generation - In areas with little other options for environmentally sustainable development, some ornamental fisheries are extremely lucrative, for example Dr Wijisekara stated that ornamental fish account for 8 percent of the volume of exported fish from Sri Lanka, but this represents 70 percent of the value. Market access and availability will hinder development in remote areas such as many Pacific Island States.

  • Involvement of women - Some culturing and tending of grow-out areas are predominately run by women such as in coral culture in the Solomon Islands.

  • Competition from other sectors - Harvest of cardinal tetras in the Rio Negro, Brazil, is competing with a developing sport fishery for large cichlids. As in other uses of freshwater, there are always moves to divert water for agriculture without a full appreciation of the biological resources, e.g. ornamental and food fishes, that are present in water bodies.

  • Increased valuation of aquatic resources - Organisms with no value as a food fish have often been destroyed or the habitat that supports them has been degraded; however their value as an ornamental fish provides motivation for fishery management and conservation as in the case of freshwater stingrays from Amazonia.

  • Certification and labelling - In light of harmful fishing practices and the potential of overfishing, there is a movement to certify ornamental fishes that are sustainably harvested. For the marine

industry this effort is being coordinated by the newly established Marine Aquarium Council with its new Director Dr Paul Holthus.

  • Technology transfer-Several speakers, including fishery officers from Sri Lanka, noted that lack of adequate technology transfer in the areas of captive breeding, systems design, and disease diagnosis and treatment was hindering development of the industry.

  • Bio-piracy-John Dawes of Aquatic Consultancy brought up the possibility where a fish is taken from a country and traded in the industry by another party without compensation to the country of origin. Sponges and species of gorgonians (soft coral) may be collected or farmed for bio-active compounds that may become valuable pharmaceutical products. This is similar, but not identical, to the concept of Farmers' Rights under the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Systems of prior informed consent may need to be developed in this area. However, there are many species in aquaculture that are traded internationally with no compensation for the country of origin, e.g. tilapia, salmon, carps, etc.

The purpose of FAO participation in the Conference was to acquaint the ornamental fish industry with international efforts that may impinge on them and to highlight the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, as well as for FAO to learn more about this industry. There was strong support from those in attendance to have some involvement of FAO in helping the industry continue to develop responsible practices.


Figure 4. Indonesian farm licensed to raise and sell the endangered ornamental Golden Dragon Fish, Scleropagus formosas (inset). Under CITES, each farm-raised fish must be tagged and the sale monitored to ensure wild stocks are not being traded.

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The ornamental fish industry and the people that rely on this for livelihood can help ensure that international trade continues in a responsible manner and that the international community does not overly restrict the industry, by becoming aware of the issues and by following and promoting responsible practices that ensure conservation and equitable benefit sharing. Actions toward this end would include, inter alia:

  • Eco-labelling to ensure sustainable harvest or growing conditions and humane treatment of animals;

  • Creation and adoption of voluntary codes of conduct, such as those in the UK, and best practices such as are being developed by Marine Aquarium Council;

  • Avoidance of controversial genetic technologies or the creation of novel life forms;

  • Health certification for transboundary movements of aquatic animals;

  • Promotion of domesticated ornamental fish where appropriate and the promotion of sustainable harvest of natural populations where appropriate;

  • Promotion of public zoos and aquaria and other educational fora;

  • Encourage more accurate reporting by national governments;

  • Encourage species and habitat recovery programmes.

The participants noted the lack of accurate information regarding:

  • Status of natural populations harvested for the industry;

  • Ornamental aquaculture production; and

  • Number and species exported

and suggested that an improved information system and accurate reporting were crucial for the continued growth of the industry. In light of the above, FI may wish to examine more closely the ornamental fish industry with an initial focus toward improving the information base. FAO Fisheries and the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association have often exchanged information and have enjoyed an informal, but productive, relationship in the past.


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I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Ms Adele Crispoldi (FIDI) for providing ornamental production and trade statistics, Mr Keith Davenport (OATA) for helpful discussions on the presentation and Dr Audrey Fernando (SINGAPORE) for facilitating my participation in the World Conference on Ornamental Fish.