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Ornamental aquatic life: what's FAO got to do with it?

Aquariums filled with brightly coloured fish and other aquatic creatures are fascinating to watch. But it should also be kept in mind that ornamental aquatic organisms are big business, and represent an important source of income for many rural and coastal communities in developing countries.

In 1996, the export value of ornamental fish and invertebrates was over US$200 million. More than 60 percent of that money, some US$130 million, went into the economies of developing countries. Since 1985, international trade in aquatic organisms for ornamental purposes has been increasing at an average rate of 14 percent annually. Although organisms caught in the wild represent only a small percentage of the ornamental trade, it is this aspect of the industry that is most likely to directly affect fishing communities in developing countries.

Export value of ornamental fish and invertebrates

"With the leveling or decline in production from many capture fisheries, people are trying to find other ways of using aquatic biodiversity," said Devin Bartley, Fishery Resources Officer in the FAO Fisheries Department. "One option is the sustainable harvest and culture of ornamental fish."

All those involved in the international ornamental fish trade - collectors, exporters, importers, dealers and consumers - have a shared responsibility to make the industry environmentally sustainable. Its development is benefiting from growing consumer awareness and enthusiasm. People who take pleasure and pride in recreating aquatic habitats in aquaria also tend to be concerned about preserving the natural environment and promoting responsible fishing practices.

The influence of consumers, dealers and exporters in promoting environmentally sound harvesting practices can be seen in the reduction of the use of chemicals, such as cyanide, to 'stun' marine fish living in coral reefs. Not only does this method often lead to the death of other marine species, including the coral, it also results in high mortality rates of the harvested fish during and after transport. When exporters, dealers and consumers became aware of the problems, efforts were made to educate collectors about the benefits of alternative capture techniques, provide them with better equipment and train them to use nets and traps for capturing the fish. Currently, most marine fish captured in the wild are harvested by local collectors using small nets that do little harm to coral reefs.

Cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi)
Maximum size: 5.0 cm TL

This image is taken from FishBase, a relational database with fish information developed by ICLARM and FAO.

Ornamental fish are collected not just in coral reefs but in freshwater habitats as well. In northwestern Brazil, the ornamental fishery of the middle Rio Negro has been productive for the last 50 years without any evidence of severe environmental destruction. In some communities along the Rio Negro, the capture of ornamental fish, especially the cardinal tetra, accounts for about 60 percent of the local income. A strengthened ornamental fish industry may help efforts to manage sustainably Brazil's forest products. One local ornamental fish cooperative in Brazil has adopted the slogan "Buy a fish and save a tree."

Ornamental fish trade experts at FAO and other international organizations, such as the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), point out that by increasing income and curbing environmental degradation, the industry contributes significantly to local food security. For instance, in 1994, the Maldives exported less than 250 kg of ornamental fish to the United Kingdom and received, in terms of net weight of fish, over US$496 000 per tonne. In contrast, food fish harvested from the wild in the Seychelles was exported at a value per tonne of just US$6 000.

Challenges facing the ornamental fish industry include reducing post-harvest losses, ensuring that collectors receive an adequate income for their labour and obtaining reliable information about sustainable rates of harvest and vulnerable species. "Many of the issues involved in the sustainable development of the trade in aquatic life for ornamental purposes are similar to those for other renewable aquatic resource," said Krishen Rana of the FAO Fisheries Department. "Many ornamental fish and invertebrates have a high market value and should not be neglected when considering ways of creating sustainable livelihoods in rural and coastal communities."

2 September 1999

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