After diving into the warm sea off the coast of northern Bali, Indonesia, Made Partiana flies over a coral bed, holding her breath and looking for flashes of color and movement.
- Most saltwater fish species are wild caught due to the difficulty of captive breeding
- A common illegal fishing technique involves spraying coral reefs with cyanide to stun the fish
- Fishermen and conservation groups in Bali are working to stop the practice
Hours later, exhausted, he returns to a rocky beach, towing plastic bags full of his exquisite quarry: tropical fish of all shades and shapes.
Millions of saltwater fish like these are caught in Indonesia and other countries every year to fill increasingly elaborate aquariums in living rooms, waiting rooms and restaurants around the world with vivid life and a other world
“It’s really fun to see the antics between different varieties of fish,” says Jack Siravo, a Rhode Island fish enthusiast who started building aquariums after an accident left him paralyzed.
He now has four saltwater tanks and calls the fish “an endless source of fascination.”
But the long journey from places like Bali to faraway destinations like Rhode Island is dangerous for the fish and the reefs they come from.
Some are captured with cyanide beams to stun them. Many die along the way.
Made Partiana uses more accurate methods to catch fish. (AP: Alex Lindbloom)
And even when they are caught carefully, people like Partiana, experts say the global demand for these fish is contributing to the degradation of delicate coral ecosystems, especially in major exporting countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
There have been efforts to reduce some of the more destructive practices, such as cyanide fishing.
But the trade is extraordinarily difficult to regulate and monitor, as it extends from small-scale fishermen in tropical coastal villages to local middlemen, export warehouses, international trade centers and finally pet stores in the US, China, Europe and elsewhere.
These reefs have been damaged by years of dynamite fishing. (AP: Alex Lindbloom )
“There is no enforcement, no management, no data collection,” says Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, founder of LINI, a Bali-based non-profit organization for the conservation and management of coastal marine resources.
That leaves enthusiasts like Mr. Siravo in the dark.
“Consumers often don’t know where their fish comes from and how it’s harvested,” says Andrew Rhyne, a professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
The cyanide technique has dire consequences
Most ornamental saltwater fish species are caught in the wild because raising them in captivity can be expensive, difficult, and often impossible.
The conditions they need to reproduce are extremely particular and poorly understood, even by scientists and expert breeders who have been trying for years.
Small-scale collection and export of saltwater aquarium fish began in Sri Lanka in the 1930s and the trade has grown steadily since then.
Many of the fish will be transported to the US for home aquariums. (AP: Alex Lindbloom )
Nearly 3 million households in the United States have saltwater fish as pets, according to a 2021-2022 American Pet Products Association survey.
Freshwater aquariums are much more common because freshwater fish are generally cheaper and easier to raise and care for.
About 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the US each year.
For decades, a common fishing technique has involved cyanide, with dire consequences for fish and marine ecosystems.
Fishermen crush the blue or white pellets in a bottle filled with water.
Diluted cyanide forms a poisonous mixture that fishermen wash into coral reefs, where fish often hide in crevices. The fish are temporarily stunned, allowing fishermen to easily catch or remove them from the coral.
Many die in transit, weakened by the cyanide, meaning that even more fish must be caught to meet demand.
The chemicals damage living coral and make it difficult for new coral to grow.
Officials struggle to enforce the laws
Cyanide fishing has been banned in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, but enforcement remains difficult and experts say the practice continues.
Part of the problem is geography, explains Ms. Reksodihardjo-Lilley.
“We have been working at the national level, trying to push the national government to pay attention to ornamental fish in Indonesia, but it has fallen on deaf ears,” he says.
In the vast archipelago of Indonesia, there are about 54,720 kilometers of coastline across about 17,500 islands.
The vast amount of ocean surrounding Indonesia means that divers can go largely unchecked. (AP: Alex Lindbloom )
This makes overseeing the first step of the tropical fish supply chain such a mammoth task that it is almost impossible to ignore.
Indonesian authorities contravene laws requiring exporters to meet quality, sustainability, traceability and animal welfare conditions.
“We will arrest anyone who implements destructive fishing. There are punishments for that,” says Machmud, an official at Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, who uses only one name.
“No real records”
Another obstacle to monitoring and regulating the trade is the rapid rate at which fish can move from place to place, making it difficult to trace their origins.
At a fish export warehouse in Denpasar, thousands of fish can be delivered a day to the large industrial-style facility located on the main road of Bali’s largest city.
Trucks and motorbikes arrive with white styrofoam coolers filled with plastic bags of fish from all over the archipelago.
The process of sorting and transporting the fish after being caught is fast. (AP: Alex Lindbloom )
The fish are quickly unpacked, sorted into new tanks or plastic bags and given fresh seawater.
The corpses of those who died in transit are thrown into a basket or on the sidewalk, and then thrown into the trash.
Some fish will remain in small rectangular tanks in the warehouse for weeks, while others are shipped quickly in plastic bags in cardboard boxes, fulfilling orders from the US, Europe and elsewhere.
According to data provided to The Associated Press by Indonesian government officials, the US was the country’s largest importer of saltwater aquarium fish.
Once the fish make the plane trip halfway around the world from Indonesia to the US, they are checked by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which cross-checks the shipment with customs declaration forms.
Even if the fish leave the export facility, they may not survive the trip.AP: Alex Lindbloom)
But this is designed to ensure that no protected fish, such as the endangered Cardinal Banggai, are imported. The process cannot determine whether the fish was caught legally.
A US law known as the Lacey Act prohibits the trafficking of fish, wildlife or plants that were illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold, under the laws of the country of origin or sale.
This means that any fish caught with cyanide in a country where it is banned would be illegal to import or sell in the US.
But this is of little help when it is impossible to know how the fish was caught.
For example, no test exists to provide accurate results on whether a fish has been caught with cyanide, says Rhyne, the marine biology expert at Roger Williams.
“The reality is that the Lacey Act is not used very often because generally there is no real record keeping or a way to enforce it,” he says.
Locals are working to save the dying reef
In the absence of strict national enforcement, conservation groups and local fishermen have long worked to reduce cyanide fishing in places like Les, a well-known saltwater aquarium fishing town nestled between the mountains and the ocean north of Bali.
Mr. Partiana began fishing with cyanide shortly after elementary school, when his parents could no longer afford to pay for his education.
Each catch would help provide a few dollars of income for his family.
But over the years he began to notice that the reef was changing.
“I saw the reef dying, turning black,” he says. “You could see there were fewer fish.”
He was part of a group of local fishermen who were taught by a local conservation organization how to use nets, care for the reef and patrol the area to protect against the use of cyanide.
He later became a lead trainer for the organization and has trained more than 200 Indonesian aquarium fishers in the use of less harmful techniques.
Ms Reksodihardjo-Lilley says this type of local education and training should be expanded to reduce harmful fishing.
“People can see that they are directly benefiting from good reef health,” he says.
For Mr. Partiana, now a father of two, it is not just for his benefit.
Mr. Partiana wants to protect and restore the reefs and the ocean for future generations. (AP: Alex Lindbloom)
“I hope that (healthier) coral reefs will make that possible for the next generation of children and grandchildren under me,” he says.
He wants them to be able to “see what coral is like and that there can be ornamental fish in the sea”.
A world away in Rhode Island, Mr. Siravo, the fish enthusiast, shares the hopes of Mr. Partian of a less destructive saltwater aquarium industry.
“I don’t want fish that aren’t sustainably harvested,” he says.
“Because I won’t be able to get fish tomorrow if I buy (unsustainably caught fish) today.”