A Cautionary Tale – The Marine Aquarium Trade in Philippines and Indonesia

A Warning to the new owner of the marine aquarium trade:
Without resolute preparation, screening, monitoring, and management this industry will be hazardous to the health of Papua New Guinea’s people and their environment.

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The marine aquarium trade is a destructive, exploitive, un-fair, and unsustainable trade in most areas of the world that it operates in, and the trade in Papua New Guinea will be no different if it is not carefully managed and established properly. It is also the highest value coastal fishery with the potential to proved sustainable resource management and economic prosperity to coastal communities if done right.

In most areas of the world where the aquarium trade operates, primarily the Philippines and Indonesia, the effects of the aquarium trade, and other reef-based fisheries, have been devastating.  This is primarily due to exporter favored management systems that are based purely on immediate financial gains at the expense of the marine environment and its potential to support future generations of fishers.

There are good operations in both countries but they are swimming against local economic and political tides that keep them relatively small and isolated from the wider exporter community. This goes as well for some fishers and their communities that are trying to tackle the disparities that dominate the trade presently but finding it very, very hard to move forward and grow due to both local exporter indifference and wider global market lack of awareness.

The marine aquarium trade that has been established in Papua New Guinea under the SEASMART Program is very different from the trade that has helped to destroy or highly impact large portions of PNG’s Asian/Pacific counterpart’s reef resources.  The PNG SEASMART marine aquarium trade is based on sound science, fisher equitability, and traditional PNG resource rights ownership systems to create a trade that is sustainable, equitable, and profitable for the people of PNG.

Over the three (3) years that the SEASMART Program has been operating in PNG, a PNG “brand” has been developed. This “brand” represents PNG aquarium fish as the highest quality, healthiest, most sustainably collected and equitably traded fish in the marine aquarium trade.  The result has been overwhelming support from aquarium importers and hobbyists in the global marine aquarium market.  This branding effort took over 2 years to establish, however it can and will be undone in just a few weeks if the trade in Papua New Guinea falls into the wrong hands; hands that do not abide by the PNG standards set forth by the PNG SEASMART Program.

Papua New guinea’s coastal resources are the richest and healthiest remaining on the planet. A properly managed and set up marine aquarium trade can utilise these resources to bring vast opportunity for sustainable prosperity to thousands of Papua New Guineans especially in presently underserved rural coastal and small island communities.  Further, by placing a direct cash incentive on keeping reefs healthy and productive, the marine aquarium trade has the power to be the most effective coral reef conservation tool for Papua New Guinea, – if managed carefully.

Overview of the Marine Aquarium Trade in the Philippines and Indonesia

Threats and Root Causes of Marine Biodiversity Loss in the Philippines and Indonesia:

  • Destruction of coastal and marine habitats due to unsustainable/illegal harvesting:

The largest threats to marine biological biodiversity are illegal and destructive fishing practices; including fishing with explosives, cyanide fishing and the use of illegal trawl nets. All of these contribute to the closely related problem of overfishing. Although there is some legislation in place, enforcement, and education to address these threats, the practices continue largely because these techniques are widespread and overwhelm the capacity of the government to address them.

  • Coastal Water Pollution

Untreated domestic sewage from coastal towns, cities, and ships are being dumped directly into the sea. Tailings and sediments from quarrying and mining in coastal and agricultural chemicals (e.g. fertilizers) and aquaculture waste (i.e. resulting from the use of fertilizers, feeds, and chemicals) impact inshore waters. Plastic bags and free-floating nets result in the death of threatened marine species that ingest or become entangled in them. Leaks and spills of oil and fuel from ships periodically damage marine ecosystems.

Root Causes and Impacts

  • Poverty and limited economic opportunities.

Limited opportunities coupled with resource depletion and degradation results in poverty that drives people to use destructive and unsustainable harvesting methods to meet their immediate needs. These methods result in further resource depletion and degradation, creating a downward spiral of poverty and environmental destruction.

  • Institutional and policy issues and limited enforcement of existing regulations.

Inappropriate, overlapping and conflicting policies and institutions; shortages of expertise; inadequate information, education, and communication capacity; and weak policy mechanisms all have helped lead both Indonesia and the Philippines to the desperate situation they are now in. Where the central government, particularly the Bureau of Fisheries, has devolved inshore resource management, there is often a lack of technical knowledge and resources to implement effective management. In many cases, laws and regulations have been developed, but enforcement and enforcement support is weak or lacking.  Other institutional and policy issues affecting the marine aquarium trade in the Philippines and Indonesia are:

  • Unregulated use of coastal and marine areas resulting in a race to collect everything in sight, which leads to over-harvesting.

In PNG, the SEASMART program uses a number of mechanisms to control overfishing including FMA-species based Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limits, fish-to-order, Fishery Management Area (FMA) management plans, TRADE monitoring system, and others.

  • Roving fishers and open access to the resource has led to habitat degradation due to the lack of user responsibility for the resource.

In the PNG SEASMART industry, fisher roaming is not allowed as only SEASMART trained fishers are allowed to fish in their FMA. This allows for better management of fishers and resource management. Only PNG SEASMART trained fishers are allowed to fish in the marine aquarium trade in PNG. The local community resource owners are responsible for managing their own FMA’s resources supported by management area planning and the development and implementation of their own Management Area Plan (MAP).

  • Use of destructive fishing methods.

The principal threats to the coral reefs of the Philippines and Indonesia are destructive fishing and overfishing. The results of destructive coastal fishing have been devastating. According to WRI’s (World Resources Institute) “Reefs at Risk” report, almost 90 percent of the coral reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia are threatened.  The following practices contribute to the destruction of coastal and marine habitats:

  • Use of wrong fishing gear such as illegal trawl nets, steel bars, etc. – leads to resource depletion, overfishing, low-quality of fish, habitat degradation and destruction (overturning and breakage of corals).

In PNG, the SEASMART Program only teaches correct fishing and holding techniques to the fishers. This is all they know so are more inclined to follow good habits in fishing. Destruction of corals to get to a fish, is taught from day one as wrong and costly to the fishers as it destroys habitat they could be fishing on. Fishers have been taught to construct, maintain and use a wide array of different types of nets used in the harvesting of the many different species.

  • Improper use and poor quality of air compressors used for hookah – dramatically increase risk to human health, or is fatal.

NO hookah or assisted diving in any form is allowed in PNG at present. Any future introduction of any assisted diving technique will be highly regulated. Free diving limits in PNG are set at 5m in depth, well within the free dive safety zone. There has not been one fisher injury since the start of the SEASMART Program. This to be compared to the dozens of fishers in the Philippines and Indonesia that die every year in diving “accidents” or are crippled for life by the bends.

  • No selective fishing and fish-to-order systems used – leads to over-fished resource, with the chances of the resource to replenish itself being very low.

The PNG SEASMART industry provides a by FMA individual species TAC availability list to exporters who order based on FMA species availability and market demand.

  • Poor husbandry / handling practices – leads to unnecessary animal mortality, over-harvesting and habitat degradation.

PNG SEASMART industry utilizes a range of husbandry/handling practices that limits stress to organism health including holding in sea, flow through holding buckets/jars/pens, strict screening, and in depth fisher training and follow up extension services.

  • Exporters are often very resistant to change, and often lead efforts to undermine new, sustainable management systems introduced such as Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) Certification – Some exporters are also the primary suppliers of cyanide to fishers. The business models used by most exporters in both the Philippines and Indonesia do not actively support fisher growth or care for the environment.

Possibly one of the biggest problems in today’s trade, are uninterested or outright hostile exporters that resist all efforts to change. In PNG, the export industry is designed to comply with PNG SEASMART standards of best practice including organism traceability and a “no chemical use” policy towards fishing. Exporter licensing needs to be tightly controlled and applicants very carefully screened if PNG is to develop in ways that are supportive of equitable and sustainable growth.

  • Poor Industry Support

There is a great deal of distrust between marine aquarium fishers and exporters and communication between the two groups is practically non-existent.  As a result, there are often unsettled disputes over discrepancies in packing lists and shipment receipts, claims of lost fish, miscalculated reimbursements, and other inappropriate screening practices.  Because of the imbalance in power between fishers and exporters, and the difficulty fishers have in validating the screening process and reviewing receipts, there is a general sense of mistrust of exporters, and a belief that local fishers are regularly adversely affected by miscalculations in revenue owed.

  • Over harvesting of target organisms or cherry-picking which results in the rapid decline of high-valued species.

In PNG, organisms are fished to order, meaning that only fish ordered are to be fished for. This ordering system is backed up by a per species per Fishery Management Area (FMA) set of Total Allowable Catches (TACs). This acts to limit overfishing and concentrates the efforts of the fishers over a wider and more marketable species mix, helping to maintain population balance between the different reef species on a target reef area.

  • High levels of mortality associated with poor shipping and bad husbandry practices along the supply chain. Fisher to Exporter market chain in both countries has regularly produced mortality reports of 10-40% or more at the field and from export of 10-35% or more. Not all exports and fishers show this level of mortality but research shows that many if not most suffer these rates of organism mortality.

PNG’s SEASMART industry’s average field mortalities and export mortalities are under 1%. A very, very rare number in the global trade. This discrepancy is due to the training PNG’s fishers have received and the strictness of the screening process which, unlike most of Indo and PH, occurs primarily in the community. The field effort is backed up by a world-class, Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) Certifiable, facility in Port Moresby capable of quality and cost effective post harvest handling, husbandry and shipping of PNG’s marine aquarium life.

  • Fish pricing – there is a fairly large discrepancy between the income earned by the fisher and the prices paid by the end consumer. Furthermore, fish prices are controlled by the exporters that has effectively resulted in no price increases for the last two decades. Collusion between exporters is the norm especially through associations like the Philippines Tropical Fish Exports Association. Some exporters are fairer than others but as a general rule, the above applies.

In most of the Philippines and Indonesia, the present income rate is about six (6) or seven (7) to one (1), meaning the fishers get 1/6 or 1/7 of the export price. This is opposed to PNG where the rate is about three (3) to one (1) or fishers receive 1/3 of the price of export, as it approximately is in much of the non Asian trade.

  • Middlemen – A study carried out in the Philippines showed that, 85% of the fish prices paid by exporters went to middlemen whereas only 15% went to fishers.

The PNG industry to date and as planned, has no middlemen between the fisher and the exporter.

  • Export facility ownership, especially amongst the larger exporters, is often by non-indigenous nationals or through local “partnership” with Europeans or Americans with local owners having a much smaller piece of the industry. Many local owned companies are actually dummy companies controlled by outside interests.

In PNG, The SEASMART industry is designed and set up to maintain local control over the industry with no company having less than 51% true local ownership mostly through fisher, program and Provincial trusts but also through tightly screened investment. The industry in PNG also has the present advantages of having a sufficient and for the most part an undamaged resource base to assure more aware investors they will be able to make a good income while at the same time, helping the environment and provide a decent living to the fishers/resource owners.

  • Limited information for management.

In most fishing areas there is lack of appropriate scientific information on inshore marine resources and ecosystems and their use, with few baseline assessments and monitoring programs. Abundance and distribution of marine aquarium resources is not known due to the limited scientific information available which leads to unsustainable harvesting. When scientific information is available, it is often not interpreted and applied to management.

In the PNG SEASMART led industry, full baseline survey scientific data is incorporated into all fishery management area plans and setting of TACs which include automatic fisher ordering and exporter buying controls. All data and plans available to NFA and Provincial Fisheries departments online through the PNG TRADE Management system, increasing management and planning capacity.

  • Lack of public and stakeholder awareness and involvement.

Marine resources and ecosystems are not well understood by local communities and governmental agencies and there is generally a lack of awareness and local stakeholder participation for inshore resource management.

The SEASMART PNG industry management is based on local community resource rights so our system is, at its core, fundamentally stronger and more sustainable than either Philippines or Indonesia. All fishers are taught basic principles of ecosystem and fishery management.

Most destructive techniques currently practiced in the Philippines and Indonesia:

  • Blast fishing: the use of primitive bombs for food fishing, largely for subsistence consumption and domestic markets.

This remains a serious problem in PNG although in our present FMA’s, fishers report a much lower level of dynamite fishing now than before SEASMART’s fisher education program started.

  • Poison fishing: the use of sodium cyanide to capture marine ornamental (aquarium) fish as well as live food fish. Cyanide fishing has spread from the Philippines to Indonesia as well as to other countries and has recently become much more wide spread.

Use of chemicals of any type for fishing is not allowed in the PNG SEASMART industry. Since exporters here do not supply their fishers with cyanide, access to this very dangerous chemical is severely limited. Use of cyanide on PNG has been mainly limited to foreign run live food fish operations. Our screening process also removes, at the source FMA, any organism not meeting certain standards of health which would, if cyanide were being used, screen out any organisms exhibiting signs of cyanide poisoning. Any organisms exhibiting these signs would trigger an immediate investigation by trained SEASMART personnel.

Costs and Financing for the attempted Reform of the Marine Aquarium Trade in the Philippines and Indonesia:

  • Total of US$31,157,150 or PGK93, 471,450 (2005-2008) was spent for the reform of the marine aquarium trade in the Philippines and Indonesia from 2005-2008.
  • This money was almost entirely wasted due to poor industry support primarily at the exporter and importer links, and fisher powerlessness (no management control over their resource base and inability to get a better price).

PNG is on a much different track simply because PNG has the ability to bring in only export investors willing if not eager to comply with PNG SEASMART rules of operation and best practice guidance.

  • At present, the PNG SEASMART Program exports more fish coming from proven sustainably managed areas than all of the Philippines and Indonesia

Opportunities for the marine aquarium trade in Papua New Guinea:

  • The marine aquarium trade is a global multi-million dollar industry, worth an estimated US$200-330 million annually (UNEP/WCMC 2002).
  • The marine aquarium trade, if managed sustainably, will continue to provide jobs in rural, low-income coastal communities and so provide a strong economic incentive for coral reef conservation for generations to come.
  • Marine aquarium animals are the highest value-added, potentially sustainable product that can be harvested from coral reefs. PNG SEASMART branded animals maintain a higher –than- industry average value.
  • A SEASMART marine aquarium fishery is an economically viable artisanal fisheries industry in PNG in which PNG has the potential to develop and maintain a dominant role in the global marine aquarium market.
  • PNG’s “branding” efforts to sell PNG marine aquarium life as sustainable, equitable and affordable are working to generate a rapidly growing list of buyers and orders as well as increased expressions of interest from buyers in Asia, North America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
  • A SEASMART marine aquarium trade will contribute significantly toward poverty alleviation and crime reduction in addition to strengthened local and national economies. This is a direct result of the fishery being able to run on minimal expenses, using simple but effective tools available in any rural setting.
  • The SEASMART Program has created and will further create opportunities for many coastal individuals and communities in PNG that they have never had before. These opportunities are the result of the direct connection of PNG communities to the global aquarium market, and training and certifying of community members as responsible marine aquarium fish collectors. This training and certification itself is revered as being distinctive, and certified collectors are proud of the training they received and the knowledge they have gained.
  • The SEASMART Program has also created the opportunity for aquarium fish fishers to become SEASMART trainers. This opportunity is seen as being both financially valuable and prestigious and is an important and highly valuable component of the SEASMART Program.  The trainer positions not only offer a significant income, but program participants have the opportunity to share the knowledge they have learned with other fishers and become the driving force behind the promotion of a sustainable marine aquarium trade throughout PNG.

EcoEZ Inc.

September 5, 2010