marine fish that are cought with the aid of cyanide or improperly packed for shipment are unlikely to survive more than weeks or a few months after purchase. A teira batfish (Platax teira) is seen here

marine fish that are cought with the aid of cyanide or improperly packed for shipment are unlikely to survive more than weeks or a few months after purchase. A teira batfish (Platax teira) is seen here

Marine Tropical Fish Shipment and Collection

Some thoughts and observations
A surprisingly small number of marine aquarium hobbyists are aware of the complicated process by which the majority of saltwater specimens reach a retailer’s tanks. Especially for the novice, much of the hobbyist’s success may depend upon how the fish were handled during collection and shipment of tropical marine fish. In order to make you aware of potential problems, how to spot them and to know difference between marine and tropical fish, I’m going to tell you what I have learned during the past 20 years of working with marine fish and invertebrates in tropical marine centre.

Most of you are unlikely to realize the sheer numbers of marine tropical fish that enter the country. To illustrate just how large the marine hobby is, in terms of numbers of specimens, consider that in a single day at the Los Angeles International Airport, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers inspected consignments totaling more than 20,000 fish and nearly 5000 invertebrates. This is in one day at only one of five major ports of entry! A serious problem affecting the quality of fish imported from certain locations is the use of cyanide in collecting. The practice is particularly widespread in the Philippines and in Indonesia. Both countries are, unfortunately, major exporters of marine fish to the United States. By far the largest source is, indeed, the Philippines. Despite the fact that collecting marine fish with cyanide is illegal, the problem persists for a variety of political and socioeconomic reasons. Collector and wholesaler Steve Robinson and the International Marinelife Alliance (IMA) have done much to bring the problem of cyanide collecting to the attention of hobbyists and industry people in North America, The Netsman Project, an effort conducted by the IMA, trained 283 collectors in 1990.

These were Filipino fishermen who had formerly used cyanide to collect fish as marine tropical fish for sale. They were instructed in proper techniques for net collecting of fish, and were provided nets and other equipment. Unfortunately, there are an estimated 2000 to 3000 collectors in the Philippines, and studies estimate 80 to 90 percent of them use cyanide. Furthermore, net training efforts are continually plagued by a shortage of funds and political ots stacles. (Robinson’s life has been threatened on more than one occasion, for example). Hobbyists can make an economic impact on the cyanide problem in several ways. One is to learn about which species come from where. Specimens collected in the United States, Australia or Fiji, for example, are unlikely to have been caught with the aid of poisons. On the other hand, certain species have such a high incidence of cyanide capture that there have been recommendations to avoid them altogether.

The powder blue tang (Acanthurus leucosternon) is one example, as is the powder brown tang ( A. japonicas). Another way in which hobbyists can protect themselves against cyanide-caught fish is to learn to recognize the symptoms of cyanide poisoning. Understanding the means by which the chemical exerts its insidious effects is fundamental to understanding why the cyanide cycle continues to be repeated. Several years ago, Dr. Nelson Herwig, working at the Houston Zoo, reported on a study he carried out to determine the effects of exposure to cyanide on a species of Amphiprif (Iicrwig 977). In a nutshell, Herwig concluded that the ingestion of cyanide severely damages the fish’s intestinal tract. The resulting inability to absorb food results in starvation of the specimen, despite its willingness to eat. Another symptom of damage to the intestinal tract is the production of white, stringy feces that remain attached to the fish’s body. Being able to recognize symptoms such as these gives the hobbyist the ability to avoid specimens damaged by cyanide.

a shy hamlet (Hypoplectrus guttavarius). If cyanide is used to capture fish, the fish may initially feed's in the dealer tank and in yours, but still die after a while because of the damage done to its digestive system by the drug.

a shy hamlet (Hypoplectrus guttavarius). If cyanide is used to capture fish, the fish may initially feed’s in the dealer tank and in yours, but still die after a while because of the damage done to its digestive system by the drug.

Cyanide, however is not the only problem.
Cyanide use is illegal, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like to use its powers under the Lacey Act (permitting U.S. law enforcement officers to enforce the laws of other countries with regard to such matters as importation of exotic species) to prevent shipments of cyanide-caught fish from entering the country. Unfortunately, there is no satisfactory way of determining  simply by inspection or non-destructive testing of a consignment of fishes whether the specimens have been exposed to cyanide. Cyanide, however, is not the only problem that affects the quality of marine aquarium fishes that reach our shores. Hobbyists should understand the human factors involved in the process.

For example, poverty in many countries means that fishermen seldom employ the latest technology. One importer has described to me the impact of modern technology on collectors in Sri Lanka. Simply providing these fishermen with sonar equipment similar to that used by sports fishermen all over the United States available in the sporting goods section of department stores resulted in a dramatic improvement in their ability to support themselves catching fish. Now able to locate specific collecting sites with accuracy, these fishermen previously had relied on educated guessing.

The marine aquarium industry depends upon a large number of such individual fishermen, and there is little chance for the hobbyist to exercise quality control at this level. Only the middleman, the importer with collectors in his employ or, in some cases, a broker in the exporting country who purchases fish from many collectors and ships them to buyers in the United States, can do that. Whether this occurs or not depends largely upon the extent to which the government in the exporting country regulates the fishery, or perhaps more correctly, the extent to which regulations are enforced.

This varies from excellent to non-existent. Importers who do not employ their own collectors can exercise some control over the shipments they are receiving, but imagine the difficulties involved in doing business in live animals with a broker 10,000 miles away. However, importers can insist that fish be packed properly for shipment to them, they can maintain proper holding facilities, and they can practice good husbandry techniques. Saltwater tropical fishes that reach the hobbyist from well-equipped collectors who do not use illegal or destructive methods, that are handled along the way by trained people, that are packed properly and avoid mishaps during shipment, and that are received by a retailer with adequate holding facilities, will exhibit a robust, healthy condition that will be apparent to the prospective purchaser.

Hobbyists who learn to recognize quality in saltwater tropical fish, and who regularly patronize dealers who provide it, do the most to combat problems that erupt along the chain of supply. if attention is not paid  to the quality of specimens, there will continue to be needless waste, both before and after the retail sale. While it is unrealistic to expect losses from such causes to be zero, allowiig problems to go uncorrected will be noted as evidence of the marine aquarium hobby’s “willful destruction of irreplaceable reef resources” by any group concerned about coral reef environments. Habitat destruction from a multitude of causes, and resulting in the loss of millions more fish than the entire marine aquarium industry’s catch, may be affecting the abundance of certain species. Irrespective of the impact of the aquarium hobby, conservation efforts will continue to restrict access to wild stocks in larger and larger areas. The net effect on the hobby will be a shrinking supply of wild-caught specimens.

Captive propagation will almost inevitably become a growing source of specimens for marine aquarium hobbyists. Already, several hatcheries and propagation “farms” produce an abundance of specimens in a variety unheard of just a few years ago. Saltwater tropical fish identification. Briefly, the following are all available in marine tropical fish tanks : most species of clownfish, the neon goby, the nine-striped goby, the citron goby, the seaweed goby, the Arabian basslet, giant clams, soft corals, stony corals, peppermint shrimp and macroalgae. Entrepreneurs are working on other marine tropical fish species. with jawfish, gobies, basslets. blennies, dragonets, dwarf angelfishes and all types of corals receiving the majority of the attention.

The list of potentially suitable species for small-scale aquaculture projects is even longer and includes additional fish families, as well as shrimps, mollusks and possibly even large anemones. The future for captive-propagated specimens for the aquarium trade looks bright. Whether specimens are imported or captive-propagated, efforts to maintain them in good condition will be thwarted if they are not packed properly for travel. Even when the customer is near the shop, attention to details can make the difference between a fish arriving in the hobbyist’s tank in the best possible condition or a fish arriving in severe stress.

One of the most accomplished aquarists I know is Jackson Andrews, who I first met while he was with the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He is now at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. While at the National Aquarium, he was responsible for collecting operations in the Florida Keys that stocked the Aquarium’s giant coral reef fishes exhibit and tropical fish shipping supplies. Here was an opportunity to experiment with different shipping techniques, and to keep track of the results in terms of the size of the fish, the species, mortalities and so forth. The study accumulated a lot of data, but Andrews summed it up for me in one sentence: “The more water there is in the shipping container, the lower the fish mortality”.

large adult purple tang (Zebrasoma xanthurum). Transshippers known for the quality of their fish take extra care during the entire process of preparing the fish for shipment.

large adult purple tang (Zebrasoma xanthurum). Transshippers known for the quality of their fish take extra care during the entire process of preparing the fish for shipment.

Specimens should always be given sample room in the shipping container, with plenty of water. In my experience, a 3-inch fish needs about a half gallon of water and an equal amount of pure oxygen in the shipping bag. If at all possible, fish should never be caught with a net. Rather, the quarry should be herded into a large, transparent container, such as a plastic bag or “catch cup.” Fish should never be removed from the water. If exposure to the air is unavoidable, it should be as brief as practical. To ship fish long distances by air freight or for an over-night car trip, they should be packed in at least two layers of plastic bags. These are placed in an insulated container and surrounded with loosefill (styrofoam “peanuts”) to absorb shocks and to help keep the temperature stable. Packed this way they will survive a surprisingly long time in perfect shape while saltwater tropical fish tank setup. The record for me is 69 hours.