aquarium trade

From Danajon Bank to aquariums all over the world

By Tyler Stiem

Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

Ever wonder where the fish you see in aquariums come from? Danajon Bank is one such source.

The tiny island of Hambungon looks like a typical Danajon Bank fishing village. Ramshackle houses spill onto the beach and outrigger boats bob over the blue shallows just beyond. Women mend nets in the bright morning sun.Dogs bark, roosters crow, and kids chase each other across the sand. What sets Hambungon apart from other villages is that it’s home to a thriving — and, unusually, sustainable— trade in aquarium fishes.

This week, the expedition team paid a visit to Hambungon’s barangay captain, or elected chief. “Max,” as he calls himself, runs a small but important community fishery that targets reef fishes and invertebrates for sale to exporters in nearby Cebu City. Unlike many fishers in Danajon Bank, Max’s team of divers only collects species designated as sustainable by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) of the Philippines.

An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

An anemonefish, one of many colourful reef species targeted by the aquarium fishery.

Max leads us to a covered space. He’s a friendly middle-aged man, quick to make a joke. When he laughs, which is often, his deeply tanned faces wrinkles with amusement. Here, twenty-five or thirty basins are fed by water pipes. Each contains something different. We see anemonefishes, colourful nudibranchs, small jellyfishes, a pair of electric blue mandarinfishes. Max picks out an eel and, gently lifting it out of the water, lets it slither through his fingers back into the basin.

“Moray,” he says. “Juvenile.”

He explains that his divers, a team of village boys aged 15 to about 25, have been trained by MAC to identify and avoid marine species vulnerable to overfishing, and to catch their target species in such away as to avoid serious harm.  

Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

Photographer Luciano Candisani documents an aquarium fisher wearing homemade wooden fins.

 Our tour’s piece de resistance is a scorpionfish. The craggy, brown-and-orange-flecked scorpionfish is famous for two things: One, its ability to blend in among corals and on the seabed, and two, its excrutiating venom. Max very carefully ‘milks’ the fish by pressing on its venom duct. A blueish white substance jets out from one of its spiky protrusions. He jumps back.

“You do not want to step on that fish!” he says, laughing.

The divers soon arrive on a pump-boat, carrying their morning catch. Clad in balclavas and long shirts to protect them from jellyfish stings, they look like a clan of soggy ninjas. Their catch buckets brim with silvery baggies filled with fish. The animals are catalogued and dumped into the basins. There are anemone fishes, mystic ras, boxfishes, a lionfish, nudibranchs, a frogfish, another scorpionfish, a long-snout butterflyfish, and more.

An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

An aquarium fisher gathers his catch in a small, weighted net.

The animals will be sold to a distributor in Cebu for anywhere between 10 and 100 pesos, or about $0.25 to $2.50 each. Compared to the retail prices the animals can fetch — a blue mandarinfish that sells for less than a dollar here can eventually be resold in stores for up to US $100 — it doesn’t seem like much. But the sustainable aquarium trade provides an important source of income for the fishers, and, even more importantly, an alternative to other, more destructive kinds of fishing. 

Whether the divers always follow the sustainability guidelines is another question. We spot a tiger-tail seahorse, a threatened species according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, in one of the catch buckets. When Luciano points it out, a diver quickly returns the seahorse to the sea. But given how valuable seahorses are — a single animal is worth the equivalent of a kilogram of rice, enough to feed a family for a few days — you can imagine how difficult it would be for fishers to resist temptation now and then.

The following day, expedition photographers Tom Peschak and Luciano Candisani return to Hambungon before dawn to document the divers at work on the reef a few hundred meters beyond the village. It quickly becomes clear why it’s a young man’s game: Aquarium fishing is hard work.

Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Returning to shore with the morning’s catch.

Everyone freedives using only homemade wooden flippers, swimming down as far as seven meters to reach the reef. Small, weighted nets are set near coral heads on the one dive, and on the next, fish are coralled into the mesh. Next, the net is scooped and closed and prized species are transferred into baggies. In between the divers jet to the surface for lungfuls of air.

One diver proudly brandishes his catch for Luciano. You can see the smile in his eyes through his mask. The baggie shines like quicksilver in the sunlight seeping down through the blue water. A large anemone fish squirms inside. The day’s first iconic photo.

This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

This anemonefish will be traded with the rest of the catch to certified exporters in nearby Cebu City.

After four or five hours, the day’s work is finished, and the aquarium fishers say goodbye. They chug off in their pump boat, destined for home.“Unbelievable,” Luciano says, shaking his head. “Tom and I were swimming with professional gear and we couldn’t keep up with those guys. I’m in good shape, but compared to them, no way.”

Sustainability at Shedd Aquarium

By Jennifer Selgrath

Two baby leafy pipefish are zooming around a tank. I try to take pictures and they come out looking like blurry toothpicks. Blimey! They are totally unlike their parents, who hover gently over rocks in the tank just above — cool, calm, and unhurried. I guess some things don’t change between species.  I am in Chicago visiting the John G. Shedd Aquarium, and their aquarist, Erika Lorenz, is kindly giving me a tour. Erika specializes in seahorse husbandry (i.e. feeding, breeding, and caring for seahorses) so she is full of information about seahorses and just about everything else. The Shedd Aquarium is a long-time partner of Project Seahorse, so it is lovely finally be here, seeing their work in action. 

One of the reasons these baby leafy pipefish are so exciting is that the Shedd is committed to exhibiting animals they have sourced sustainably. Seahorses are one species with which they’ve had a lot of success. We walk past tanks that house hundreds of babies. Seahorses are notoriously difficult to rear in captivity, so the birth of these new seahorses counts as a major success. Erika boxes some of the animals in a special container to be shipped to other aquariums around the world. Shedd’s collection includes a number of different species, including spiny, tigertail, and long-snouted seahorses (H. barberi, H. comes, and H. reidi). 

Sourcing fish and other marine and freshwater critters in sustainable ways is incredibly important. Aquarium- and aquaculture-bred animals have a much higher survival rate in captivity than animals that are caught in the wild for captivity. And if too many fish are caught, then the aquarium fishery can have devastating effects on local populations. My friend Malin Pinsky did his PhD research studying clownfish (think “Finding Nemo”) and found that their populations were almost locally extinct close to cities where there were aquarium fisheries.

Shedd sources their leafy pipefish and other species from Australia’s sustainable fisheries. There, one person is allowed to catch three males per year right before they give birth (seadragons, like seahorses, have male pregnancies).

The fisher is allowed to keep and sell the babies – some of which, like the ones I see at Shedd, are raised to adulthood – but he must return the fathers back into their homes in the ocean, thereby maintaining the local population, too. It’s fantastic to see what is possible when an aquarium integrates conservation into their mission.

Jennifer Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.