Aquarists facing rap over Indian endangered exports

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A paper published in Biological Conservation points a stern and aggressive finger at a wide subsection of global aquarists. The message is clear - we're fishing India dry, with no regard for the wellbeing of endemic species, writes Nathan Hill.

It’s uncommon for this kind of accusation to be levelled at the freshwater aquarist. Typically, the greater threats to freshwater habitats are beyond the fishkeeper’s control. Activities such as aggressive agriculture, logging, urbanisation or other large industry all too frequently wipe out whole rivers and lakes in the bat of an eyelid. Indeed, it is usually ourselves who are most vocal about destruction of a region.

Just look at the contention surrounding the damming of South America – some of the most vociferous opponents are those within the aquarium trade. For the prosecution and defence to be switched so suddenly is discomforting at best.

Marine keepers are more used to accusations of oceanic rape and pillage, but this is not because their activities are any more or less nefarious than those of freshwater. Rather, it’s about exposure, and marine fish shine so very brightly on the radar.

How many package holidays do you see to exotic reefs? And then how many do you see offering two weeks diving in some obscure stream at the back end of India? No, marine fish have an excellent PR wagon. They are pretty, and for some reason it becomes erroneously clear to many that aquaria are the only thing threatening reef proliferation.

While there is much non-aquarium based mismanagement by humans that leads to fishy destruction, this current paper does make some strong arguments. Like any responsible hobby we should take stock and think how we can stop further accusations like them.

The crux of the argument is that there is unregulated export of fishes that are either endangered or vulnerable as recorded by the IUCN. There are statistics to support this argument, too.

In the paper, called Uncovering an obscure trade: Threatened freshwater fishes and the aquarium pet markets, by Rajheev Raghavan et al, Raghavan cites known figures of fish exported from India through the period of 2005 – 2012 inclusive. Over that period, at least 1.5 million fish were exported, with indications that around a third of these were endangered or vulnerable species.

Red line torpedo barbs alone made up no less than 300,000 of the exports, and this is a fish with a known, troubled history. Wild populations are in steep decline, and exports and capture from some regions banned. Not that any of this stops our desire for ‘Miss Kerala’.

Part of the problem is one of regulation in the countries of origin. The requirements for accurate export descriptions are non-extant, and instead livestock is simply sent out and labeled on a ‘per kilo’ basis. This makes exact figures nigh impossible to seek, further hindered by reclusive record keepers in some areas.

Most of those fish being exported are destined for South East Asian premises, where they are held, fattened and marked up before shipping to Europe and the US. Amongst them, researchers have found alarming numbers of fish that are not only endemic to India, but critically endangered, such as Gonoproktopterus thomasi.

Some of the names involved won’t appear in the worlds of the everyday aquarist. The likes of Dawkinsia arulius, Dawkinsia rohani, Devario assamensis and Pethia manipurensis are more the specialisation – and often price range – of the committed hobbyist. Others will be recognised as aquarium staples. You may even have the likes of Botia striata (endangered), Carinotetraodon travancoricus (vulnerable), or Puntius denisonii (endangered) in your home tanks now. These three species make up the bulk of the IUCN noted, high concern exports.

The problem with some of these fish is that once they have been through Asian trade channels, their origins can be hard to ascertain. Without a sterner approach to labelling, recording and import/export across the board, this is an issue that will keep on lingering, and we aquarists will continue to be held to account for it.

What makes this all the sadder is that sustainable collection efforts in other countries have been shown to work. Models are in place demonstrating exactly how wealth distribution and responsible harvesting can create aggregate gain to a region. But India, it would seem, is at the behest of a ‘fast buck’ mentality of some collectors.

As for what we as aquarists can do to help this situation, I’d say our strongest weapon is to be aware of it. It would be easy to dismiss the phenomenon as being out of our hands, as being at the start of the supply chain, but this would be morally lazy to the extreme. A supply chain is just that: a chain with many links. And any part of that chain can apply pressure to any other part.

Intelligent buying of fish will count for a lot. I’d not suggest for an instant that any species be boycotted, but I would say that a gradual leaning, and a gradual preference for fish that have their history of origin intact should be preferred to those that arrive into the UK as information orphans.

But what is certain is that indifference on our part will not make this go away. We can ignore the problem with absolute obstinacy, but as we do there will be more failings of the trade revealed, leading to hyperbole and vitriol from those who are against our industry.  

It’s our hobby, and ultimately that does come with a degree of responsibility, whether we like that or not.

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