Now is the time to be ethical

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Given the drive and momentum of OATAs 'Hands off my Hobby' campaign, I'm compelled to mount my own 'call-to-arms' for both hobbyists and retailers alike, writes Nathan Hill. Quite simply it revolves around this: it has never before been so pertinent to put your money where your mouth is.


I’ve written about the options between wild caught and farmed fish in the past, and only some of that territory needs to be re-explored. But I cannot help think that although individuals are being rallied to petition MPs, and scream and shout about the benefits of wild caught fish or sustainable corals, much less emphasis is being placed on people to practice what they preach. Admittedly, it should be implicit in the very action of campaigning itself, but I think a large audience is missing its importance.

If I try to say that this trade is without its problems, I would be rightfully slapped down. Species harvested to excess (Sahyadria denisonii) or species unsuited to most aquaria (Pangasius spp.) are typical examples of the everyday wrongs that can occur; I’ll be surprised if you haven’t already thought of your own list of fish that seem absurd in tanks. There are legal issues, like the smuggling of fish out of their native countries (Hypancistrus zebra). Hobbyists may buy livestock beyond their means, out of impulse or overconfidence, leading to mortalities. Corals in particular seem subject to this last point. Bad things are happening.

But these instances do not define the industry. Rather it is made up of a tapestry of good, bad and middling processes, all twirling along to give us the hobby we so enjoy. It would help if we didn’t pretend that bad practice wasn’t happening. In fact, it might be worthwhile taking this opportunity to get our own house in order and address our shortcomings. That way they can’t be used as sticks to beat us down with.

There are examples of good management. The most noted of these, and the posterchild of ethical aquatic trading, is Project Piaba in Barcelos, Brazil. Its mission statement makes Piaba’s goals clear: “to promote the sustainable harvest of aquatic resources that will ensure the survival of both the Amazonian rainforests and its human inhabitants.”

The ethos is simple. Buy a fish, save a tree. More specifically, buy our Cardinal tetra, and protect a swathe of rainforest. This is self-interest done right; a balance of selfishness and philanthropy all rolled in to one. Buy our fish over someone else’s, the mantra goes, and we can provide income for the indigenous peoples. This way they do not need to pull down trees to grow crops or raise cattle. It is plan almost stifling in its simplicity, yet sublimely inspiring at the same time.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I was a retailer stocking Project Piaba fish, I would be screaming and shouting about it. I’d have posters in my store explaining the benefits of my fish over, say, a farmed equivalent from Europe. So where are the banners? Moreover, if was screaming about how important conservation projects like Piaba are, while simultaneously stocking someone else’s fish, I’d be perhaps a little self-conscious. But maybe that’s just me.

Consumers aren’t being reliably informed. If I stroll to an aquatic store with the mindset of a typical customer, I will find it near impossible to differentiate the wild fish from the farmed ones. Worse still, I won’t even know there’s any difference between them. I can walk in, purchase livestock and walk back out, completely oblivious to the benefits of sustainably managed harvesting. In that scenario, my decision to purchase will be based solely – and don’t kid yourself that it will be otherwise – on price point.

Then there are customers like myself who are aware of the agendas. The problem we face is that we still don’t know who’s selling Piaba fish and who isn’t. When I last wrote a piece on Cardinal tetra, my email inbox filled with requests from eager converts, wanting to know where to spend their ethical Piaba pounds and get on side. My response was sheepish at best, as I had to explain that there was no current database on who stocks what. You have to ask, I explained, on a case-by-case basis. The feedback afterwards was ‘disappointing’.

OATA is making it clear that our industry sits in an ominous fog of long-term threat. We are all encouraged to participate in our defence. Yet beyond OATAs online campaign, all retailers and customers can be even more active than just ‘clicktivism’, or writing to MPs to voice their concerns – as essential as those may both be. As fishkeepers, you can vote with your wallets and the direction of the industry is in your hands just as much as the importers, wholesalers and retailers. Every penny you spend in store is a vote of your sentiments, and if you’re voting for ‘the right fish’ then I promise you that traders will certainly want to sell them to you. If you refuse to buy any particular fish for moral reasons, it’s a suicidal store that would offer them again. Nobody wins from that.

As always, knowledge is power. I’m sorry to have to break this to some folks, but you cannot offload responsibility for your own actions to someone else. There is no moral deferring in this hobby.  If you know the difference between a sustainably sourced fish, and a destructive, badly collected one, is it not be your duty to choose the one that helps rather than hinders the environment? Well, that’s what we can all do now.

If your retailer is supplying wild caught fish, then there’s just as much an ethical necessity for them to understand something of their origins. Compared to the relative uniformity of most farmed fishes, wild fish have the power to damage or sustain communities, and a store’s livestock manager should be able to tell you something of where those fish have come from. This isn’t always possible, because of the very nature of long supply chains, and often a degree of trust is employed in exporters and wholesalers, but where information can be traced, it should be ravenously sought.

Some retailers might not have all of the details of their fish’s provenance. That’s not an immediate problem, but if I were in their position, I’d probably make a point of trying to find something out. As a seller, you might be missing a trick and have some amazing, ecologically sound supplier who should be touted as an example of industry success. Or you might find that one of your sources catches fish through spurious methods. If I knew I had one like that, I’d be quick to end that supply line.

Let me state this in another way. Those who want to see our industry brought down are doing their homework. They’re amassing data (and anecdote) to use against us. Let us not be naïve, nor assume that our enemy is a clueless, emotion based animal that relies on scaremongering and hysteria to rally support. No, what makes our opposition so potentially dangerous is that they have reason and statistics (skewed or not) that they can pull out to support them. They can point to damaged rivers, destroyed reefs and tattered communities, and hold us to account for them. And we need to deny them that opportunity.

In the meantime, we should be proud of our successes, and put the weight of our support behind them. Project Piaba is the obvious example, for the reasons I addressed above. But it is not alone.

Fewer folks might have heard of Palmera, and its current initiative in northern Sri Lanka. Palmera is pushing for the establishment of an ornamental fish processing and export centre, to create sustainable income based around key marine species like damselfish. After capture by fisherman, either intentionally or accidentally, the plan is for fish to be handed over to a local women’s group for sorting and transportation. What was formerly discarded bycatch now becomes a means of income for indigenous peoples.

Then there’s LINI, an Indonesian non-profit organisation working for conservation through educating, training, and empowering coastal communities. Their efforts to put an end to collection with the use of cyanide is noble, while their assistance in rehabilitation of reefs through artificial reef introductions should be met with rapt applause. I’m aware that Maidenhead Aquatics has links to LINI fish, and this is worth bearing in mind when sourcing an ethical supplier. Remember I mentioned a necessity to know a fish’s origins? This is how it’s done right: first hand.

Though bigger fish might not be your thing, their spawning is in some cases helping to turn things around in South America. Amazon’s International Trade Zone (or AITZ) is helping to drive economies away from illegal coca farming, instead focusing on the production of Silver arowana, Osteoglossum bicirrhosum. Started in 2011 by simply buying some land and digging pits, the company grew in two years to shift some 20,000 fish a year. It’s a double whammy, managing to reduce pressure on wild stocks while simultaneously coaxing locals away from contraband or environmentally unfriendly practices. Though I must concede, the fact that they also produce farmed Arapaima is something of an ethical offset, perhaps.

The WorldFish Centre has been noted for past activities in Africa, helping to promote sustainable freshwater harvesting involving species such as Aphyosemion, Brycinus, Caecomastacembelus and Pelvicachromis, amongst others. The revenue such projects have the power to produce aren’t small – a tonne of fish like these carries a retail value of around $1.8 million (circa 2005). At the time, one project alone was awarded $150,000 to develop a community based business model that involved aquaculture skills for local people, requiring only minimal alteration to natural waterways, and generating worthwhile revenues for the fishermen/aquaculture teams involved.

We are not a trade without our successes.

For those that think that the differences between ethically sourced and mass harvested livestock are paltry, I invite you to think again, as the figures are not on your side. In some cases, marine fish mortality has been flagged as disgustingly high – data backed statistics of 70 to 80% of transported fish dying is not an unknown figure. Compare that with exports from local community based organisations, where aquaculture and care skills have been taught, and the fish are handled with care, and that figure can drop to 5%, or potentially less.

But I should reign myself in at this point, before I get carried away. While I’m making a strong case for sustainable wild fish, I by no means intend to steer individuals away from farmed alternatives. Aquacultured species have their place too, as essential parts of this confusing mosaic, and can in turn provide respite for overfished or environmentally challenged fish.

Point in case may be something like the Red tailed shark. Though one was recently discovered in the wild it is farming that supplies the fish that we have in our aquaria. Although wild fisheries, when managed well, have an indispensible role for the trade, their farming counterparts have an equally important task.

What would help immeasurably would be cohesion within the industry. Both wild and farmed proponents are prone to setting up ‘straw man’ arguments against each other, only highlighting faults. Perhaps if we could focus on the positive aspects of both sides, instead of turning any discussions into a brawl of one-upmanship, we wouldn’t be so susceptible to attack in the first place. Any outsider who taps in to a heated debate between wild and farmed fish adherents is going to come away with a headful of negative connotations. We don’t need that.

Ultimately, it comes down to balance. All of us, right now, need to make choices about what we stock and how we buy, because not to do so after shouting so vociferously in defence of our hobby would be hypocritical. That applies to retailer, wholesaler, hobbyist and casual aquarist. If you’ve taken a stance, then show that you’re dedicated to it.

That in turn means we all need to research. I won’t lie, sometimes the information can be hard to track down. But it does need to be done, because anyone who is just unthinkingly buying livestock is, in their immutably small way, chiselling away at the shell of our hobby and leave us vulnerable to attack.

And I think enough of us are now making it perfectly clear that we don’t want that to happen. If making small changes is what it takes to help keep 'hands off of my hobby' then I'll happily instigate them, and so should you.