Demand for Reef Fish
The international aquarium fish trade is worth up to $1 billion a year. Up to 20 million tropical saltwater fish are sold in the United States every year. Demand for tropical fish as pets increased markedly after the success the animated film Finding Nemo . The fish are stored in plastic bags in warehouses and flown from country to country. Many of the fish that are captured are very sensitive and many—perhaps most—die before they ever reach an aquarium. Those that survive endure days or weeks confined to plastic bags.
There is a strong demand for large, living reef fish for Chinese banquets. Customers at the Fook lam Moon restaurant in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsuo pay $369 for a large fresh wrasse plucked from a restaurant tank.
In the West people have traditionally eaten coastal and pelagic fish such as cod and tuna while Asians have eaten these fish plus reef fish such as grouper and snapper, which live in reefs and can’t easily be caught with nets. Asians also believe that a wild fish that is alive until it is eaten is superior in taste and texture to a fish that has been raised on a farms or frozen. Asians will up pay to ten times more for fresh fish that they see alive before the eat it.
The Asian economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s created a large demand for live fish. Suddenly, a delicacy once reserved for royalty and the upper classes became affordable to the masses at local restaurants. Cyanide fishing and air freight business expanded to meet the demand. The live fish trade grew steadily and by 1995, it was $1 billion, 25,000-ton a year industry.
Overfishing in Palawan
Almost every coral reef in the Philippines has been seriously overfished and a study conducted by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) confirmed WWF’s findings that the oceans around Palawan are severely overfished. In its 2008 policy brief, it says that:
“The live reef fish for food fishery of Palawan is being over exploited and depleted as early as 2003. Based on the current status of the reef areas within Palawan, the computed province-wide maximum sustainable yield for grouper (MSYG) was computed at 186.09 t/yr under the best of conditions (i.e., assuming no overfishing, yearlong use of cyanide and other destructive methods leading to degradation of reefs and to depletion of live fish stock) while maximum sustainable export for grouper (MSEG) was computed at 139.56 t/yr. In contrast, the volume of live groupers shipped out of Palawan was recorded at 309.19 tons in 2003 and has steadily increased to 669.08 tons in 2007. This shipment data can be taken as the minimum harvest considering the inherent mortality associated with the live reef fishery. Given the moderate to heavy fishing pressure that the groupers have been experiencing since 4 years ago, the groupers’ rate of depletion has therefore been increasing and the current harvests are not sustainable anymore.”
The Solution is to Return to Small-Scale Fisheries
Small-scale fisheries produce as much annual catch for human consumption and use less than one-eighth the fuel as their industrial counterparts. They discard comparatively little bycatch and are far less destructive to deep-sea environments. They employ many more people.
They are our best hope at sustainable fisheries. Small scale fisheries employ more than 12 million people worldwide, compared to half a million in the industrial sector, and small-scale fisheries use less fuel to catch fish. Small-scale fisheries use fishing gear that are more selective and far less destructive to deep sea environments. As a result they discard very little unwanted fish and almost all of their catch is used for human consumption.
Large-scale fisheries, on the other hand, typically do not target species for direct human consumption and discard an estimated 10-22 million tons of unwanted dead fish each year and reduces another 42 million tons of their annual catch to fishmeal.
Experts point out that over the past decade, market-based sustainable seafood initiatives such as eco-labeling have been the predominant strategy for curtailing demand of dwindling fish stocks. But it hasn’t worked.
“The U.S. conservation community alone invested $37 million between 1999 to 2004 to promote certification and “wallet cards” to encourage consumers to purchase seafood caught using sustainable practices.
“For the amount of resources invested, we haven’t seen significant decrease in demand for species for which the global stocks are on the edge of collapse,” says Pauly. “Market-based initiatives, while well-intentioned, unduly discriminate against small scale fishers for their lack of resources to provide data for certification.”
Furthermore, small fishers simply can’t compete on the open market with large fleets. Rashid Sumaila, also of the UBC Fisheries Centre, estimates that governments worldwide subsidize $30-34 billion a year in fishing operations, of which $25-27 billion go to large-scale fleets.
It’s an unfair disadvantage that in any other industry would have had people up in arms, but small-scale fishers are often in developing countries and have very little political influence.