A glance at the marine aquarium fish trade in Hong Kong
by Anita C.W. Tsang
The marine aquarium fish trade (MAT) has expanded markedly and globally during the last two decades due to improvements in transport, aquarium equipment, synthetic seawater mixes and better knowledge of the control of disease. In the 1990’s, the estimated annual global retail value of the MAT reached US$200 million (Holthus, 1999) and involved an estimated 35 million marine fishes (Baquero, 1999). The MAT accounted for about 10% of the total (freshwater and marine water) aquarium fish trade by volume (Baquero, 1999) and 12% in terms of value (Wheeler, 1996). Hong Kong’s MAT accounts for 2-3 % of the global trade (Wheeler, 1996; Chan & Sadovy, 1998).
A market survey, interviews and analysis of data from the Census and Statistics Department (CSD), were carried out from 1st October 2000 to 31st December 2000 at Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok, to investigate the MAT in Hong Kong, concentrating on 8 fish families or groups of conservation or humane concern: elasmobranchs, Pomacanthidae, Chaetodontidae, Syngnathidae, Callionymidae, Balistidae, Serranidae and Labridae. Certain species in these families either have the potential of being threatened by over-fishing or are difficult to keep in captivity. A total of 143 species in these 8 families or group was involved in the local MAT during this survey with an annual estimated (i.e. scaled-up) retail value of HK$40,473,400 and representing 33.42% of the total MAT retail value.
Interviews with shop owners showed that all fish species come from the wild, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Most shop owners were aware that these fishes are caught with cyanide and probably have much higher mortality rate as a result and one shop owner did not order Philippine fishes due to poor quality. The fishes from this shop were generally more expensive than average and the shop owner believed that experienced hobbyists were willing to pay more for higher quality fishes.
Prices were determined by species, availability, size, origin and health. Fishes from distant countries and larger individuals of a given species had higher prices due to higher freight costs. Injured fishes or those in poor health were cheaper. For example, some injured fishes were sold at $30 per individual, while conspecifics in good condition were sold at a few hundred dollars. Interviewees generally agreed that the brighter the colour, the more beautiful the fishes were thought to be and the higher the price. The appearance of the same species of fish evidently varies according to source country. For instance, Pomacanthus imperator from Australia and Hawaii are considered brighter and more beautiful than from the Philippines. Therefore, the price of P. imperator from Australia and Hawaii is twice that of the same species from the Philippines.
Interviews with customers showed that almost all hobbyists buy fishes based on appearance, rather than size or whether the fishes are easy to keep; most new hobbyists (<2 years experience) also considered the price while most experienced hobbyists (>2 years experience) took apparent health into account (Figure 1). The shortest survival time of fishes kept by both new and experienced hobbyists was less than 1 week while the longest survival time of fishes kept by experienced hobbyists varied from 1 to 8 years, considerably longer than that for new hobbyists. Most new hobbyists had not heard about cyanide fishing while all experienced customers had and most of the latter were willing to pay more for net-caught fishes because they have higher survival rate (Figure 2). Those not willing to pay more said that they would not trust an eco-labelling system.
Information from the market survey and interviews with shop owners and customers identified 2 problems in Hong Kong’s MAT: (1) involvement of unsuitable species; (2) insufficient knowledge on marine fish-keeping. Species considered suitable for the MAT are those that survive well in captivity, are relatively easy to maintain, and that come from a country with aquarium fishery management (Wood, 1992). These species or populations are considered less likely to be threatened by activities of the MAT. Unsuitable species are those difficult to keep in captivity, species with an important role in the ecosystem, as well as rare or threatened species (Wood, 1992). Two Hong Kong shop owners considered all species of Syngnathidae and Callionymidae difficult to keep in captivity, and many species of Chaetodontidae and Pomacanthidae were also considered difficult to maintain. On the other hand, all species of Balistidae and Serranidae were considered easy to keep in aquaria (Table 1).
Difficult-to-keep and rare or vulnerable species are traded in Hong Kong’s MAT and many customers buy fishes based on their appearance and do not select species that are easy to keep. Species with an important role in the ecosystem, such as Labroides dimidiatus (bluestreak cleaner wrasse), are also traded in large amounts. Logically, we might expect that when fish numbers become too low for fishing to be commercially viable, fishing should cease. However, some fishes are so highly prized that it is still worth fishing for them even at very low population levels. Indeed, in some cases, rarity is valued, causing prices to rise (Wheeler, 1996). No fish species involved in the market survey is endangered, but species classified as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red List, such as Hippocampus histrix (thorny seahorse) and H. kuda (spotted seahorse) (IUCN 2000) are being traded. Two common seadragons, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus, retailing at HK$10,000 each, were bought by customers immediately after they were delivered to one shop late at night. P. taeniolatus is a protected fish under Fisheries Management (General) Regulation 1995 - Sect 5 of New South Wales in Australia and is listed in the IUCN Red List 2000. The shop owner claimed that the 2 animals were imported legally but did not explain why they were traded after working hours at night.
Most new hobbyists had not heard about cyanide fishing and believe that the mortality of the fishes they buy is inevitable and mainly due to their inexperience rather than to fishing methods. Besides, most new hobbyists prefer to buy cheaper fishes to practice with first. Therefore, many shops import large numbers of Philippine fishes which are cheaper due to lower freight costs, even though they know Philippine fishes were probably caught with cyanide and have higher mortality. High and unnecessary mortality can result from cyanide fishing (Baquero, 1999). The involvement of a large amount of cyanide-caught fishes could lead to high wastage of fishes to replenish those that die. Coral reefs, which are habitats for most marine aquarium fishes, can also be killed by cyanide. The shortest survival time of fishes kept by both new and experienced hobbyists was less than 1 week. Although experienced hobbyists can identify healthy fishes, and new hobbyists lack this ability, even experienced hobbyists cannot distinguish cyanide-caught fishes from the non-cyanide caught ones. Customers who understand the effects of cyanide on fishes are usually willing to pay more for non-cyanided fishes.
Several recommendations for the management of Hong Kong’s MAT are suggested. Firstly, retailers of marine aquarium fishes should be licensed. This can limit the number of retailers engaged in the trade and ensure that retailers have adequate knowledge on fish-keeping. There should be standards on fish-keeping to ensure the welfare and health of fishes, reduce mortalities and humane treatment (Wood, 1985; Chan & Sadovy, 1998). Secondly, conservationists and traders should work with aquarist magazines to inform hobbyists of the difficulties and conservation impacts of keeping certain fish species, and caution against non-experts keeping them in captivity. This can enhance the knowledge of hobbyists and reduce unnecessary mortality. Thirdly, an eco-labelling programme should be introduced in Hong Kong. Such an eco-labelling programme could guarantee that appropriate methods were used for the capture, transport and handling of fishes and adaptability to captivity of fishes (MAC, 2001; Wood, 1992).
Such a certification system promotes a sense of responsibility in using coral reef resources in customers and hobbyists (Wood, 2001). Fish importers and hobbyists should realize that competition for cheaper fishes without regard to quality can drive the use of destructive fishing methods. Fishes that are particularly rare or of conservation concern (e.g. IUCN Red List) or those caught exclusively or largely by cyanide (e.g. Pomacanthus imperator, Albaladejo & Corpuz, 1981) should be excluded from the trade. Species with low survival rate in captivity are not suitable for new hobbyists and should be excluded because their high mortalities do not justify the capture for aquarium purposes. Cyanide tests could be introduced (Holthus, 1999).
It is hoped that with proper regulation by the government and a positive role played by both consumers and retailers, Hong Kong’s MAT can be conducted in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way; there are plenty of species suitable for this trade, if it is properly managed and practised.
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Wood, E.M. (2001). Collection of coral reef fish for aquaria: global trade, conservation issues and management strategies. In: Roberts, C.M., Hawkins, J.P. and McAllister D.E.(eds) Coral reef fish status report,. Species survival Commission, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
* Estimated proportion (%) = retail value of each family of the 3-month survey x 4 (i.e. a year) x 101/40 (no. of tanks) x 20/4 (no. of shops) x 100%
* Wholesale value of all families from CSD x 4 (= retail value, Wood, 1985)
* % : Estimated proportion by volume to the MAT in Hong Kong from the market survey