Plight of Aquarium Fish


Maneka Sanjay Gandhi


(Bihar Times)If there is one trade in India which is completely illegal, unregulated and unlooked at by government and wildlife activists, it is the aquarium trade. Millions of fish are caught and put into small glass prisons every year where they die within a few weeks.

If watching these poor animals struggle for space and swim endlessly to and fro in two feet of space is relaxing then you have to be as mentally disturbed as the fish probably are. In a mammal, this endless repetitive swimming would be analysed as stress behaviour. But who cares about fish?

Where do coloured fish come from? No one in the trade will tell you, or they will give you vague replies like they have been bred in Kolkata or Mumbai. But clownfish, for instance, the demand for which shot up after the cartoon Disney film Finding Nemo, cannot be bred. They come from coral reefs and they are long distance swimmers. Baby clownfish travel as much as 400 kilometres to find anemones, without which they cannot live. 90% are killed by natural predators during their travels. Now the other 10% are being poached for your “relaxation”.

CITES is an international treaty between Nations that regulates the export of animals. In India we have no respect for it and no one is arrested for selling foreign endangered birds, for instance. In fact, a seller is exempt from action by the forest department (after they get a “sweetener”) on the grounds that he is selling foreign birds. Whether he has CITES permission is irrelevant. No one in India even knows where the CITES office is – including me. But even worse is the aquarium trade which is a global industry with no centralized database to track what gets bought and sold, and with no central governing body to enforce regulations. Exporters from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore loot and sell millions of marine animals with impunity. More than half the buyers are in the U.S. Go to the net and type in “fish for sale”. More than 5 lakh sites will come up.

About 1,800 tropical fish species are involved in the international trade. Hundreds of other species of invertebrates, including live corals, are also part of this illegal pipeline.

Removing animals from the wild can have serious consequences - both for their survival as a species and for their habitat. Coral reef fish from India, Australia, Hawaii, for instance, are now in severe decline as are the reefs themselves – which have a symbiotic relationship with these fish. Species like the Regal Blue Tang and Clownfish have been over collected and are now endangered. What effect does extinction of a single species have? Regal blue tang, near extinction in Indonesia and the Philippines, feed on algae in the coral reefs. The algae now cover the coral which has led to them dying of strangulation.  As the coral dies, the frequent cyclones on the coast bring the ocean waters in and thousands of people lose their homes and lives. 90% of exported fish from Southeast Asia are from coral reefs.

A 2013 study in the journal Biological Conservation has for the first time exposed the extent and magnitude of this horrible trade in India: no regulations on the aquarium pet market in India, no scientific knowledge and no interest in the conservation of fish, has led to the trading of endangered species. According to the researchers, 22 species of fish are now severely threatened by the Indian aquarium pet market.  The study observed that over 1.5 million freshwater fish individuals from 30 threatened species were exported from India between 2005 and 2012.

380,000 Red Lined Torpedo Barbs have been fished from the wild and exported. An equal number have died during capture. This fish is now severely endangered. The importing countries are Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia who re-export them to the West. Exporters do not identify the species and export threatened and endangered species and simply label them as “live aquarium fish”. Four of the threatened species identified by the study did not show up on export data, yet were identified in the study through import data. Shamefully, species-specific labelling is not a legal requirement in India. Suggestions, that an organized coding system be made which should include “species name, capture locations, size of the specimens, and the names collector and exporter”, have gone unheard. 30% of the fish exported from India in the past seven years are from dozens of threatened species including the endangered Red-lined Torpedo Barb (Puntius denisonii) and Miss Kerala (Puntius chalakkudiensis).

No rules are followed at all - by exporters or importers. For instance, in the Philippines it's illegal to use cyanide—a poison that stuns fish and makes them easier to catch—but more than half the fish coming out of the Philippines have been treated with cyanide. No policing of the waters is done in any country.

Tracking fish imported into the U.S. is almost impossible. The US Fish and Wildlife Service which is supposed to patrol imports simply lumps them into one category of “marine tropical fish”. One 2012 study, to look at the species and volume of fish coming into the U.S. by looking at shipping invoices, has already taken three years to just collate the data for 2005 alone!

India’s freshwater species are found nowhere else on the globe. Even when local regulations on collection and export are in place (as Kerala did in 2008 for the red-lined torpedo barb) they are ignored. In spite of a ban on collection and export, 11,260 fish were exported during 2010-2012. More than 89,000 RLTB were caught and exported during its breeding months from 2005-2012. 46% (around 145,997 individuals) were immature juveniles.

Even species found in protected areas where no fishing is allowed like the Orange-spotted Snakehead (Channa aurantimaculata) and Devi’s Loach (Mesonoemacheilus remadevii) are taken out. So are globally threatened species such as Red Canarese Barb (Gonoproktopterus thomassi) (Critically Endangered), Glyptothorax housei (Endangered) and the Malabar Hatchet Chela (Laubuca fasciata) (Vulnerable). Of the 1.5 million threatened fishes, the major share was contributed by three species - Botia striata (Endangered), Carinotetraodon travancoricus (Vulnerable) and the Red Lined Torpedo Barbs (Endangered).

Most wild-caught aquarium fish originating from India come from two global biodiversity hotspots of Eastern Himalayas and Western Ghats. Garra hughi, the Cardamon Garra, a stone sucker occupies less than 300 square kilometers and the Zebra Loach is found in less than 400 square kilometers. Both are major Indian aquarium exports. Four of the 30 threatened species, including the  ‘Dawkinsia rohani’ were seen at retail shops in Germany and Singapore by the scientists, but were not listed in the customs records. Mislabelling species and dodging regulations is business as usual in India’s aquarium trade.

In fact one-third of all freshwater fishes exported from India for the aquarium trade between 2005 and 2012 are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as either threatened or endangered.

The status of freshwater fish as ‘wildlife’ and its conservation is odd in India. The main wildlife conservation legislations in India are the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), which lists protected species of flora and fauna in the wild but has not listed a single fresh water fish; the Biological Diversity Act (2002), which implements aspects of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Indian Forest Act, which provides for habitat protection and use of forest products. None of these legislations relate to the conservation of freshwater fish. Several states have also passed ‘Inland Fisheries’ acts, but without any focus on conservation. Fish is viewed as a free commodity that can be collected from nature.

Protected Areas are supposed to protect fish. Commercial fish collection is banned. But regulations are neither enforced not adhered to. Aquatic habitats inside forest areas are controlled by the Forest and Wildlife Department, while ‘fishes’ and ‘fisheries’ are subjects of the Fisheries Department. Most of the aquarium species are forest-based fish, so both departments need to work together. No airports keep records and Cochin is the worst.

Instead of taking action against the poachers, government agencies in India encourage trade in native aquarium fishes with subsidies to exporters. The government breaks the law itself: 150,000 Red Lined Torpedo Barbs were exported by the Kerala Aquatic Ventures International Limited, a joint undertaking with private industry and the Government of Kerala.

The aquarium trade should be banned. Have we not banned hunting for mammals and birds? So, why do we allow hunting, selling and buying of fish. The rules for aquaria have been lying with the Environment Ministry for 5 years now. Each time they move forward, a senior official (everyone in the Ministry and the trade knows him well) is “sweetened” and they are again withdrawn. If we are to prevent their extinction we will have to strengthen the enforcement of inland fisheries laws, patrol freshwater protected areas, stop the  export of endangered species and recognize fish as an important part of wildlife conservation.


To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in



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