* ICLARM is now known as WorldFish Center

Naga - The *ICLARM Quarterly
Vol. 23, No. 1 (January - March 2000)

Behind the Beautiful Fish in an Aquarium

We all enjoy the sight of colorful fish and corals in an aquarium and marvel at the beauty and splendor of life hidden in the oceans. But we do not often stop to think of the diverse range of services these living aquatic resources provide, in their natural settings, to the planet and its people. Knowledge of the vast biological diversity of the oceans is still very limited, even though we are using their biological resources to satisfy many human needs – the most basic being food.

The tropical marine aquarium industry is expanding by 10-15 percent annually. A typical scenario is illustrated in the Solomon Islands where women and men from coastal villages catch ornamental fish from reefs using hand held nets. About 150 species of fish are caught and exported. They also export about 30 species of hard and soft corals and six species of giant clams. So the aquarium not only provides us a glimpse of beautiful ocean life, it also provides a living to such poor coastal communities. However, resort owners, divers and tourists worry about the possible loss of the recreational amenity of these beautiful fish and corals, and scientists are concerned about the irreversible loss of biodiversity and damage to coral reef habitats, especially in locations where blast fishing and other such destructive practices are prevalent. Coral reefs and their surrounding environments have been recognized as one of the most productive resource systems on earth. They support a quarter of all known marine species and an estimated one million or more as yet undocumented.

Clearly, destructive fishing practices need to be stopped. But even in situations where such practices are not used, it is necessary to ensure that the harvests are not greater than the natural rate at which these species can replenish themselves. At the same time the livelihood of coastal villagers, who have few alternative earning opportunities, is at stake. It becomes important to balance the needs of the poor whose livelihood depends on these resources, the interests of the traders whose business depends on them, the interests of the resort owners who earn a living from tourists and divers, and the interests of all of us who value and need the biodiversity of natural resources.

Management of these resources based on scientific knowledge can provide a solution for these opposing forces. This knowledge would include the rate of natural replenishment of species collected from coral reefs, how the magnitude and frequency of harvesting affects this, and how the coral colonies recover from ‘cuttings’ taken for farming. Biological and ecological studies can help to make an assessment of the maximum sustainable harvest for different species. They can also help to develop marine aquaculture for many species to reduce the pressure on natural stocks.  For example, in the Solomon Islands giant clams can be cultured for harvesting and for adding to wild stocks. Such knowledge should form the basis of management regimes to regulate and support a sustainable and non-destructive use of these valuable resources.

Science is crucial to the formulation of effective policies for the sustainable use and management of aquatic resources – a major potential source of food, medicines and livelihood for the human race.

Rita Kapadia

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