For decades international collectors discussed Indonesia's trade in ornamental fish only in hushed tones.
The environmental damage to the nation's marine reefs caused by stunning fish with illegal potassium cyanide had placed Indonesia's export of aquarium fish on the questionable practices list overseas while drawing much criticism from environmentalists and the fishing industry at home.
A group of marine biologists and divers, backed by government regulations, are now helping ornamental fishermen rethink their collection techniques, with environmental and economically sustainable results.
With training from the Indonesian Nature Foundation (LINI), aquarium fish harvesters in many parts of Indonesia are now using small-gauge nets to gather targeted fish species, allowing coral reef to replenish itself.
The soft nets reduce injury to the fish, which are again breeding well thanks to no-take zones. These serve as miniature marine reserves, allowing for breeding and a safe haven for fish agreed to by the fishermen.
Aquarium fish divers have often sprayed collectible fish with potassium cyanide to stun them, which also kills off the nearby coral. Unbridled use of potassium cyanide was killing off the very reefs which serve as the breeding ground and living habitat for many aquarium and food fish species. The harvesters were in effect killing the golden goose.
LINI marine biologists (from left to right) Yunaldi Yahya, Gayatri and Andri Mustain with a "hexadome" model. Hexadomes are used as safe havens for fish to encourage new coral colonies in the sea. (JP/J.B. Djwan)
Marine biologist and LINI co-founder, Gayatri, said until recently ornamental fish divers knew of no other method to catch the fish, which is their main income.
"We used potassium cyanide because it's easy. Stunned fish are easy to collect. Indonesia began using this method to catch fish for food after it was introduced from the Philippines. It then transferred to the ornamental fishing industry," Gayatri said.
Potassium cyanide fishing is unquestionably illegal, but difficult to enforce.
In 2003, Gayatri began to work directly with ornamental fish collectors in North Bali on developing environmentally sensitive fishing techniques. She wanted to find a way for fishermen to continue to earn a livelihood while also allowing the reef to regenerate.
"These fishermen are very poor. What they harvest is a luxury item. Only people with extra money can afford aquarium fish, but these collectors earn so very little. On top of that, they were shunned for destroying the reef," Gayatri said.
The average price a local diver gets for an ornamental fish harvested in Bali is 50 US cents. The same fish can sell in the United States for US$10 or more.
Gayatri and her team worked both ends of the ornamental fish trade, talking to exporters and middle men as wells as to fishermen themselves.
Retraining fishermen meant examining every element of their fishing practice, sometimes with surprising results.
"In one case fishermen were diving for a particular hard-to-find species. They were diving without masks and we realized they couldn't see the fish.
"Using good equipment -- masks and snorkels -- meant they could see the fish and did not need to use potassium cyanide," said Gayatri.
Her detailed work with trade practices was necessary groundwork for introducing the LINI program.
"We started by trying different angles. We started by working with exporters, asking them where they were getting the fish and then worked down the supply chain to the fishermen," Gayatri said, describing the early years of the sustainable ornamental fish industry project.
She added that today the exporters and middle men are highly supportive of low-impact practices because the industry has regained respect and every fish collected has a buyer.
"In the past, fishermen collected just about anything that swam in the hopes of selling it all," said Gayatri. "There was no communication between exporters and collectors. We facilitated that so the collectors could be selective on their end. It took some time to get across the idea of collecting fish to order."
Connecting the players opened a dialogue so fish collectors knew which fish were in demand.
Besides improving fishing methods, LINI also trains fishermen in safe diving techniques, applies science to encourage coral reef growth and trains middlemen in documenting fish species caught and sold.
"We have trained dealers in how to keep accurate records of fish sold. Their invoices in fact act as a data base on ornamental fish," said Gayatri.
With science introducing improved fishing techniques and a more refined industry system, Indonesia's aquarium fish export is growing while reefs are improving and more fish are breeding in healthier habitats.