For those aquarists
who don't know, the use of cyanide to collect animals has
been a long standing problem in the marine ornamentals trade.
Cyanide has been used for several decades as an "anaesthetic"
to knock out fishes and facilitate their capture. The origins
of this practice have been debated; it either began in Taiwan
in the late 50's or in the Philippines in the early 60's (http://www.spc.int...Cyanide.htm).
When it began, however, is of little concern. What is disturbing
is that even though its use was first brought into question
in the 70's, it is still being used commonly in some parts
of the world today.
I used the word "anaesthetic"
in quotes because cyanide is not a true anaesthetic. The word
anaesthetic has its roots in Greek, an meaning without
and aesthetos meaning perceptible or able to feel pain
In contrast, cyanide is best described as an asphyxiant (Bellwood,
1981b and Jones & Steven, 1997). It works by depleting
the cells of oxygen, basically suffocating the fish until
they pass out.
What I also found disturbing in preparation
for this article is how little is actually known regarding
the long-term effects of cyanide exposure in fishes that initially
survive this collection method. And, that the story that I
had consistently heard, namely that some fishes do survive
the initial dosage but that they suffer irreversible damage
to their gastro-intestinal tract and subsequently die of starvation
because they are unable to assimilate the food, is untrue.
The basis of this aquarium myth comes from a 1981 article
by David Bellwood. But, as you will see, there are some problems
with this experiment, and he later refutes his earlier work
in a paper he co-authored in 1995.
Studies on Cyanide's Effects on Marine Ornamental
This article detailing early controlled
experiments with cyanide-exposed fish discusses common Domino
damsels (Dascyllus trimaculatus) that had been exposed
to cyanide. These particular specimens had been obtained from
a net collector in East Africa, where cyanide use had not
been reported. The experimental fish were treated with a sodium
cyanide solution of either 1 or 5 ppm. The fish were held
in cyanide-dosed water until "anaesthetized" and
then kept in the solution for an additional 20 to 30 seconds
to be sure the anesthetic effect was complete. It took anywhere
from two to three minutes to knock out the fish, with the
5 ppm concentration acting more quickly than the 1 ppm solution.
Apparent recovery took anywhere from six minutes at the 1
ppm dosage to 17 minutes at the 5 ppm treatment.
Both the experimental and control group were observed to
eat the day following the treatment. Additionally, there was
no discernible difference in the external appearance of exposed
versus unexposed fishes in this experiment. But, upon further
examinations during necropsies, the cyanide exposed fish were
shown to have intestinal and stomach damage that the untreated
control group did not have; specifically, the exposed fish
suffered from a sloughing of the inner gut lining (gastric
mucosa). Additionally, in the anterior intestine, the mucosal
folds had decreased in size. It is this damage that has led
to the belief that cyanide caught fish may feed normally,
but are incapable of digesting their food. They are, therefore,
thought to slowly starve to death over time.
The problem with this article is that it does not list the
number of fish in either the experimental or control groups
nor does it offer any statistical analysis of whether the
differences noted were significant. Some authors (Goldstein,
1982) have speculated that this maybe the product of overzealous
editing on the part of the magazine. Or, it could also be
that the author felt that a statistical analysis was beyond
what was necessary for a hobbyist magazine. Regardless of
the reasoning for the omission, though, it still brings into
question the validity of the author's conclusions.
In a subsequent article, Bellwood investigated where cyanide
might accumulate in the fishes' body other than the gastrointestinal
tract, and what effects the drug might cause. Three test fish
(called Pomacentrus violascens at the time but now
reclassified as Neopomacentrus violascens) were subjected
to a 1.84 ppm solution of potassium cyanide. This particular
compound is an intentionally radioactive form of the drug
C-14 potassium cyanide or K14CN.
The radioactive cyanide was used as a marker to easily locate
where the cyanide would build up in the fishes' body. Two
of the fish were starved for 24 hours prior to exposure; the
other one was fed heavily before dosing. They were left in
the solution until they were anaesthetized, plus an additional
30 seconds to ensure they were completely knocked out. Immediately
afterward, the fishes were euthanized and their brain, gills,
stomach, intestine, liver and spleen were removed and weighed.
Each organ was then tested for radioactive cyanide.
The results of this small study were interesting. It showed
that the single fish with a full stomach concentrated most
of the cyanide in its stomach tissue, while the two unfed
fishes passed more of the cyanide through their stomach with
the majority found in their anterior intestine. Additionally,
the stomach contents of the fed fish showed very little cyanide,
despite the high cyanide concentrations in its stomach tissue.
The author inferred from this finding that cyanide has a specificity
for living tissue. From there, the author speculated that
a wild fish that is continually grazing would likely have
a full stomach. Then, when exposed to cyanide, the poison
would be concentrated in its stomach where it would have a
greater likelihood of totally destroying the stomach's inner
lining. This would destroy its absorptive surfaces and not
permit the fish to assimilate food even when feeding heartily.
This experiment also showed another little quirk in the mechanism
of cyanide dispersal throughout the fishes' bodies. Of all
the organs measured, the brain had the highest mean percentage
of recovered cyanide - 33.1%. Whereas the stomach had only
10.4%, the liver had 28.1%, spleen 3.3%, anterior intestine
5.2%, posterior intestine 3.6% and the gills 16.4%. The author
then went on to theorize that since the brain has "limited
capacity for repair," brain damage from cyanide exposure
may account for some of the behavioral abnormalities seen
in fish believed to have been exposed to this drug.
In contrast to the previous Bellwood article, this one does
mention the number of fish involved in the study - a whopping
three! That is not a very large sample size to test. And,
there is still no statistical analysis done of the results.
Additionally, it would have been interesting to permit more
time between the cyanide exposure and the analysis to determine
whether the isotopes accumulated. This could have revealed
additional clues as to what the long-term effects of cyanide
are to fishes that survive their initial exposure.
Hall & Bellwood (1995):
In this paper, the authors seek to further study cyanide
exposure in marine ornamental fishes. They state that the
previous work done by Bellwood and his results "were
equivocal and lacked adequate quantification" and did
not rule out other possible causes for the damage found in
the intestine and stomach of exposed fishes. They set about
studying the effects of cyanide exposure, stress, starvation
and various combinations of all these factors on the gastro-intestinal
In this study 154 fish (Pomacentrus coelestis) were collected
with barrier and hand nets from the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Of these, ten fish were immediately killed, and then they
performed necropsies taking measurements of various intestinal
parameters as a pretreatment control group. The remaining
144 fish were split into nine equal groups of sixteen each
for further testing. The first group was a control which was
handled as little as possible. The second group was another
control group that were handled just like the fish that would
be exposed to cyanide, but instead of immersing them in a
cyanide water bath, they were simply dunked into a separate
container of seawater. The third group was exposed to cyanide
at a concentration of 10 ppm for a mean time of 85 seconds
plus an additional 5 seconds to ensure a complete effect.
The fourth group was a stress group. Whereas all unstressed
fishes had a 1,000 cm3
pile of live rock rubble in their tanks, the stressed fish
had only one piece of rubble. Additionally, each day the piece
was removed for 30 seconds. The fifth group was deprived of
any food for the duration of the experiment, 16 days. Then,
there were various combination treatments. At the end of the
study period, all fish were euthanized, dissected and their
intestinal tracts were examined. The results are seen in Table
Minimal Handling Control
Cyanide & Stress
Cyanide & Starvation
Stress & Starvation
Cyanide, Stress, & Starvation
As can be seen from the table, some of the fishes in the
control group perished due to unspecified causes. This severely
limits the conclusions which can be drawn from this paper.
That said, some interesting conclusions were drawn. First
and foremost was that they found no "detectable effect
on the intestinal mucosa" of any fish treated with cyanide
or stress or a combination of the two. Second, it was found
that starvation, alone or in combination with another factor,
showed a "statistically significant effect on the fishes'
mucosa lining." These starved fishes "displayed
a reduction in the mucosal surface area, mucosal thickness
and gut length" when compared to all other groups. So,
to say the least, this really throws into question Bellwood's
earlier contentions. It would seem that if anything harms
the gastro-intestinal tract, it is starvation and not cyanide
There is another important point to be gleaned from this
study. The fishes that were exposed to cyanide took 821 ±
86 seconds to recover fully. But, 19% of those fishes failed
to recover at all and perished from the cyanide exposure protocol.
Additionally, in pilot studies performed prior to this study,
fishes were exposed for two minutes. All of these fish failed
to recover and perished. So clearly, cyanide can be deadly
depending on the concentration and exposure time.
One might be tempted to ignore the mortality figures of the
control groups and attempt to decipher a pattern from the
treatment numbers alone. I have read other publications that
have done as much by selectively excerpting portions of this
paper's data. Unfortunately, upon further review, the data
only raise additional questions.
If one examines the numbers, starvation has no mortality,
stress results in 25% dying, and cyanide killing 37.5%. That
seems to coincide with preconceived notions. But, that is
where the apparent pattern ends. Cyanide in combination with
stress only yields a 25% mortality, which is indistinguishable
from stress alone. One would expect that stress killing 25%
combined with cyanide killing 37.5% would yield something
higher than 37.5% mortality. Additionally, all three treatments
(cyanide, stress and starvation) did not result in the highest
mortality as one might imagine they would. The highest mortality
and the only factor shown to be statistically significant
was stress combined with starvation, resulting in 66.7% mortality.
Statistically significant is an important phrase and one
that should not be glanced over. Basically, a statistical
analysis seeks to determine if the data was the result of
simple random chance or the tested hypothesis (Shimek, 2003).
Only stress with starvation was shown to be statistically
significant. As such, any other pattern one might try to read
into the data cannot be ruled out as occurring from random
chance or some other unmentioned or unnoticed factor like
disease, for instance.
Hanawa et al (1998):
At this point, the literature is unclear about the long-term
effects cyanide has on fishes if they survive initial exposure
to the drug. The Hanawa et al paper sought to clarify
both the acute and long-term effects of cyanide exposure.
Additionally, they studied the impact cyanide has in light
of research that had been conducted on rainbow trout exposed
to sub-chronic levels of a cyanide derivative. These trout
"displayed marked anemia." The hypothesis was that
fishes exposed to cyanide would have lower hemoglobin concentrations
and a lower blood oxygen content. Specifically, they wanted
to look at the oxygen consumption rate in the liver as they
hypothesized that it would be impaired in fishes exposed to
They conducted a series of experiments exposing 60 fishes
(Dascyllus aruanus) to cyanide treatments of 25 and
50 ppm for 10, 60 and 120 seconds; there were ten fishes in
each group. They found that exposure at 25 ppm for 120 seconds
caused 60% mortality and 50 ppm for 120 seconds caused 100%
mortality 96 hours after exposure. All other groups (which
had shorter exposure times) experienced no mortalities after
Next, they conducted a second series of experiments in which
fishes were exposed to 25 or 50 ppm cyanide, but all groups
(again, ten fish per group) were treated for only 60 seconds.
They added some stressors to some of these groups of fishes
to see what results, if any, would occur. There were two groups
of fishes; one was exposed to 25 ppm while the other was exposed
to 50 ppm, but neither had any additional stress imposed.
Another two groups of 25 and 50 ppm exposed fishes were bagged
in two liters of seawater for ten minutes before being returned
to their aquariums, to simulate transport. The final two groups
were intentionally chased with a hand net in their tanks for
10 minutes two and one half weeks after exposure, simulating
a retail experience (although, speaking as a former local
fish store employee, if you can't catch a damsel from a retail
tank in less than one minute, you deserve to be handed your
walking papers). None of the groups experienced any mortalities
except for the group exposed at 50 ppm for 60 seconds that
was bagged. All of those fishes died.
The final criteria they examined were the blood parameters
two and a half weeks after exposure. They did not find a statistically
different level of blood hemoglobin or blood oxygen levels
in exposed fishes compared to the control group. They did,
however, find that "liver O2
consumption rates were profoundly affected." They went
on to suggest that oxygen consumption rates for the liver
or the entire fish could be affected by exposure to cyanide,
and that this warranted further study of how that may affect
long-term survival after exposure.
Summary of Effects on Fishes:
So, what can we say about cyanide's effects on fish? Well,
unfortunately, it is not very clear. We can say that cyanide
does kill fish shortly after exposure from acute cyanide poisoning.
But, it is unclear what, if any, adverse effects there are
on fishes that survive the initial dosage. There are a lot
of anecdotal observations of mass mortalities in fishes that
were believed to have been exposed to cyanide (Fenner, 2001),
but that is not scientific proof.
Studies on Cyanide's Effects on Cnidarians
In contrast to fishes, the effects
on corals is much more clear. In every study I have read,
corals suffered bleaching or death depending on the dosage
used and the duration of the exposure (Jones & Steven,
1997, Jones & Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999, and Cervino et
al, 2003). So, regardless of what may or may not occur
to fishes exposed to cyanide, it is clearly a destructive
practice which should not be encouraged. Be sure to keep that
in mind and vote with your dollars for clean and healthy fishes.
Left: Note the apparent cyanide damage to this
coral (mid-left), now partially bleached. Right:
Apparent cyanide damage to this Acropora colony
(upper right). Photos courtesy of Mike Kirda.
Personal Observations on the References:
The one thing that stood out to me
in my reading was the inconsistency in the cyanide dosages
studied. The dosages varied from a low of 1 ppm all the way
up to 5,200 ppm. Similarly, the numerous researchers varied
cyanide exposure times from ten seconds all the way up to
and 5 ppm
& Bellwood, 1995
& Steven, 1997
52, 520, and 5,200 ppm
300, 600, 1200, or 1800 seconds
et al, 1998
and 50 ppm
60, and 120 seconds
et al, 2003
100, 300, and 600 ppm
What is even more striking are some of the comments used
to describe the dosages employed. Bellwood (1981a) says of
his 1 to 5 ppm exposures, "These doses are similar to
those believed to be used in commercial fish collecting."
In contrast, Cervino et al (2003) states that the much
higher exposures of 50-600 ppm "are much lower than those
reportedly used by fish collectors." And, Jones &
Steven (1997) based their work on an estimate that collectors
typically use 10,660 ppm. So, we have one author alleging
that 1-5 ppm is the norm for collectors, while another study
is saying that collectors usually use more than 50-600 ppm,
and a third has an estimate that collectors use 10,660 ppm.
Consequently, we are left with the dilemma of which numbers
For one thing, it's important to note that collectors are
typically using rather crude squirt bottles for administering
cyanide. As such, they are severely limited in controlling
the dosage delivered (Hall & Bellwood, 1995 and Hanawa
et al, 1998). Additionally, there is one reference
that I found where actual squirt bottles were confiscated
and tested (Pet & Djohani, 1998). They showed that the
bottles contained dosages of 762.50, 1251.00, 1401.00, and
2017.50 ppm. So, the collectors themselves don't always use
a consistent dosage. Moreover, it should be understood that
the second this mixture begins to emerge from the squirt bottles,
it is instantly diluted with the surrounding ocean water,
further changing is concentration. We can still divine a few
things, however, by using some common sense. From a collector's
standpoint, the goal would be to catch the greatest number
of fishes in the shortest amount of time while having the
lowest initial mortalities, thereby maximizing profitability.
With that frame of mind in place, the early Bellwood article's
speculation on dosages seems dubious to me. At 1-5 ppm, it
took 2-3 minutes to knock out the fishes. Two to three minutes
seems like an awfully long time for a collector to wait to
capture a fish. I imagine that a scared and frightened reef
fish could travel a great distance from the cyanide fisherman
in that amount of time. These fish could easily become quite
problematic to locate before the anesthetic effect wore off,
not to mention how difficult it would be to maintain that
concentration in the open ocean's currents for those periods
of time. The same applies to the later Hall & Bellwood
paper. On average, it took 85 seconds to anesthetize the fish
in that study. Again, that seems too long to me. The Hanawa
et al (1998) paper showed that fish could be anesthetized
for capture in as little as 10 seconds with 25 or 50 ppm dosages.
And it was not until these dosages were prolonged for one
to two minutes that the fish suffered 100% initial mortalities.
So dosages of 25-50 ppm delivered in short bursts seem the
most probable to me. That does not mean, however, that surrounding
corals could not be harmed by these dosages. The Cervino et
al (2003) paper showed mortalities occurred even at the
relatively low 50 ppm concentration studied. Additionally,
the initial plume of cyanide might be considerably stronger
such that once it is diluted by ocean water that concentration
that the target fishes are exposed to is sufficient to anaesthetize
them. So clearly, from the research performed to date we can
see that fishes and corals can be killed by cyanide exposure
depending on the concentration used and the exposure's duration,
and that the most likely dosage for effective catch rates
would be within this toxic range.
The Scapegoat of Anomalous Losses:
The one thing that frequently bothers
me regarding cyanide use is the cavalier way some people throw
it around as an excuse for fish losses that they cannot otherwise
easily explain. Many times I have read of aquarists suffering
mortalities with new acquisitions and blaming the cause on
cyanide exposure. "I just lost my so and so. It looked
great yesterday, but this morning it was dead. It must have
been caught with cyanide." Unfortunately, it takes only
a few seconds of further questioning to see that this speculation
is false. When a hobbyist makes the accusation that his animal
died of cyanide and then happens to mention that the specimen
in question was a Hawaiian yellow tang, or an Australian harlequin
tuskfish or any other fish that could have come only from
a location that is not known for cyanide usage, one can quickly
realize that the cyanide assumption was incorrect, although
other nefarious or detrimental practices cannot be ruled out.
Screening Suspect Specimens and Selecting Healthy
As I have already
alluded to, collection locale plays an extremely important
role in avoiding fishes caught using cyanide. As of the time
I am writing this piece, I have heard of cyanide usage only
in the Philippines, parts of Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia,
Thailand, the Maldives, Sabah, and possibly the Red Sea (Eritrea)
and Tanzania (http://oneocean.org...cleansingourseas.html).
Knowing this, and knowing the origin of the fish at the local
fish store, goes a long way toward avoiding animals suspected
to be captured using cyanide.
Aquarists should realize when looking at the list
mentioned above that the International Marinelife Alliance
(IMA) compiled of nations that have cyanide usage, does not
discriminate between fish caught with cyanide bound for the
food fish industry and marine ornamentals caught with cyanide.
All locations where cyanide fishing has been reported
are listed. That is of particular importance when the Red
Sea, particularly Eritrea, makes the list. Eritrea is not
an area known for supplying the marine ornamental industry.
Fishes hailing from the Red Sea are coming almost exclusively
out of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia (Fenner, pers. comm.). So, in
general, Red Sea fishes are likely not caught using cyanide
because Saudi Arabia is not listed as an offending country
for this chemical.
Now, some shops will say they don't know where a particular
fish came from. That is only half true. I have seen plenty
of availability lists in my decade plus of working in this
industry. Every one I have ever seen labels some fish as coming
from certain areas. For example, a stock list may have a Hawaiian
flame angel. Then, at a slightly cheaper price, a Christmas
Island specimen may be listed. And finally, cheapest of all
is the generic one with no location noted. It is possible
that the wholesaler may not know where that fish came from,
but I find that hard to believe. As an importer buying directly
from exporters in the country of origin, they must know the
flights and from where the boxes of fish are coming from.
I find it easier to believe that in those cases they are simply
not passing along the information because it is not a positive
For instance, if someone wants to sell a car, the make and
model are pretty standard information proffered. That might
be followed by the fact that the car has air conditioning,
power windows, power locks, power and heated leather seats,
six disk CD player, GPS system, low mileage, etc. But, if
the car is old, rusty, has a lot of miles and no air conditioning
other than being able to roll down the windows via a hand
crank, those things might be left out of the advertisement.
The selling point of this vehicle could be its AM-only radio
with eight track player and all the Neil Diamond and Barry
Manilow tapes the buyer could ever wish for. In one instance,
the seller is going to compete on quality, but that quality
will come at a price. Conversely, the other seller is going
to try to compete via price at a cost in quality.
So it's wise to ask where the fish originated from, but don't
stop there. Don't rely on the local fish store as the only
source of information. As part of your standard practice of
researching potential acquisitions prior to purchase (hint,
hint), add to that protocol by finding out the fish's origin.
One such reference is www.fishbase.org.
It is a free online information site where any inquisitive
and responsible person can find a variety of information ranging
from a fish's geographic distribution to its full adult size,
its gut content analysis and even breeding information in
some cases. This way, the purchaser can be armed with the
knowledge of where these fish naturally occur so he doesn't
get suckered by false information from the local pet store
employee. I have been into a lot of pet stores, and there
are some notable exceptions, but many of the employees I have
met are better qualified to ask if I want fries with that
order than to dispense appropriate and correct advice on animal
Cyanide caught fishes are thought
to have a strange appearance. The easiest way
to describe it is that they look too good.
Yes, I did state that correctly. "Juiced"
fish look really great. They have absolutely fabulous
coloration, so much so that they look too good.
Have you ever seen a common blue damsel housed
in a display utilizing nothing but actinic light?
Damsels held in conditions like this almost look
like they glow. They have this blue aura surrounding
them. In my opinion and experience, as well as
that of others (Calfo, pers. comm., Fenner, pers.
comm. and Fenner, 2001), "juiced" fish
have the same aura-like appearance, even when
they are illuminated with standard full-spectrum
It is also thought that cyanide
caught fishes behave strangely as well. A healthy
fish should interact with its surroundings. It
should react to the approach of potential purchasers
or store employees by dashing behind whatever
cover has been provided, but at the same time,
it should keep an eye on the approaching human.
Healthy fish also interact with one another. They
typically set up and defend territories while
chasing off challengers and intruders. In my experience,
fishes that I believe were "juiced"
look dazed and confused. They tend to not interact
with others in the tank nor do they react much
to the presence of people. They sit there mostly
motionless, staring off into space.
I have also seen firsthand on numerous
instances a store having mislabeled the collection locale
of their animals. For example, I recall recently seeing a
Hawaiian powder brown tang. The problem was that this specimen
was an Acanthurus japonicus, which is not endemic to
Hawaii. In fact, the so-called powder brown tang from Hawaii
is Acanthurus nigricans. This is a rather innocuous
mistake. They probably ordered a Hawaiian powder brown. The
wholesaler likely made a substitution to get a good "fill
rate" on his order to the store. And, the correct information
was never noticed or conveyed to the dealer. But, I have also
seen some rather disturbing labeling, such as a tank full
of Hawaiian fire shrimp (Lysmata debelius). Worse yet
was the Hawaiian Atlantic blue tang my friend Adam Cesnales
once saw for sale at a local fish store. That is patently
false and, quite frankly, so sad all at the same time. Imagine
the poor schooling and general geographical ignorance required
to make such a ridiculous assertion.
It used to be that certain species were
notorious for being collected with cyanide. Baby clown triggers
are one that comes to mind, for example. They are notorious
for being "juiced" as they hide inside corals when
frightened, making them difficult to extract. Conversely,
other fishes such as clownfish were not reputed to be cyanide
exposed because of their intimate relationships with anemones.
When frightened, they dive deep into an anemone, but that
makes them easy to capture because it is easy to remove a
clownfish from a fleshy anemone when compared to removing
a Chromis damsel from a branching stony coral head.
But I have heard of a disturbing trend of what should
be safe fish purchases, such as clownfishes and Banggai cardinalfishes
being captured using cyanide (Robinson, pers. comm.). The
easiest way to explain this phenomenon is with an old saying,
"When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to
look like a nail." While a master bass fisherman might
be very adept at tempting a largemouth to strike a rubber
minnow-shaped, hooked object, he might also be equally ineffective
at fly fishing for trout. Cyanide fisherman use cyanide. End
The Other Side
Surprisingly, some authors and editors
(Edel, 1982 and Goldstein, 1982 and 1997) don't believe cyanide
capture techniques are a problem. They point to the discrepancy
in the experimental concentrations delivered as a reason to
question cyanide's toxicity. Instead, they insist that poor
holding and shipping techniques and related stress, as well
as disease, could all be to blame for the greater mortality
rates that many in the industry see coming out of areas known
for cyanide usage. They point out that the areas most notable
for cyanide and high mortality rates are also some of the
poorest collection locales. And, they do have a point. Stress
was shown to be a significant contributing factor to fish
deaths. But, I say, "ak-ro-pore-ah," Eric Borneman
says, "a-crop-or-ah." A dead fish is a dead fish
is a dead fish. I don't want to waste money on fishes that
have a higher likelihood of dying, and I doubt many other
aquarists do, either. Whether or not my newly purchased clown
trigger dies of cyanide exposure or cyanide and stress
or cyanide and starvation or cyanide, stress
and starvation or simply starvation and stress is of
little consequence to me. They are still dead, and I am out
fifty bucks. So, the general principles I outlined in selecting
healthy fishes still apply, and I would urge everyone to avoid
Others make the case against cyanide usage from a sportsmanship
standpoint (Jonklaas). They argue that somehow it is better
to work hard at net catching fish versus using drugs, that
there is somehow an unfair advantage to using drugs, and net
wielding fishermen are therefore to be applauded and rewarded
for their efforts. Again, I couldn't care less. I only want
the healthiest livestock, at a reasonable price, caught in
a manner which does not damage the reefs. At this time, responsible
net collection from areas that subscribe to sustainable collection
quotas and "no take" reserve areas fit that bill;
indiscriminately squirting cyanide does not. Also, there is
the point that regardless of the method used to remove a fish
from the wild, it is still removed. To the remaining
fish population that removed fish is dead, for lack of a better
word (Goldstein, 1982). It will never reproduce and add to
the population. It will also not compete for food. And, it
will never be returned to the wild.
Last, some question the widespread usage of cyanide from
an economic perspective (Edel, 1982). If fish can otherwise
be caught without drugs, using drugs that cost extra money
does not add up. While that argument may initially seem to
make some sense, it is not what actually happens. In many
instances, even when net collection training programs are
successfully implemented, a significant number of the newly
trained collectors have been found to revert to cyanide usage
(Rubec et al, 2001). Unfortunately, these fishermen
get paid by the fish, regardless of its quality. In effect,
it is more profitable to use cyanide to catch a larger
number of suspect fish than a smaller number of
higher quality ones. And extrapolating that further, catching
suspect fish that have a higher likelihood of perishing after
purchase also means that more fish will have to be caught
to replace those that died. In effect, selling sick fish guarantees
job security from the point of view of the cyanide fisherman.
But, that assumes that poverty stricken, uneducated fishermen
are thinking much beyond the next meal they have to provide
for their families. For a more in-depth analysis of the economics
of destructive fishing practices see http://www.cciforum.org/pdfs/Destructive_Practices.pdf.
A variety of governments,
their agencies and non-government organizations are working
on this problem. But, I don't really want to talk too much
about their work as it is a subject that sparks heated debates
and is frankly beyond the realm of what we, as hobbyists,
can influence. Instead, I want to focus on what hobbyists
can do about this tragedy. First of all, you can educate yourself
on the problem. And, if you have read this far, I would say
you have made a great first step.
Beyond that, the greatest impact we can provide is to vote
with our dollars. Buy captive-bred or tank-raised individuals
whenever possible, even when they cost a bit more than their
wild-caught counterparts. This segment of the industry is
still small and struggling, and is worthy of our financial
Also, we must be willing to spend more money on better quality
wild-caught fishes. Too many properly trained net fishermen
go back to using cyanide because far too many people with
fish tanks (note I draw a distinction between someone who
owns an aquarium and a true hobbyist/aquarist) are purchasing
based on price and not quality. This is an expensive hobby.
I know it. I am not well off, so I can sympathize with those
who wish to save as much as possible. But those savings should
not come at the price of livestock deaths. And in reality,
having to buy three or four suspect $30 dollar fish before
finding one that actually lives is no savings compared to
just buying one healthy $60 specimen.
Second, use the tips and information provided here to avoid
supporting the cyanide industry. When you buy wild-caught
fish, do everything you can to ensure that they were not captured
using this drug. Reward with your purchases the good vendors
who sell only healthy, net caught fishes, and punish the bad
apples who specialize in cheap, suspect animals by boycotting
their stores. I have no sympathy for, and will not be kept
up at night over, the thought of unscrupulous or ignorant
shop owners going out of business because no one will purchase
their suspect animals. It is time to cull the herd and drive
these people out of the industry.
Third, do everything in your power to keep the fishes that
you buy healthy and long-lived. Every fish that dies in captivity,
regardless of the reason, needing replacement puts added pressure
on this limited resource.
And finally, attempt to objectively analyze and quantify
your successes and failures. Be willing to share that information
with others in an effort to contribute to the body of knowledge
of aquariology. By educating each other and the general public
in the proper husbandry and selection of marine ornamentals,
we can make our biggest contribution to saving the reefs that
we cherish so much.
I would like to take a moment to
sincerely thank Eric Borneman and Dr. Ron Shimek for their
assistance with this article. Their editorial reviews are
always helpful, but even more so in this case. They both really
helped fine tune my voice and clarify the points I wanted
to make while using the proper tone. For that, I am genuinely