From: By Dan Eaton, Reuters
Published September 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Billion-Dollar Asian Reef Fish Industry in Peril

JAKARTA , Indonesia — An insatiable appetite for live reef fish in Asian restaurants is ravaging aquatic stocks in Indonesia , damaging reefs, and threatening the sustainability of a $1 billion industry in the region, a conservation group said.


The use of toxic cyanide and hooks to catch the fish could exhaust Indonesian waters of the most valuable species in three years, said Peter Mous of the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy.


Indonesia, which has more than 20 percent of the globe's coral reefs — more than the Atlantic, Caribbean, and eastern Pacific combined — has become the world's top supplier of wild-caught, live reef fish, cornering more than 50 percent of the Hong Kong”‚Äúcentered market for the luxury food item.


But that could change if measures are not taken to alter the way the industry works, said Mous, science manager at the Nature Conservancy's Bali-based South East Asia Center for Marine Protected Areas, which has begun a project to cultivate reef fish for the consumer market.


" Indonesia used to be the main exporter for most species. But now, for instance, with the coral trout, most is coming from the Great Barrier Reef (in Australia ), mainly because the Indonesian stocks are already gone," Mous said.


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In recent years, the fish trade depleted populations in the South China Sea and around the Philippines . Fishers then turned to Indonesia to bolster their catches. Scientists now warn that populations across the archipelago will be virtually exhausted in three to five years.


"When I was studying fisheries biology 20 years ago, I never thought it was actually possible to catch the very last fish out of an ecosystem," said Mous.


But with some reef fish fetching as much as $35 a kilo (2.2 pounds) for fishers and $110 dollars a kilo in restaurants in Hong Kong , the balance has tipped against the environment.


"Thirty-five dollars per kilo. That is quite an acceptable wage for one week of work for a local fisherman," said Mous.


Joining the Industry


The desperate situation has forced conservationists to take a new approach: working to supply consumer demand.


Last year the Nature Conservancy launched a pilot project in Indonesia 's Komodo National Park , about 400 km (250 miles) east of Bali , training local communities to raise six species of fish for the live reef fish industry.


The Komodo project is cultivating tiger grouper, estuary grouper, mangrove jack, Asian seabass, leopard coral grouper, and mouse grouper, which can cost in excess of $100 a kg in restaurants.


"It would be very difficult to join the shark fin industry. Culturing sharks has never really been done or tried. There the wiser strategy is to work on the consumer side and warn people against eating shark fin," said Mous. "But it is a good additional strategy that works in this particular case. Where it is possible to work constructively with the industry, it should be done."


Hong Kong is the world's largest trader and consumer of live reef fish. Other major consumers include Singapore and mainland China .


The Komodo project made its first sale — 500kg of cultured estuary grouper to Hong Kong buyers — in June and aims by 2008 to become a major player in the Asian live reef fish market.


"The industry basically are business people. If you can explain to them that it is possible to make a dollar and keep making dollars they will do it," said Mous. "I'm not convinced it will work yet. But it will fail if we can't find a business partner."


And he has an answer for diners who fear cultured fish won't be as tasty.


"It can't be denied that the fact that a fish is wild creates a different perception with some consumers, especially in China ," Mous said. "But we found in blind taste tests (some) cultured fish were preferred to the wild variety."


Source: Reuters


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