This Popular Aquarium Fish Might Vanish From the Wild

The survival of a spectacular coral fish from Indonesia may depend on a decision made in South Africa this month.

The tropical setting is postcard perfect. A palm tree on a deserted white beach surrounded by turquoise water imprints itself on my mind as I roll backward off the boat in full scuba gear. Just six feet underwater a rich coral bed stretches out as I pass through clouds of multicolored reef fish. I’m following Alejandro Vagelli, a marine biologist from Rutgers University and director of the Center for Aquatic Sciences in the United States, as he zigzags over the reef.

A gesture from Vagelli, and there before us flitting effortlessly among the spines of a cluster of sea urchins is a group of tiny, exquisite fish, the largest about an inch long.

Here in Indonesia the tranquil bays of 34 small islands in the Banggai archipelago are the only places on Earth where you can see Banggai cardinalfish, so named because the first discovered cardinalfish evoked the scarlet vestments of a cardinal, although Banggai cardinalfish have silver spots, black stripes, blue fins, and no red coloration.

I’m lucky enough to be one of only a handful of people from outside the islands to see Banggai cardinalfish in their natural habitat, which according to a survey in 2015 by Vagelli in partnership with Fondation Franz Weber, a Swiss-based organization that funds conservation projects throughout the world, encompasses a mere nine square miles.

“This,” Vagelli tells me after we climb back on board the dilapidated fisheries department vessel that, apart from villagers’ dugouts and fishing boats, is the only mode of transport out here, “makes it one of the most restricted distributions ever documented in a marine fish.”

But my joy in watching these fish is tempered by the prospect that they may soon be gone from the wild. That’s because they’re being collected for the aquarium trade faster than they can reproduce in nature. Even though Banggai cardinalfish are bred in captivity—they’re one of the few coral reef fish that can be—the captive-bred supply satisfies only a fraction of the insatiable demand of aquarium hobbyists.

That’s why at the meeting later this month in South Africa of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates the global wildlife trade, a proposal will be considered that seeks greater protection for the Banggai cardinalfish.

“If it’s adopted,” Vagelli says, “they could survive here.” If not—Vagelli shrugs—“we’re looking at just a few years before they completely disappear in the wild.”

Holy Grail Fish

In 1994 ichthyologist Gerald Allen, of the Western Australian Museum in Perth and a specialist in Indo-Pacific reef fishes, visited the Banggai archipelago and became the first scientist to observe and document the fish in their natural habitat.

He knew immediately that “it’s only a matter of time before this fish makes a big splash on the world aquarium scene,” according to a 2013 Marine Habitat magazine article written by Vagelli.

Allen was right. Within a year, local fishermen were scooping out Banggai cardinalfish—the holy grail of ornamental fish, according to Vagelli—for hobbyists around the world. By early 2001, Vagelli estimated that at least 2,000 were being taken daily—that’s more than 700,000 a year. “These days,” he says, “the haul per day is still in four figures.” Only about 1.5 million remain in the wild, according to the 2015 survey.

“They’re very easy to catch,” Sarli Yakil, a local fisherman who specializes in Banggai cardinalfish, tells me as I join him and other villagers paddling wooden canoes to a shallow reef to look for them.

Banggai cardinalfish tend to form stationary groups in calm, shallow waters, so catching them is simply a matter of corralling them into nets and placing them in containers for transport to a dealer. It may take no more than a minute to gather up a hundred cardinalfish.

Yakil says he sells them to dealers from Bali in batches of a thousand for about five cents per live fish. “But,” he adds, “many of my fish die before they get to Bali.” He reckons about half don’t make it.

The dealers export them through a series of middlemen to markets primarily in Europe and the United States, a journey that, according to Vagelli, kills a further 25 percent. The survivors end up in pet shops where they fetch between $25 and $50 each.

“It’s become very difficult to find Banggai cardinalfish these days,” says Yakil, who has noticed a dramatic decline in their numbers. He and other fishermen must spend more time, fuel, and money scouring the shallows for new populations. Yakil takes home only around $70 a month from the cardinalfish he catches, and to meet the needs of his family of five, he relies more now on traditional food fishing and on harvesting wild cloves.

A Rapid Decline

Vagelli documented that in the decade from 1995 to 2005 Banggai cardinalfish populations crashed by 90 percent. “In some places,” he says, “they’ve become locally extinct.”

Such a substantial decline, says Monica Biondo, a marine biologist from Fondation Franz Weber who works with Vagelli, meant that a decade ago Banggai cardinalfish “easily met the criteria for a CITES Appendix II listing, which calls for a strict regulation of the trade from Indonesia through the use of quotas and permits.”

But that didn’t happen.

In 2007, despite being described as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, they weren’t given special trade protections under CITES.

“In that year,” Biondo says, “Indonesia opposed a proposal brought forward by the U.S.A. to list the fish under Appendix II, arguing that it was capable of sustainably managing the trade itself.” No other proposals for greater protections have been offered at subsequent CITES meetings—until now.

According to Vagelli, Indonesia’s argument that it is capable of managing a sustainable trade in cardinalfish has rung hollow.

In 2009 a conservation center to help protect the Banggai cardinalfish was built at Yakil’s village of Bone Baru on Banggai Island. But according to Budiwan Apok, an officer with the fisheries department on Banggai Island, it was never occupied. He suspects it was built for show and that the Indonesian government never intended to take management of Banggai cardinalfish seriously. “Nobody in government cares about the Banggai fish, or the people that live here,” he says. The building, now overrun by vegetation, is going to ruin.

Ratna Kusuma Sari, deputy director of the Indonesian representation to CITES, declined to comment about the conservation center.

According to Apok, all the Banggai cardinalfish at Bone Baru—near what had formerly been one of the archipelago’s largest populations—have been fished out.

Last Hope?

My next stop was a world away from Indonesia, in Monaco, home to one of the largest captive-bred populations of Banggai cardinalfish in the world.

“Generations of Banggai cardinalfish have been successfully bred by us since 1996,” Nadia Ounaïs, director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, tells me. (In 2010 Monaco put the Banggai cardinalfish on one of its stamps as a testament to the institute’s work.)

With hundreds of Banggai cardinalfish in their breeding tanks, and a few more on public display, Ounaïs says the museum produces about 150 of the fish a year, which makes its breeding program one of the most successful.

“This is just enough to replace the natural deaths of fish from their existing collection,” Vagelli points out, “let alone be able to adequately supply the aquarium market.”

This, he says, is why the upcoming CITES meeting, when the 183 signatories to the treaty will consider a proposal from the European Union to list the Banggai cardinalfish under Appendix II, is so important. A listing under that appendix would restrict trade in the fish.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the IUCN, the World Wildlife Fund, and the CITES Secretariat say that the cardinalfish meets the scientific and biological criteria for this level of listing. They have recommended that the member countries adopt the proposal.

Kusuma Sari says her country will again oppose Appendix II listing. “We are offended because the European Union did not follow protocol,” she said at a meeting with local government representatives and local fishermen on August 23 in Salakan, on one of the islands in the archipelago. “They should have consulted with Indonesia’s scientific authority before submitting the proposal.”

Biondo, the Fondation Franz Weber biologist who helped draft the proposal to give the fish more international protections, says “the European Union did consult with Indonesia before submitting it to CITES”—and even invited Indonesia to co-sponsor it. According to Biondo, “Indonesia did not acknowledge the invitation.”

If the proposal is passed and Indonesia wanted to continue allowing exports, it would have to prove that trade would not harm the species. To figure that out, it would need to conduct a detailed survey—one that Kusuma Sari argues will take “too much time and money to implement.” This puzzles the EU and NGOs like Fondation Franz Weber, which have offered to provide financial and technical support for such a survey.

But Indonesia wants to see the money first before it would consider supporting a proposal, Kusuma Sari says. Even then, the country isn’t prepared to do so until the next CITES conference in 2019.

But fishermen and local authorities in the Banggai archipelago don’t share their national government’s view. Many islanders, like Yakil, believe that increased international protections will sustain their future livelihoods. At the August meeting in Salakan, the archipelago’s two administrative units, or regencies, signed a letter on behalf of their constituents asking the Indonesian government to fully back Appendix II listing.

Bosman Lanusi, who represents the Banggai regencies in Jakarta, says they’ve been trying for 10 years “to put the species on Appendix II, without success. This time it must be different. As a representative of the Banggai people, I strongly urge that this fish be listed at the conference in South Africa, otherwise it will be gone forever.”

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