From the Ocean, to your Aquarium:


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Tropical Catch of the Day

The search for exotic fish for aquariums can be destructive. An L.A. firm is part of efforts to clean up the industry.
Times Staff Writer
VITOGO REEF, Fiji -- Bobbing in a lonely coral reef, Manoa Kurulo spies his tiny prey, takes a snorkel breath and dives into thewater. The nimble blue-and-orange quarry darts away through the stony underwater garden.
Kurulo is a lumbering giant in comparison. Slicing through the water, he gradually herds his prize--a Fiji blue dot puffer the size of a man's thumb--into a fine mesh net strung between two stands of coral. The little fish is worth its weight in silver. He scoops it into a bucket already sparkling with an orange-and-brown goatfish and three shimmering silver-green damsels.
The puffer has survived enormous odds to reach adulthood in a sea of hungry predators, disease and storms. Now, it is on the verge of embarking on a new and unnatural migration across the globe in the cargo hold of a 747.
Kurulo's bucket is the first stop in a 5,500-mile journey that will carry the puffer from the pristine waters of Fiji to a warehouseon a stretch of 104th Street near Los Angeles International Airport known as "Fish Street," regarded as the hub of the world's aquarium fish trade.
Kurulo will get about 38 cents for his fish. By the time his little puffer reaches a tropical-fish store on Pico Boulevard, it will sell for $13.
Driven by advances in aquarium technology and the economic boom years of the 1990s, exotic fish and the coral where they live are among the hottest wild-caught pets in America and Europe. They make up a $235-million annual trade that has become both a blessing and a curse across the Pacific.
In a good week, Kurulo earns upward of $100 harvesting fish and live coral, more than twice the World Bank's per capita income estimate for Fiji. He sends much of his earnings back to the remote island village of Wayalevu, where his wife and daughter live in a village of traditional thatched Fijian bures and concrete-block homes.
Thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, Walt Smith, Kurulo's boss and president of marine animal wholesaler Walt Smith International, drives his black BMW X5 to his new 15,000-square-foot Fish Street warehouse--both the fruits of Fiji's reef fish and coral.
Yet along with the bounty have come questions over whether the industry is contributing to the demise of the world's coral reefs. Across the Pacific, thousands of divers have culled the waters of moray eels, yellow tangs, coral banded shrimp and other exotic marine creatures in their desperation to eke out a meager living. None of the popular tropical fish are in danger of extinction, but in some areas, fish such as yellow tangs and Bangai cardinals have reached dangerously low levels, marine biologists say.
The Indo-Pacific is notorious for its dangerous and destructive methods for capturing fish. Collectors often dive into the water with plastic air tubes wrapped around their waists, tethering them to old paint compressors. Periodically, they take breaths from the tubes, typically inhaling a mixture of air and exhaust fumes.
Divers in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam often squirt cyanide into the reefs to stun the fish, making their capture easier. Many of the fish die of poisoning, slowly wasting away on the trip to the United States or succumbing during their first weeks in a hobbyist's tank. Other divers destroy the reef habitat by using hammers and chisels to hack apart generations-old coral heads, breaking them into pieces small enough to fit into home aquariums.
By some industry estimates, as many as one-third of the 30 million aquarium fish harvested each year perish in the long chain that leads from the reef to the hobbyist's tank. They die by stewing in hot plastic bags and buckets of stale water as they wait for shipment. Piles of tiny fish are scooped out each day from stuffed Styrofoam shipping boxes that are short on water to trim shipping expenses.
"In some shipments if they get only 50% mortality they are happy," said Craig Shuman, a scientist for Reef Check, a monitoring group based at UCLA's Institute of the Environment.
Striving for 'Green'

Given the odds, Kurulo's puffer is one of the lucky ones. He was caught by Smith's company, one of a group of leading collectors in Fiji attempting to transform the industry into a "green" and sustainable business by varying their fishing sites and improving storage and shipping practices to slash the mortality rate.
His Fiji station also is experimenting with collecting fish at the early-juvenile stage and raising them in captivity.
Kurulo, like other collectors in Fiji, has learned that a gentle capture is a crucial factor in the fish's chances for survival.
When frightened, his little puffer will inflate its body to nearly twice its normal size to make itself look more formidable to predators. But Kurulo's underwater moves are so deft that the puffer and three others caught within minutes show little signs of alarm as they are transferred from the reef to the boat.
Tim McLeod, manager of Smith's Fiji operations, pilots his 26-foot boat Brittany and its cargo of live fish and coral back to the warehouse after a day of harvesting with Kurulo. On a typical day, Kurulo will capture as many as 80 of the tiny puffers.
The little puffer is tucked away with the other fish, darting back and forth in a plastic tub--an unimaginably small world compared to the endless reef they knew just minutes earlier.
Halfway through the journey, McLeod throttles back the engine. Kurulo knows the drill. He dips a bucket into the ocean and empties it into the tub, providing the animals with clean water and oxygen. It's all part of the company's efforts to keep its mortality rate to less than 2% of what it captures.
The engines rev again and the Brittany points to shore. Perfect white-sand beaches and tangled mangrove forests streak by. The sea is so glassy that Kurulo can look over the side and see fish, sea stars and vast growths of coral as the boat speeds over the shallow water.
The little puffer would have passed its entire life hunting small crustaceans and invertebrates that live within the large honeycombed boulders of Porites coral and the brown-and-blue tinted thickets of Acropora.
Kurulo knows these waters as intimately as any stretch of land--where to find the stands of Acropora, the spreading disks of table coral, sprouting like giant toadstools from the ocean floor, and the swirling bursts of angelfish, tangs, butterflies and damsels prized by hobbyists.
Diving has allowed Kurulo, 38, a standard of living far above what he earned in his previous job working on a road crew for the Fijian government. He owns two of the 77 homes in his island village--a traditional bure and a concrete-block home. There's no power on the island, but Kurulo is saving to buy a solar generator that would allow him to operate a television, a video player and a radio. br />
The ability of the marine aquarium industry to put cash in the hands of villagers represents one of the greatest potential benefits of a business that badly needs reform, said Bruce W. Bunting, a veterinarian who heads the World Wildlife Fund's Center for Conservation Finance.
On average, marine aquarium fish sell for more than 80 times the value of fish caught and killed for food export, Bunting said. Putting a greater percentage of that money into the hands of collectors--in the Philippines and Indonesia, divers earn maybe $50 a month--will encourage the villages of Micronesia and the Indo-Pacific to create protected areas and fishing areas and to limit the pollution that is killing reefs worldwide, he said.
"The leaders of this industry want to see it cleaned up, and they know that this is the time to do it," said Bunting, who also serves as chairman of the Marine Aquarium Council, a trade group implementing a set of reforms and a certification process for catching and transporting the animals.
The council's standards cover the entire supply chain--from reef to retailer--setting targets to reduce mortality and demanding that collectors and exporters certify that their animals were caught humanely, without poisons or other destructive techniques. The first council-certified fish are expected to appear in U.S. retail shops in the next six months.
As Kurulo ties up the Brittany at the warehouse dock, McLeod reaches for the container holding the puffer and the rest of the day's catch. McLeod slowly adds saltwater from the warehouse's filtering system to the container to acclimate the puffer to the water that will flow through its holding tank.


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Fish Out of Water
In its own environment of the reef, the puffer is a hardy species, able to survive through sheer weight of numbers and the countless hiding places within the coral stands and rocky storm rubble. But once removed from the reef, it becomes a fragile slip of color, dependent on humans to re-create a constant and complex environment.
The puffer's home waters never seem to change much. That stability creates a challenge for the hobbyists who attempt to replicate a slice of the reef in their living rooms. If the puffer is to thrive in captivity, its water temperature should rarely vary by a degree or two from 78.
The salinity in the aquarium must remain steady, protected from the swings of water evaporation from such a small habitat. The same holds true for alkalinity, which on the reef never strays far from a pH of 8.2.
Even just an hour out of its native habitat, Kurulo's 38-cent puffer is feeling the stress of adapting to its new world of a small plexiglass cage. Although the elaborate saltwater storage and filtering system at the warehouse provides the puffer with water nearly identical to that of its home, the fish cowers in a corner of its small holding tank, unable to find the expected refuge of coral branches.
McLeod's workers won't feed the fish for three days. They know from experience that it is better to have a hungry fish than one that will foul its shipping water with the previous night's dinner.
The puffer will gradually acclimate in the coming days, but by then it will be time to pack the fish in a plastic bag with fresh saltwater and then into an insulated box with dozens of other fish for the 11-hour overnight flight to Los Angeles.
New Home and a Name

For this puffer, and the other fish on this shipment, it is a race against time.
McLeod's workers give the fish enough water and oxygen to last through the roughly 24-hour journey of loading docks, cargo holds and customs inspections until their arrival and acclimation into the tanks at the stateside warehouses on Fish Street. About 98% of the fish from Nadi Airport in Fiji survive the flights.
The puffer arrives in seemingly good health. He is part of a shipment that includes coral and the other puffers collected by Kurulo. In a few days Eric Hartung, the owner of L.A. Aquarium, selects the puffers out of the thousands of fish offered by the Fish Street warehouses each day.
Alex Bouchet, a sixth-grader from Mar Vista with an interest in ocean life, walks into L.A. Aquarium that weekend and scans the rows of bubbling tanks. The 11-year-old is quickly drawn to the blue-and-orange puffer and hands over $13 for the fish.
Once again the little puffer gets packed into a plastic bag for the journey to yet another home, half a world away from his native reef. He goes into a 15-gallon aquarium on a table in Alex's bedroom.
The puffer, now named Roy, swims in the tank, is fed after Alex gets home from trombone lessons and football practices each day, and sleeps pressed up against a large rock in the aquarium.
But in less than eight weeks from the day Kurulo netted the puffer out of the reef, Alex looks into his tank and discovers that Roy is dead. It might have been the water chemistry, a disease picked up in transit or merely the stress of the long journey and the series of increasingly smaller homes.
Meanwhile, a new shipment of puffers has arrived at Fish Street.


I have many times debated this...the facts of owner abuse, collection, and shipping. To no avail, I am glad that they will certify the fish :) this really makes me feel good about buying a fish...but after you buy it, its in your hands, fish should only be sold to willing and able buyers, there tanks should be inspected somehow before the purchase. Shame there are people like Alex out there, that would abuse a fish or coral like that. :(
Heres my big guy :) hes in a 150 gallon with a friend right now, untill I can get a bigger tank, or stabalize mine, what beaute :D
This the same subject I was thinking of doing my research paper on for English. But I don't know if I can it is too sad.


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I don't find it all bad or all sad. I find a lot of hope in it. 98% survival rate from Fiji to LA?? that is fincredible? I think it will take regulations and constant vigiliance - plus those of us reefers who are knowledgeable and caring need to take steps to make sure that we do our part to preserve the reefs of the world!!
Conserve and grow your own!!
Thanks for the excellent article!!


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This should be made sticky for a little while. It really is an enlightening article that all hobbyists should take the time to read. I agree, that growing a reef is the best way to go.


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I third that opinion that reefs should be "Home Grown." Only a few species of fish at this time are currently being bred in captivity. Hopefully over the years, many fish will start to be bred in captivity. These fish wouldn't have any impact on the natural reefs, and would be much hardier compared to the wild caught fish.
Very few people take time to realize where their fish actually came from, before it was at your Local Fish Store. Very few people realize the problems which can occur from this stress associated from travling across the world. These fish don't just magically appear in your LFS's show tanks, or holding aquariums. They travle around the world, and survived the odds of living through the travel just to be your aquarium. Many people who buy these fish put them in improper aquariums (I.E.:, Too small of an aquarium, too young of an aquarium, too many fish already in the aquarium, etc.), where they're forced to live a life in stress and pain.
It's said that a Blue Face Angelfish is known, in the wild, to roam an area as large as a football feild. In captivity, they're usually stuck in 200 gallon aquariums. Even though this can be considered "Large," it doesn't even come slightly close to what this fish would have in the wild.
I hope in the near future, fish can be captive bred, and that wild fish will not be imported for the aquarium trade. This would make a huge impact on the hobby.