The better aquarium: lights, coral - no cyanide

Swimming in Joe Scavo's basement aquarium are seven brightly colored fish that once swam in the Pacific but now glide past a carefully tended mini-reef. They feed on shrimp and scallops. High-intensity lights mimic the tropical sun.

Nothing is too good for his fish - except, perhaps, how they were caught.

Mr. Scavo and a growing number of hobbyists worry that some of the fish they buy - for $25 to $100 apiece - may have been captured using knockout poisons that damage or destroy ocean reefs. Now, they're getting some help from an unusual alliance. Industry and environmental groups are pressing ahead with a system to ensure that wild ornamental fish are caught and marketed in a sustainable way.

"We're trying to show that, using a responsible approach, you can promote a healthy reef and fish populations," says Paul Holthus, executive director of the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), an alliance of industry and environmental groups, based in Honolulu, that aims to solve the problem at its origin.

In the early 1980s, reports revealed fishermen in the South Pacific switching from nets to cyanide to capture many marine fish destined for home aquariums in the United States and around the world. By squirting the poison into coral formations, divers stunned the ornamental fish, making them easy to catch. But the cyanide also damaged and killed the coral, sickened and killed other fish, and often harmed the divers, too.

Enthusiasts like Scavo had no way of knowing how the South Pacific species they bought had been captured. In the United States, legislation to ban imported marine fish surfaced briefly in Congress a few years ago. But hobbyists and the industry say the best way to save the reefs is to encourage good fishing practices in the region.

So in 2001, industry and environmental groups including the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, World Wildlife Fund, and Nature Conservancy, launched MAC. It educates villagers in the South Pacific about the danger of cyanide use and reeducates them in net-fishing techniques. To win MAC certification, fishing companies and communities have to use best-practices reef management.

"In many cases, they weren't doing destructive fishing, but they didn't have adequate storage facilities or aerators in their boats," says Marshall Meyers, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the Washington lobby group that supports MAC certification. "So we had to show them how to do that."

Aerators and storage tanks ensure that the fish survive once they're caught. Importers have a host of requirements. So do retailers, whose stores must track and report fish mortality and are subject to inspections. The system helps consumers know which fish have been harvested and transported in sustainable ways.

So far, the elaborate system has been slow to catch on. Only 21 companies in nine nations are MAC-certified. But the governments of Fiji and the Philippines - which supply more than 80 percent of ornamental fish - are on board, Mr. Holthus says. Fresh funding this year promises to allow MAC to triple the number of South Pacific workers training fishing communities in Fiji, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other island nations, Mr. Meyers says.

Such initiatives promise to be more important as the hobby grows.

Ownership of exotic fish, once beyond reach for many, has risen, propelled by "Finding Nemo" and other popular movies about fish, a growing number of public aquariums, and cheaper equipment. Worldwide trade in 1,400-plus species of fish - 20 million to 24 million salt-water ornamental fish overall - is a $300 million industry, MAC estimates. Some say it may be larger than that.

Here in the US, although fewer than 1 percent of households have marine aquariums, the number has been growing 2 percent a year since the late 1990s, according to the pet advisory council.

"Not too many hobbyists are aware that some of the fish purchased at stores were caught with toxic chemicals, which is horrifying to us," says Randy Goodlett, northeast region director of American Marinelife Dealers Association in Pittsburgh, part of the MAC alliance. "Some try not to think about it; others are trying to reform the industry."

Scavo, for example, has spent the past six years traveling around New England, quizzing retailers about where their fish were caught and what methods were used in their capture, transport, and shipment. The information he gathers goes to more than 500 members of the Boston Reefers, a club of marine aquarium hobbyists who want to know where the best fish and best practices are, says Scavo, the club's president.

"I've been in touch with every fish store from here to New York," he says. "My organization is all for ethically caught anything."

Instead of vetting stores himself, Scavo would prefer to be able to ask for "MAC certified" fish. He can't do that because the nearest MAC store is in New Jersey. Only five marine aquarium retailers in four states - Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey - are MAC-certified.

At Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J., which tracks all fish from MAC suppliers and their survival rates, the process has been challenging - but rewarding.

"I had a guy come in recently looking for particular fish," says Patrick Donston, the owner. "We were talking about the cyanide problem. And he said, 'I heard you guys don't buy those fish.' People know that drug-caught fish are not healthy. They care very much, they really do."

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