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Issue: September 2007

The Future of the Marine Aquarium Hobby Is in Your Hands

Author: Paul Holthus

Photographer: Courtesy of MAC
MAC News: September 2007

Aquarium keepers everywhere experience the frustration of purchasing marine organisms that—despite their best efforts—do not survive under their experienced care. At the same time we have all been hearing the stories about the use of deadly cyanide to capture fish, and the stress fish, corals, and other marine ornamentals are often subjected to by improper handling, inadequate facilities, poor water quality, overcrowding, etc. Putting two and two together, we can’t help but wonder if the inexplicable loss of these just-purchased fish or coral was caused by cyanide fishing, unacceptable stress from shoddy practices, or other causes beyond our control.

On top of that, we hear that collectors of marine ornamentals in poor countries barely earn a living. Even more disturbing are the reports that fishers are paralyzed by the “bends,” or even dying, from diving too deep and too long in order to bring us the fish we want. Meanwhile, more and more articles appear in the news on the global coral reef crisis that point out destructive fishing practices in the aquarium trade as a part of the problem, leading to calls from governments and advocacy groups to shut down the trade.

There is a sense of frustration and helplessness about all this. As an aquarium keeper, we want to do the right thing. Although there are many in the marine ornamental trade who care about the health of the reef, the fisheries, the animals, and the coastal communities and so use good practices, there are also many who do not. We want to buy fish and coral from a reputable source that deals in clean fish and quality practices—but how do we tell the difference from among all the suppliers out there with all their claims? Eventually, after much trial and error, some of us may find a supplier that provides high-quality, healthy aquarium organisms for a while.

Most of us would prefer to support this kind of retailer and reward them with our business—and in turn experience the rewards of having healthy animals in our tank. We wonder how we can find these businesses, and why the entire industry can’t operate like this. The problem, of course, is that there is no way for us to really know the quality of the marine ornamentals we are buying and the practices they have been subjected to from the moment they were caught on the reef to the day we saw them in our local fish shop.

The solution to this is literally in your hands. The single most important force in the marine aquarium industry is the hobbyist’s purchasing power. The hard-earned money you pay out for the animals you care about can transform this industry into one that must adopt and adhere to standards for quality, responsibility, and sustainability. You may be thinking that there is no way a system can be set up that you can really trust to address all these issues. This has changed. The Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) is working to transform the future of the marine aquarium industry by:

• Developing international standards for quality products and sustainable practices;

• Implementing certification for responsible companies complying with these standards; and

• Creating consumer demand and confidence for MAC Certified marine ornamentals.

To put it simply, MAC is creating a way for you to demand with your dollar that the marine ornamental industry supply you with a fish or coral that has been caught, handled, and cared for according to verifiable standards of “best practice.”

Who is MAC?

Why should you trust such a system, and who nominated MAC to think that it could “set the standards”? Well, before there was MAC, there was an international group of people from the aquarium industry, conservation organizations, international organizations, public aquariums, hobbyists groups and elsewhere that had been working together to see if there was some way to:

• Address concerns about the effects of destructive fishing and poor handling practices on marine ornamentals and their habitat;

• Respond to the interests of aquarium keepers for organisms supplied through verified responsible, sustainable practices; and

• Support decent livelihoods and safe conditions for collectors.

In 1998, this group tasked me with setting up the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) as a non-profit organization to work with the communities, collectors, and industry operators and other stakeholders to create and implement standards, certification, and labeling. The MAC Board of Directors, which brings together individuals from all the different interest groups, articulated MAC’s mission “to conserve coral reefs and other marine ecosystems by creating standards and certification for those engaged in the collection and care of ornamental marine life from reef to aquarium.” When MAC started, there were enough funds for an initial 9 months of activity, and the organization consisted of only one person for the first two years. A large amount of time and effort is taken up in raising the funds necessary to do the work, and reporting to those donors who are generous enough to support efforts to achieve a sustainable future for the marine aquarium trade.

Creating International Standards for a Trade You Can Trust

The “chain of custody” for the marine aquarium trade is complex and fragmented. It flows from poor, isolated rural villages in developing countries to retailers in the world’s most modernized societies—a fundamental challenge in creating a comprehensive system of standards. In addition, no one had previously developed international standards for a live animal trade in which every step of the supply chain plays a critical role in the quality and health of the product.

From 1998 to 2001, workshops were conducted, along with international “Standards Advisory Groups” and a public review process, to develop, review, and revise the three international MAC Standards that were launched in November 2001. Participation in the MAC process has always been open to those interested in contributing constructively to the development of standards, certification, and labeling to transform the marine ornamental industry. The wide range of stakeholders concerned about the impacts and future of the marine aquarium trade led to a wide variety of ideas and opinions about what should be included in the standards, “how high the bar should be set” in the requirements, and how complex the certification system should be.

It was very difficult to develop a reasonable compromise on some issues, and there will always be some who are critical of the MAC Standards that have been established. The MAC Standards and Advisory Committee is a multi-stakeholder body reporting to the MAC Board, which provides the means to review and revise the standards.

The standards that emerged cover the entire chain of custody, “from reef to retail,” and are being complemented by a fourth standard on aquaculture, providing the possibility for traceability of the marine ornamental from the collection on the reef, or from the aquaculture facility, until it is sold at a retailer.

MAC Standards

1) The Ecosystem and Fishery Management (EFM) Standard ensures that the aquarium fishery stocks of a collection area are managed for a sustainable harvest and conservation of the reef, based on scientific assessment and monitoring to support stock management and conservation through marine protected areas.

2) The Collection, Fishing, and Handling (CFH) Standard requires that no cyanide or other destructive harvesting methods are used and that good practices are used in taking care of the animals from the time they are collected to the time they reach an export facility.

3) The Handling, Husbandry, and Transport (HHT) Standard confirms that best practices are used during export, import, and retail to ensure optimal health, segregation of uncertified organisms, and documentation to show that MAC Certified animals pass along a chain of certified facilities.

4) The Mariculture and Aquaculture Management (MAM) Standard versifies best practices in the propagation and culturing of marine aquarium organisms.

To be sold as MAC Certified, a marine ornamental must pass through an unbroken MAC Certified chain of custody; meaning that it is exclusively passed from one MAC Certified entity to another one, all the way from the MAC Certified collection area to the MAC Certified retailer. This is the only way to assure to each buyer, and ultimately to the hobbyist, that a MAC Certified organism comes from collection areas and is caught and handled in accordance to the MAC Standards.

MAC Certification: Is It Working?

There is a steady and increasing flow of MAC Certified marine ornamentals moving “from reef to retail.” In the Philippines and Indonesia, MAC is working in 14 collection areas covering 22,947 hectares of reef areas. Eleven of these areas are MAC Certified, with collection area management plans (CAMPs) covering 15,085 hectares of reef and Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limits to ensure that harvesting is sustainable; 718 collectors and traders in the Philippines and Indonesia have been trained in non-destructive harvesting methods and 540 are MAC Certified.

In the second half of 2006, 132,473 marine ornamentals were shipped from MAC assisted areas in Indonesia and the Philippines. The average fish mortality rate (from collection areas to exporters) was 0.31% in the Philippines and 3% in Indonesia. In the Pacific, shipments from a long-established exporter in Fiji are 100% MAC Certified. In addition, there are several certified culturing facilities: one in the UK (fish) and two in Hawai‘i (fish and live rock).

The number of MAC Certified exporters and importers has kept pace with the available supply:

Exporters: Fiji (2), Indonesia (6), Philippines (10), Singapore (1)

Importers: US (4), Canada (1), France (4), Germany (1), the Netherlands (2), Singapore (1), UK (3)

Retailers: US (4), France (2), Singapore (1), Philippines (1)

While more work is needed to improve the number of retailers participating in the system, the prospects for this are promising, with 150 companies in 23 countries having expressed their intentions to become MAC Certified. All MAC Certified suppliers, and the list of those having expressed interest by signing the MAC “Statement of Commitment and Support,” are listed on the MAC website.

As a result, there is steady growth in the volume and variety of MAC Certified marine ornamentals available to hobbyists. Over 200 species of MAC Certified fish have been available in the US from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Fiji and from MAC Certified aquaculture facilities in the UK and the US, along with MAC Certified cultured live rock from Hawai‘i.

After the MAC Standards were established, there were overly optimistic expectations about how quickly collection areas and collectors could become MAC Certified and begin supplying MAC Certified marine ornamentals. The training of collectors and the work with communities and local governments to establish managed reef areas has taken longer than expected. This, coupled with problems of erratic supply volume, variety, and quality from the initial MAC Certified areas, led to delays that are now being resolved. There is major effort to ensure collectors have the knowledge and skills for harvesting and handling marine ornamentals needed to comply with MAC Standards. We are similarly working to build the capacity of communities and collectors to develop and implement collection area management plans. On another front, MAC has partnered to provide business training and mentoring for collectors, to ensure they have the business skills and financial resources needed to participate in a sustainable trade.

A key challenge now is to ensure that the maximum possible number of MAC Certified marine ornamentals originating from MAC Certified collecting areas get sold to MAC Certified buyers along the way. Because of the improved quality of MAC Certified animals, there are many others competing for access to these organisms. MAC is working with certified industry members around the world to ensure they are aware of the volume and variety of MAC Certified marine ornamentals available to them, and that they are in contact with each other in order to optimize the volume of MAC Certified marine ornamentals reaching the market. We are comprehensively reviewing the certification system to make it more efficient, practical, and user friendly—without compromising the ability to deliver on the MAC goals of quality and sustainability.

The Future of the Marine Aquarium Hobby: Your Choice

The facts speak for themselves. MAC Certified collection areas and collectors are supplying an increased volume, variety, and quality of marine ornamentals from managed reefs and with responsible collection methods to a growing number of wholesalers and retailers that are MAC Certified as using best practices.

Marine aquarists and industry operators now have a choice in determining the future of the hobby and trade. When you purchase marine aquarium organisms—whether as a hobbyist, wholesaler or retailer—are you a part of the problem, or a part of the solution? Are you contributing to the destruction of coral reefs, the poor treatment and death of fish, and the poverty, disability, and possibly even the death of marine ornamental collectors? Or are you contributing to the conservation of reefs, the sustainable management of marine ornamental stocks, the use of best practices that ensure fish health, and sustainable livelihoods for impoverished collectors?

The many communities, collectors, and companies that have made the commitment to be sustainable and responsible providers of marine ornamentals deserve your support. Informed buyers of marine ornamentals can lead the way to a trade that supports healthy reefs, healthy animals, healthy conditions for collectors, and healthy businesses. The choice is yours. The future of the marine aquarium hobby is in your hands.

See the full article on TFH Digital

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