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UF Expert Helps Promote Standards For Saltwater Tropical Fish Industry

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Sherry Larkin, (352) 392-1845, ext. 431
Paul Holthus (808) 550-8217
Denise Petty (813) 677-9196

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Cyanide poisoning may be the stuff of murder mysteries, but it seems an unlikely way for tropical fish or coral reefs to die.

That’s what can happen, though, when divers in Southeast Asia use cyanide to capture valuable fish for sale to the aquarium trade, says a University of Florida expert who’s helping to evaluate standards for proper capture, handling and sale of saltwater tropical fish and invertebrates such as coral, sea anemones and shellfish.

The divers use plastic squirt bottles filled with a diluted cyanide solution to stun fish long enough to net them, said Sherry Larkin, assistant professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“The practice is common in Indonesia and the Philippines, which supply 85 percent of the world’s saltwater aquarium fish,” Larkin said.

The cyanide may later kill the target fish and harm nontarget species, live coral and even the divers themselves, she said. In some areas, entire reef ecosystems are in danger of being destroyed.

“People take shortcuts because it’s profitable,” she said. “We need to remove the profit motive. That’s what industrywide quality control standards could do.”

Larkin, a food and resource economist, is part of the first attempt to develop such standards, led by the Marine Aquarium Council, an international, nonprofit organization based in Honolulu. In November, the council, also known as MAC, launched a certification program to establish and enforce voluntary guidelines for every link in the industry chain that brings marine aquarium organisms from their native waters to retail consumers.

“If a fish is MAC-certified, everybody knows what they’re getting,” Larkin said. “They know destructive collecting practices weren’t used and that the fish was handled with appropriate regard for its health.”

With 1 million saltwater aquarium hobbyists, the United States accounts for more than half the worldwide demand for marine aquarium organisms, said Paul Holthus, executive director of MAC. While captive breeding efforts are slowly increasing, about 98 percent of marine ornamental fish and invertebrates currently sold are captured in the wild.

Larkin is conducting research to predict possible demand for MAC-certified organisms from saltwater aquarium hobbyists.

“It’s too early to give a definitive answer,” Larkin said. “This hobby attracts environmentally conscious people, but saltwater tropical fish are expensive and we know that price is a pivotal factor in hobbyists’ buying decisions. We’re waiting to see if MAC-certified fish will cost more than their uncertified counterparts.”

It’s a question MAC is attempting to resolve.

“We believe the program will save money by reducing mortality,” Holthus said. “Today, there are situations where 15 percent to 20 percent of each shipment dies before the fish are offered for retail sale. MAC guidelines allow a maximum of 1 percent dead on arrival and 1 percent dead after arrival, for each link in the industry supply chain. Most shipments pass through about four of these links after harvest — that is, from collector to exporter to importer to retailer.”

Holthus said MAC also will benefit the industry by reducing veterinary costs associated with improperly handled organisms, maintaining a centralized database on sales figures and trends, improving the industry’s relationship with governments and generating positive publicity for the hobby.

He said industry support for MAC certification is strong, but some in the industry have expressed concern regarding the program’s possible effect on profit.

“Educating consumers will be critical to our success,” he said. “They need to ask retailers for MAC-certified organisms. We’re planning awareness campaigns for major markets like New York and Los Angeles, which should begin once we have a substantial number of certified suppliers.”

This spring, MAC should issue its first certifications, Holthus said. Currently, 50 business entities in the United States and abroad have committed to becoming MAC-certified, including exporters, importers and retailers.

Certification will be overseen by independent, MAC-accredited agencies, he said. Candidates begin the process by conducting a self-assessment and then receive advice on any problem areas. Finally, the certifying agency makes an on-site assessment; if the candidate is in compliance, certification is issued along with advertising materials, notably labels to indicate MAC-certified facilities and organisms.

Many of the larger industry producers already follow policies similar to MAC standards, said Denise Petty, staff veterinarian for Gibsonton, Fla.-based Segrest Farms, one of the world’s largest importers of saltwater tropical fish and invertebrates. The firm is Florida’s only current candidate for MAC certification.

“We helped MAC develop some of its standards, based on our 40 years of experience,” Petty said. “Long-time producers recognize that sustainable practices are the key to this industry’s continuing success. Hopefully, everyone else will see it that way, too.”


NOTE: Further information about the Marine Aquarium Council is available at the organization’s Web site,