After diving into the warm seas off the coast of North Bali, Indonesia, Made Partiana hovers over a coral bed, holding its breath and searching for flashes of color and movement. Hours later, he returns exhausted to a rocky beach, lugging plastic bags filled with his stinging, exquisite prey: tropical fish of all shades and shapes.
Millions of such saltwater fish are caught each year in Indonesia and other countries to fill increasingly elaborate aquariums in living rooms, waiting rooms and restaurants around the world with vibrant, otherworldly life.
“It’s just so much fun just watching the antics between different species of fish,” said Jack Siravo, a Rhode Island fish enthusiast who started building aquariums after an accident and now owns four saltwater tanks. He calls the fish “an endless source of fascination”.
But the long journey from places like Bali to places like Rhode Island is dangerous for the fish and the reefs they come from. Some are captured with cyanide squirts to stun them. Many die along the way.
And even when they’re carefully caught by people like Partiana, experts say global demand for these fish is contributing to the degradation of vulnerable coral ecosystems, particularly in key exporting countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
Efforts have been made to curb some of the most destructive practices such as cyanide trapping. But the trade is extraordinarily difficult to regulate and track as it stretches from small fishermen in tropical coastal villages, to local intermediaries, export warehouses, international trading hubs, and finally to pet shops in the US, China, Europe and elsewhere.
“There is no enforcement, no management, no data collection,” said Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, founder of LINI, a Bali-based non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and management of coastal marine resources.
That leaves enthusiasts like Siravo in the dark.
“Consumers often don’t know where their fish came from and they don’t know how they’re collected,” said Andrew Rhyne, professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
Stunned by cyanide
Most ornamental saltwater fish species are caught in the wild because captive breeding can be expensive, difficult, and often impossible. The conditions they need to reproduce are extremely specific and poorly understood, even by scientists and experienced breeders who have been trying for years.
The collecting and exporting of small scale saltwater aquarium fish began in Sri Lanka in the 1930s and the trade has grown steadily ever since. According to a 2021-2022 survey by the American Pet Products Association, nearly 3 million U.S. households keep saltwater fish as pets. (Freshwater aquariums are much more common because freshwater fish are generally cheaper and easier to breed and care for.) About 7.6 million saltwater fish are imported into the United States each year.
Cyanide has been used in a common fishing technique for decades, with devastating consequences for fish and marine ecosystems.
Fishermen crush the blue or white pellets into a bottle filled with water. The diluted cyanide forms a toxic mixture that fishermen spray onto coral reefs where fish normally hide in crevices. The fish are temporarily stunned, allowing fishermen to easily pluck or scoop them from the coral.
Many die in transit, weakened by the cyanide – meaning more fish must be caught to meet demand. The chemicals damage living coral and make it difficult for new coral to grow.
Cyanide trapping has been banned in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, but enforcement of the law remains difficult and experts say the practice persists.
Part of the problem is geography, explains Reksodihardjo-Lilley. In the vast archipelago of Indonesia there is approximately 34,000 miles (54,720 kilometers) of coastline on some 17,500 islands. This makes overseeing the first step of the tropical fish supply chain such a daunting task that it is almost ignored.
“We’ve worked at the national level and tried to get the national government to pay attention to ornamental fish in Indonesia, but it fell on deaf ears,” she said.
Indonesian officials counter that there are laws that require exporters to meet quality, sustainability, traceability and animal welfare requirements. “We will arrest anyone engaging in destructive fishing. There are penalties for that,” said Mahmoud, an official with Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, who uses only one name.
“No real record”
Another obstacle to monitoring and regulating trade is the rapid pace at which fish can move from one place to another, making it difficult to trace their origins.
A fish export warehouse in Denpasar can ship thousands of fish a day to the large, industrial-style facility tucked away off a main road in Bali’s largest city. Trucks and motorbikes come with white styrofoam coolers stuffed with plastic bags full of fish from around the archipelago. The fish are quickly unpacked, sorted into tanks or new plastic bags and supplied with fresh seawater. Carcasses of those who died in transit are dumped in a basket or on the sidewalk and later thrown in the trash.
Some fish stay in storage in small rectangular tanks for weeks, while others are shipped quickly in plastic bags in boxes to fulfill orders from the US, Europe and other countries. According to data provided by Indonesian government officials to The Associated Press, the US was the largest importer of saltwater aquarium fish from the country.
Once the fish are flown halfway around the world from Indonesia to the US by plane, they are inspected by the Fish and Wildlife Service, who cross-check the shipment against customs declaration forms.
But that is to ensure no protected fish like the endangered Banggai cardinal are imported. The process cannot determine whether the fish was caught legally.
A US law known as the Lacey Act prohibits the trade in fish, wildlife or plants that have been illegally caught, possessed, transported or sold – under the laws of the country of origin or sale. That means any fish caught with cyanide in a country that bans it could be illegally imported or sold in the US
But that doesn’t help much if you can’t tell how the fish was caught. For example, there is no test that gives accurate results on whether a fish was caught with cyanide, said Rhyne, Roger Williams’ marine biologist.
“The reality is that the Lacey Act doesn’t get used very often because there generally isn’t any real record or way of enforcing it,” Rhyne said.
In the absence of rigorous national enforcement, conservation groups and local fishermen have long worked to reduce cyanide catches in places like Les, a well-known saltwater aquarium fishing village nestled between mountains and ocean in northern Bali.
Partiana started catching fish—with cyanide—just after elementary school, when his parents could no longer afford to pay for his education. Each catch would help bring a few dollars of income to his family.
But over the years, Partiana noticed that the reef was changing. “I saw the reef die and go black,” he said. “You could see that there were fewer fish.”
He became part of a group of local fishermen who were being taught by a local conservation organization how to use nets, tend the reef and patrol the area to protect themselves from cyanide use. He later became the organization’s head trainer and has trained more than 200 other aquarium fishermen across Indonesia in the use of less harmful techniques.
Reksodihardjo-Lilley says this type of local education and training should be expanded to reduce harmful fishing. “People can see that they benefit directly from reef health.”
For Partiana, who is now the father of two children, it is not only to his advantage. “I hope that (healthier) coral reefs will enable the next generation of kids and grandkids under me.” He wants them “to be able to see what coral looks like and that there can be ornamental fish in the ocean.”
A world away in Rhode Island, Siravo, the fish lover, shares Partiana’s hopes for a less destructive saltwater aquarium industry.
“I don’t want any fish that isn’t collected sustainably,” he says. “Because I can’t get fish tomorrow if I buy (unsustainably caught fish) today.”
Associated Press video journalist Kathy Young reported from New York. Marshall Pinion contributed to this report from Rhode Island. Edna Tarigan contributed from Jakarta.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.