Coastal Fisheries Programme

Number 3 - December 1997

Editor and Group Coordinator: Bob Johannes

Production: Information Section, Marine Resources Division, SPC, PO BOX D5, 98848 Noumea Cedex, New Caledonia Fax (687) 263818)

Prepared with financial assistance from Australia, France and New Zealand.

From the Editor


There has been a major upswing in support for measures to put the live reef fish trade on a sustainable basis. WWF, TNC, IMA, USAID, ADB, NACA, WRI and a variety of other acronymous NGOs and aid agencies have thrown their support behind the effort, and this publication continues to describe their work. But how successful are we?

We know that a few battles have been won at local levels, such as the line-fishing cooperative at Canipo Island in the Philippines (see Barber & Pratt). But we have no idea if we are winning or losing the overall war. A major problem is the difficulty of getting good statistics.

The biggest gap in our statistics is our almost total ignorance of the trade in China. Hong Kong importers say that mainland China is presently vying with Hong Kong as the biggest importer of live reef fish in the world, but we have no statistics with which to confirm this.

China may also be the largest grouper farming country in the world, but I have been unable to get any details concerning species, sources of wild-caught juveniles, the extent, if any, of commercial hatchery-based production, etc. Any information readers might supply on any of these subjects would be gratefully received and passed on to readers.

We also have no statistics for internal consumption of live reef fish in southeast Asian countries. Yet there is a sizeable wealthy Chinese population in most of them, with a taste for live reef fish.

Observers in the Philippines and Indonesia say that foreign live reef-fish transport vessels often enter their waters, load up with live fish, and leave without registering their presence or activities officially (see, for example, Erdman & Pet-Soede). Export statistics from these countries naturally do not include these fish. Since, in the Philippines, all fish shipped out through official channels will now be checked for cyanide (see Barber & Pratt) there is now an increased incentive to ship fish out surreptitiously by this method.

The authorities have proven unable to stop this illegal export in either country. One of the two main reasons is the shortage of manpower and suitable vessels for surveillance and enforcement. The other is corruption.


It is no secret that corruption among government officials and the military is rampant in Indonesia. Laws and regulations are often obstacles only for those unable to pay. Herman Cesar of the World Bank estimates that 6.7 per cent of the direct costs of cyanide fishing in Indonesia go for ‘side-payments’– a quaint World Bank euphemism for bribes. Of how much value are improved laws and regulations under such circumstances?

At least as recently as late 1996, humphead wrasse in excess of the maximum legal size in Indonesia were arriving in Hong Kong in large numbers in live reef-fish transport vessels bearing export permits signed by Indonesian officials (V. Pratt, pers. comm.)

Similar corruption is also widespread in the Philippines (see Barber & Pratt), although, to its credit, the Ramos government is making a more serious effort to control it than is evident in Indonesia. (The humphead wrasse problem in Indonesia may ‘solve’ itself fairly soon, as it has already in the Philippines. The reefs of the latter country seem to have been almost denuded of mature humphead wrasse by the live reef-fish trade; there appear to be almost none left in Philippine waters to export (V. Pratt, pers. comm.)

Twenty years ago corruption was not a major problem in the Pacific Islands. But times are changing. The newspapers in the region are full of accounts of government corruption and bribery. The logging industry is an especially flagrant example. Here foreign companies, most of them from South-east Asia, bribe their way into lucrative logging deals and leave the forests ravaged, traditional forest owners desolated, and certain politicians smiling all the way to the bank.

There is little publicity, as yet, concerning similar deals being made in connection with the much more recently introduced live reef-food fishery. But the new gold rush has begun, venture capital is plentiful in the main countries involved in these operations, and the resource pirates are gathering. There is thus no reason why reef resources will not, like forest resources, be sacrificed wholesale to greed, unless government vigilance is much greater than it has been in the case of logging.

There are some principled people in the live reef-fish industry, to whom the foregoing comments do not apply. But the record of the industry as a whole is so bad that such people will, unfortunately, have an uphill battle to prove their good intentions (and possibly an even bigger battle to survive the unprincipled actions of their competitors).

What else can we learn from the sad experiences of logging in the Pacific Islands in the past decade?

One is that, if governments allow unsophisticated traditional fishing-rights owners to negotiate live-fishery agreements directly with foreign companies, the latter will be grossly disadvantaged. They will run a high risk of being ripped off, just like traditional Pacific Island land owners in their dealings with foreign logging companies.

Another is that well-constructed permits for live reef fishing operations with sound safeguards written into them (see A.J. Smith), are of little value if governments do not act promptly to punish or ban those companies who violate their permit conditions.

A third is that violations of indigenous land rights by logging companies often proved to be easy; it will be even easier to violate indigenous fishing rights when the resources and the activities that destroy them are both out of sight beneath the surface.

Island governments should allow no one but their Fisheries Departments to negotiate contracts directly with foreign live-fishing companies. If they do, they run a high risk of contracts highly disadvantageous to the country, both economically and environmentally. Such contracts can be (and in at least one case, have already been) rushed through before anyone with a proper understanding of the issues and threats had a chance to review them.

To be sure, fisheries departments are not always free of political or economic pressure to turn a blind eye to destructive fishing. But the chances of it happening are reduced when they are helped to become aware of the issues (see A.J. Smith) and are the sole agencies for licensing live reef-fishing operations. And if it does happen, the search for those who allowed it to happen is greatly narrowed.

In 1993, the Secretary to the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources in Papua New Guinea stated that he had been offered, and turned down, a total of US$ 23,000 in bribes (Anon. 1993. Fisheries ‘Bribes’ in PNG. South Seas Digest 13: 7, 18 June). We commend such behaviour, as well as that of island officials who have enforced restrictions or rejected unsatisfactory applications despite considerable pressure. We know of several islanders who have been, or still are, taking considerable heat for their stands. We can be pretty sure, however, that pressures or inducements are being brought to bear on other Island officials, and that not all of them will be this principled.

It is governments with whom the primary responsibility lies for ensuring sustainable use of their countries’ renewable natural resources. The ultimate blame for destructive live reef-fishing practices thus lies more with governments that do not make serious efforts to regulate the industry, than with the industry itself. Aid donors might consider shifting their aid for fisheries from such countries to those with more responsible governments.

Bob Johannes


Effects of cyanide on coral
Jones R.J. (pdf: 215 KB)
Bahrain fish stock enhancement: Lessons learned and prospects for the future
Uwate K.R., Shams A.J. (pdf: 127 KB)
Grouper spawning aggregations need protection
Johannes R.E. (pdf: 77 KB)
Live reef fisheries activities in the Republic of the Marshall Islands
Smith A. (pdf: 69 KB)
Grouper aquaculture in Australia
Rimmer M., O'Sullivan M., Gillespie J., Young C., Hinton A., Rhodes J. (pdf: 147 KB)
Policy reform and community-based programmes to combat cyanide fishing in Philippines
Barber C.V., Pratt V.R. (pdf: 139 KB)
Pacific Islands target live reef fisheries management
Anon. (pdf: 85 KB)
Doomed fishermen
Jacques M. (pdf: 96 KB)
Reducing the incidence of the bends in Indonesian fishing villages: Education may not be enough
Johannes R.E., Djohani R. (pdf: 43 KB)
How fresh is too fresh? The live reef food fish trade in Eastern Indonesia
Erdmann M.V., Pet-Soede L. (pdf: 108 KB)
Australia bans exports of wild-caught seahorses
Moreau M.-A. (pdf: 72 KB)
Management suggestions for the sustainable development of live reef fish food fisheries in the Pacific Islands region
Smith A. (pdf: 100 KB)


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