For a variety of reasons, the Banggai Cardinalfish issue has grabbed the attention of people from all aspects of the marine aquarium industry. As I have stated before, it is certainly not the most serious issue which faces this industry, but it is one that has received the air time. I have attempted to report on this issue over the past few months in an unbiased fashionn, presenting any and all sides of this complicated issue.
Today I want to share with you (in full--sorry it's long) the thoughts of Alejandro Vagelli, Director of Science & Conservation at the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences and Adjunct Professor in the biology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Alejandro e-mailed me today with the following information, and I requested his permission to share it with you. Much of this information has been shared previously in other forums, but, at the risk of redundancy, it seems appropriate to add it in full here as well. As always, I welcome any comments.
The link (below) will take you to the Live Reef Fish Bulletin, where three articles dealing with the conservation of Banggai cardinalfish were published and can be freely accessed.
I was invited to write a paper about my experience with the proposal to include the Banggai cardinalfish in CITES and its conservation status. In my paper I summarize the biological characteristics of the BC and point out their value from a biological and ecological stand point. I describe the current conservation situation of the species based on data from my last fieldwork in the Banggai Archipelago, including collecting pressure, population situation, and habitat degradation. Then, I relate in some detail what happened with the proposal, from my original recommendation until its defeat at The Hague, exposing the truth about several issues that have been intentionally misrepresented by both government officials and economic interest groups.
With regards to the other two articles dealing with Banggai conservation, I think both are particularly revealing about the truth behind the Indonesian claims of conservation actions directed to the Banggai cardinalfish before the CITES meeting (June 2007).
Also, they show, unfortunately, the official disregard about their compromise about setting a responsible management plan, as promised during the CITES meeting (Lilley was recently contracted by the local government to help to develop a management plan on Banggai cardinalfish, but to me, his paper is clear evidence of his lack of qualification for this work ). I can tell you that there is no much behind the typical big –fancy names such as “ “Banggai Marine Conservation Area Management”! , but they need to show something at the next meeting! So they are creating now this NGO (LINI) with staff from MAC ( Mr. Lilley ‘s wife is the MAC director –or similar- in Indonesia) and will be spending resources in finding out where the BC populations are , and how they live….. !
I will leave to you the judgment of these contrasted versions of the Banggai cardinalfish reality. However, I want to correct (in bold) a few claims about biological aspects of BC that were published in one Mr. Lilley‘s paper:
Page 3 (intro)...because of concerns from some quarters that over-collection might lead to its extinction in the wild. Several BCF population studies point to this possibility (Kolm and Berglund 2003; Vagelli and Erdmann 2002; author’s observations) but accurate current wild population estimates are still unavailable”
Current wild populations are available and were judged accurate enough to be used by IUCN to included this species in the red list as endangered.
Page 5 According to the collectors, BCF populations occur around many of the 123 islands in the Banggai Archipelago, but there was general agreement among collectors interviewed that these populations may be suffering from overexploitation.
The Banggai Archipelago comprises less than half of their imaginary 123 islands. There are about 60 islands with a size of about 1 km or larger. In fact the Banggai cardinalfish occurs in only 32 islands within the entire Archipelago.
Page 6: BCF live in groups in and among coral heads, anemones, seagrass, jellyfish, and sea urchins (Fig. 4). If the reef is badly degraded or there are high levels of nitrates in the water (i.e. near dwellings, piers and raw sewage outlets), algal growth is encouraged, which in turn promotes the proliferation of black long-spined sea urchins, Diadema setosum. In areas where the coral cover has been destroyed and the reef flat is covered in algae, numerous groups of Diadema sea urchins become the main refuges for BCF
BC living with jellyfish?? (more below) High levels of nitrates? Where? Inside the Banggai harbor? Algae growth caused by nitrates, therefore leading to urchins? This may be part of a marine biology course, but is not the reality in Banggai. There is no connection between urchin use by BC and coral cover being destroyed. Urchins (together with anemones and branching corals) are substrates with which BC is naturally associated. In areas where coral cover is destroyed by dynamite, BC is absent.
The fish were also observed swimming very close to the walls of piers. In other words, it seems likely that, once the reef has been degraded and there are no more corals or seagrass in which BCF can hide, they will “make do” with hiding in the sea urchins, which proliferate when the area becomes covered in algae.
The few piers constructed in the Banggai region do not represent the natural oceanographic environment of the Banggai islands, where over 96% of the BC population is found. Evidently the author is not familiar with published work on the ecology of the species. BC rarely is found in any low cover- rubble -open area. The overwhelming majority of BC inhabit both coral reefs and seagrass beds, which are not being diminished. In fact, the largest group ever localized was found within seagrass beds associated with anemones. After that one, the largest groups were found in both seagrass and coral reef areas associated with urchins.
Although not observed firsthand, the team was told that BCF could occur in significant numbers in association with a certain (unidentified) species of jellyfish. Because BCF have a very low capacity for dispersal, as they do not have a pelagic larval stage, it might be that the jellyfish provide a means of dispersal for BCF by passive drifting on ocean currents. It is important to understand this and other dispersal mechanisms for species management purposes. DNA studies (Hoffman et al. 2005) indicate significant genetic differences within BCF sub-populations, which need to be preserved for the continued well-being of the species.
Let’s assume that BC can disperse pelagically associated with the tentacles of large jellyfish!! able to drift about 30 cm off the bottom without becoming tangled in urchin spines, coral branches, seagrass leaves, etc., and that BC somehow can move away from the reef protected by the jellies (that coincidentally happen to drift where the BC are located and eager to move with them), and assume that they are able to drift with "ocean currents." Now, how can this amazing statement be reconciled with the very next one: that DNA studies by Hoffman et al found such large genetic differences among populations (which is only possible if the populations remain isolated without gene exchange for very long periods of time)??, and how do we reconcile that assumption (which the author found credible enough to mention) with the fact that this species does not occur naturally outside the Banggai Archipelago? Can this occur because the aforementioned ocean currents taking the jellyfish loaded with BC only exist between a few very closely localized islands?
The facts are: a) large (easily seen by the naked eye) jellyfish are conspicuously absent in the Banggais (and it is hard to imagine jellies easily drifting in the shallow areas inhabited by BC). b.) BC do not associate with planktonic jellyfish, nor with any pelagic organism. BC is a sedentary species that remains attached to benthic living substrates. They display highly developed homing behavior and never remain higher than about 1m in the water column above substrates, but more commonly less than half of that height.