The call for a boycott on wild-caught Banggais, for me at least, goes to the heart of something about which I care deeply—the way that the marine aquarium hobby affects the socioeconomics of developing island nations.
While I am not prepared to jump on a soapbox and call foul to the whole “Boycott the Banggai Bandwagon,” I have been disheartened to hear how readily some individuals have completely dismissed the value of a sustainable trade in wild-caught Banggais for collectors and others on the supply side of the trade. A recent article in Tropical Fish Hobbyist about the Banggai situation emphatically stated the following:
Harvest of this species is not an important part of any local economy, and its trade is only supplemental at all levels. There are only about 230 fishers throughout this species' range that collect the fish, representing approximately 0.2 percent of the total human population of the area. At the current payment rate of 1 to 2.5 cents per fish (US$0.01 to 0.025), its economic value, even in a depressed region, is barely significant. It is obvious how little this species' collection helps support needy people.
It is obvious how little this species’ collection helps support needy people? Did he really just write that? Putting aside all other factors for a moment, that comment seems plain insensitive to me.
The author of the article goes on to "do the math,” claiming that 900,000 individual Banggai cardinalfish are exported yearly with a 55% mortality rate between collection and export. As such, he suggests that 1.8 million fish are collected each year, which is 7826 fish per collector per year. This, according to the author, "represents a supplemental income for each collector of between US$78 and US$195 per year."
To a western reader of Tropical Fish Hobbyist, $195—less than many aquarists spend on a single livestock purchase for their aquarium—might seem inconsequential, but let’s turn to someone with a local perspective and see what that person has to say.
To dismiss the local collection of this species as being ‘not an important part of any local economy’ betrays a lack of understanding about conditions here. It also ignores the fact that the collectors are as important to the trade as anybody else in the trade chain, including exporters, importers, and retailers…. While the hobbyists and suppliers in the demand countries may eventually manage to successfully breed this species in a way that is economically viable for them, we are concerned that even less consideration will then be given to the collectors at the supply end, or for the wild stocks. Captive breeding does not necessarily lead to conservation of the species in the wild.
To me, this point is a critical one as well over 90% of all marine aquarium fishes are wild-caught. In other words, the industry will have a connection to collectors and wild stocks at the supply end for the foreseeable future, yet this is not something we tend to talk about. In my opinion, we as an industry should be having the conversation about how our industry affects the socioeconomics of developing nations as least as much as we are so confidently recommending the boycott of a single species about which the data is fiercely debated.
But let’s put the debate about the species aside for a moment and return to the economics of it as put forth by the author of the Tropical Fish Hobbyist article. My connection on the ground in Indonesia has this to say in response to the numbers bandied about in the article:
The assertions that this trade at best provides ‘a supplemental income for each collector of between US$78 and US$195 per year.’, and that a cessation in trade would affect ‘Only a handful of people.’ are being used to justify possible trade restrictions, but from the recent information we have, would seem to be incorrect. These assertions also betray a lack of empathy for the communities for whom this trade is important, and on whom, for the time being at least, the trade in BCF largely depends. We were recently told that, for example, there are currently 30 collectors in Bone Baru, one of the collectors' villages in the Banggai area. They currently receive Rp. 350 (US$ 0.03) for each fish, and can sell up to 700 a week. This converts to 980,000 Rupiah (US$ 86.50) per month, (at 29 Jan 2009 rates), which is about US$1000 a year - significantly higher than the figure quoted above. Of course, this is still only a little under USD 3 a day, and there are a number of variables that affect the amount earned by each collector. These include irregular demand, periods of bad weather, mortality rates and so on, so the collectors' incomes are by no means guaranteed. However, for these collectors and their families, it still represents a significantly higher income than that earned by many of their fellow villagers.
To be clear, I am not advocating that everyone run out and buy a wild-caught Banggai cardinalfish. In fact, I have gone “on the record” stating that I think it is best to NOT buy wild-caught Banggais until more data is available. As I have written previously in this blog and elsewhere though, that data is being collected as we speak. Let's give it some time and support, and, in the interim, I hope we can all move forward with mutual respect while keeping the animals AND the local people in the forefront of our deliberations.