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International Waters: Industry Unfairly Attacked … Again!


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Just because fish are collected from the wild (such as here, on the Rio Negro), it doesn’t mean that this activity is illegal or criminal, as claimed by European Member of Parliament Catherine Bearder and others.

John Dawes

The ornamental aquatic sector is a “huge industry” in which fish are “just taken from the wild. Very many of those are endangered and protected species, so there’s criminal activity there.” These are the words of European Member of Parliament (MEP) Catherine Bearder, who chaired the press conference associated with the launch of the MEPs for Wildlife Group in March in Brussels.

Since this latest installment of International Waters is appearing a few months after the event, I cannot report on all the developments that will have occurred in the intervening period. However, I can report on the immediate reaction within the industry, which was damning of the statement and took steps to set the record straight.

If you view the video of the press conference, you will note (at around the 15-second mark) that the statement is made with the sort of confidence and conviction that only is possible if you really know that what you are talking about actually is true or, presumably, if you are a politician. The fact of the matter is that neither MEP Bearder nor anyone who thinks like her is right. They are way off the mark.

John Dawes

More than 90 percent of all freshwater fish are imported into, or bred and reared in, modern high-quality establishments such as this, with special attention being paid to the health and welfare of the fish.

More than 90 percent of the freshwater fish in trade are bred in captivity, leaving the wild harvest at below 10 percent. In marines, the situation is reversed, but whereas a decade or two ago the percentage of captive-bred or captive-reared specimens stood at less than 10 percent, it has soared since then, although we don’t, at the moment, have accurate figures for this sector.

There is no denying that wild-caught fish are important in the industry, but just because they are collected rather than bred does not mean that they are criminally harvested. Therefore, to make such statements is incorrect and irresponsible. Had MEP Bearder researched the subject in any detail, and if she had taken the abundant evidence that exists on board, she would not have said what she did (one suspects).

Had she studied the subject, she wouldn’t have referred to the ornamental aquatic industry as “huge,” either. To put matters into perspective, the wild ornamental harvest amounts to some 150 tons annually. The food fish industry, on the other hand, throws some 6.28 million tons out of the 79.7 million tons of fish netted every year back into the sea as dead by catch. Looking at these figures, is our industry really as “huge” as MEP Bearder claims? No, of course not.

Sharing the top table with Bearder was Daniel Turner of the Born Free Foundation. His organization recently published a report titled End Wildlife Trafficking: Recommendations for an EU Action Plan on Illegal Wildlife Trade. This report adds further to the negative picture being painted about the ornamental aquatic industry by highlighting it as part of the wildlife trafficking problem, actually claiming that “a significant proportion of this trade is illegal.” It also states that “For every one wild animal captured and sold as a pet, up to 50 are killed or die in transit. Seventy percent of these animals may die in the first six weeks.”

This report caries a supporting quote from Prince William, the U.K.’s future king. Obviously, he doesn’t possess all (any?) of the details relating to aquatics, but is nonetheless lumping our industry in with all the others and is accusing us of illegal trafficking.

As soon as news of the press conference and the Born Free report reached the trade, there was widespread concern, and a certain degree of frustration, at the way the statistics and facts relating to ornamental aquatics were being ignored, or hadn’t been researched.

Without wasting any time, the U.K.’s Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA) wrote to MEP Bearder challenging her remarks, while at the same time supporting the fight against illegal trafficking.

In his letter, Keith Davenport, OATA’s chief executive, said: “We stand against the trafficker and always will and resent any phrase or set of words that insinuate our legal activities are in any way comparable to the criminal activity of wildlife trafficking. OATA does not and will not support illegal (criminal) activity.”

He then goes on to say: “I would be very interested to see your evidence for making these statements. Unless you are able to [provide evidence], I hope you will take the time to correct these misleading statements in as public a platform as this press conference.” He also points out that her statement that many of the fish imported are “endangered and protected” is wrong.

She is then invited to visit either a well-respected retailer or importer to gain a more realistic view of the industry, and to get acquainted with poverty-alleviating and environmentally friendly projects such as Project Piaba (Rio Negro) and the Indonesian Nature Foundation (LINI).

Much as I would like to see MEP Bearder taking up these invitations, experience has taught me to not feel overly optimistic; likewise regarding OATA’s invitation to Prince William.

In the Prince William letter, Davenport says: “I would just ask that you realize the harm these sweeping and frankly, unsubstantiated, statements can do to legitimate businesses that contribute to the U.K. economy—and who provide valuable and sustainable livelihoods to people in remote coastal and river communities across the globe.”

After emphasising the error in referring to the illegality of the aquatic sector, Davenport adds a diplomatic but rightly “scolding” note of advice: “So I am writing to ask that in future you remember that not all exotic pets are ‘bad’ and perhaps you would like to comment on the economic and environmental good that honest trade can bring to poorer communities with few alternative sources of income.”

Ornamental Fish International (OFI) also has written to MEP Bearder, echoing OATA’s concerns and requesting a meeting. At the time of writing, neither OFI nor OATA had received a response. Roberto Hensen, the OFI secretary-general, was, however, hopeful of speaking to Bearder at a wildlife conference on May 5, after which a statement would be made. Once again, it might be overly optimistic to expect such a meeting to come about, but let’s wait and see.

For the full text of the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association press release, including links to the Catherine Bearder video and the letter to her, visit http://www.ornamentalfish.org/uncatogorized/oata-challenges-mep-over-criminal-activity-remarks

To view the Born Free Foundation report, visit http://www.bornfree.org.uk/fileadmin/user_upload/files/reports/EU_Trade_report_0415_FINAL.pdf  

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