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International Waters: The Banggai Report

Posted: August 29, 2012, 3:45 p.m., EDT

This popular aquarium species’ status in the wild has drawn attention to it, setting the stage for new conservation efforts.

Every once in a while, a new fish hits local fish shops and immediately makes a mark. Usually, the most significant characteristic of this newcomer is that it’s different. It could be its coloration, its shape, or any of several distinguishing factors, but one thing all new introductions have in common is that, singly or in combination, novel characteristics set the new fish apart from the rest and generate curiosity and interest within the trade.

Aquatic Marketplace: The Banggai Report
These healthy Banggai cardinalfish are doing well in an aquarium setting, but not all specimens that are distributed in the aquatics trade are so healthy. Photo by John Dawes
This is precisely what happened when the striking Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) or BCF made its first appearance in the mid 1990s. Since that time, it has never ceased to be in demand; so much so that, not long after its introduction, concerns were raised regarding its status in the wild, with fears that collection for home aquaria was leading to significant declines in populations.

Current Listings
As concerns grew and data from the field began to accumulate, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) decided, in 2007, to list the BCF as endangered. On February 14, 2012, the species was included in Annex D of the European Wildlife Trade Regulation, [Commission Regulation (EU) No. 101/2012].

Annex D is reserved for “some CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix III species for which the EU holds a reservation” and for “some non-CITES species.” Pterapogon Kauderni does not, as yet, appear on any of the three CITES Appendices, so it falls under the latter category—called Annex D—of non-CITES species. Annex D species are further defined as “species…which are imported into the (European) Community in such numbers as to warrant monitoring.”

Therefore, as things stand at the moment:
• There is no CITES control on the BCF trade. The United States proposed its inclusion in Appendix II at CoP 14 (Conference of the Parties which was held from June 3 to 15, 2007), but this did not materialize.
• The IUCN’s listing is some five years out of date (despite the listing, the IUCN does not control trade).
• There is no current prohibition on the import of the species into Europe (monitoring and control are two different things).
• The U.S. does not list the BCF in any legislative document at the moment, meaning that it does not restrict trade in the species.

There have also been calls in the U.S. for hobbyists to boycott wild BCF and stick to captive-bred specimens, but these have not resulted in any statutory controls and trade in wild-caught specimens continues.

Unclear Status
Somewhere along the line, the real plight of the BCF has become unclear, with some writings and forums suggesting or stating that the species is close to extinction. However, those making this claim have done so without hard data.

None of these claims have come from the trade or from those closest to the fish, specifically the Banggai Archipelago collectors, or those involved in the conservation of the species in situ. Also, no one in the trade or any of the Indonesian-based BCF agencies has claimed that the fish occurs in large numbers and doesn’t require protection. On the contrary, everyone has supported the idea of detailed studies leading to a sustainable BCF fishery.

Everyone involved has agreed that there should be some form of in-depth investigation to determine the real situation in the wild, and that the findings should determine what steps should be taken. However, it’s not a question of finding ourselves in a situation where everyone’s expressed concern but no-one’s doing anything. Far from it.

In fact, there’s been a lot going on in Indonesia itself, under the umbrella of Yayasan Alam Indonesia Lestari, or the Indonesia Nature Foundation (LINI), with support from the government and the BCF fishermen themselves. Led by its founder, pioneer marine conservationist Gayatri Lilley, LINI’s mission is “to support the conservation and management of coastal marine resources throughout Indonesia by empowering coastal communities and promoting fairer, more sustainable practices of marine resource use.“

As part of this mission, the foundation has undertaken training courses for divers, population monitoring surveys, conservation measures and many other steps since its founding in 2008.

There’s also close collaboration between LINI and the Banggai Collectors’ Group (Banggai Cardinal Lestari) as part of the joint Save Banggai Fisheries Improvement Project, and as a result BCF mortality levels during transportation have been improved and quotas have been set.

Nonetheless, with the BCF attracting global interest and demand, and with reports of population declines continuing, it’s been difficult, if not impossible, to establish concrete baseline data and control strategies.

Exacerbating the uncertainties has been the incidence of a viral infection which is proving lethal to the BCF. This iridovirus is thought (but not yet proven) to originate in wild populations of the species, and its effects are, obviously, felt throughout the supply chain, right down to home aquaria.

Joint Action Begins
Over the past year or so, it has become clear that the majority opinion shared by those in the industry and those concerned with conservation (the two groups not being mutually exclusive by any means) is that concerted action is needed, including the inclusion of input from sources outside the Banggai Archipelago itself, has become a top priority.

It therefore came as no surprise when, in March 2012, an announcement was made that a team of U.S. scientists was being assembled to fly out to Indonesia to assess the situation, attempt to track the source of the iridovirus disease, explore the possibilities of establishing mariculture operations in the region, and collect healthy BCF broodstock for captive aquaculture research in the U.S.

Launched in the March 2012 online edition of CORAL Magazine (, the idea caught fire and within an incredibly short period of time donations were received from around 150 backers, including members of the trade, to enable a team to fly out in late June to Sulawesi in Indonesia, to join up with Lilley, the LINI team and the scientists from the Gondol Research Institute of Mariculture (GRIM) based in North Bali.

Back home, the main base for the U.S. team is the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory (TAL) at the University of Florida in Ruskin, where three of the team members work. Even before they set off from TAL for the islands, there was great excitement and expectation all-round, both on the part of those directly involved in the project, as well as those of us who had advance news of what was about to be undertaken.

There was also a vital ingredient present, one which enhances the chances of such international projects bearing fruit: mutual respect on both sides. This is beautifully expressed in the words of one of the U.S. scientists, Dr. Matt Wittenrich, who told me before he left: “She (Lilley) and the team at LINI are doing amazing things toward BCF conservation and management, and the team from the University of Florida and CORAL Magazine are fully encouraged that their work is making significant improvements to the trade in this species.”

Numerous Challenges
Gayatri Lilley and the LINI team have, indeed, been doing and are still doing “amazing things,” but there are many challenges that need to be tackled and numerous questions that need to be addressed. Here are just a few that spring to mind:

• What is the actual status of all the wild populations?
• How many of these are there?
• How many introduced populations are there?
• What state are they in?
• How, exactly, is the trade affecting wild BCF numbers?
• Are all populations equally affected by collection for home aquaria?
• To what extent is illegal trade occurring, and how is it affecting numbers?
• Can illegal trade be stopped?
• What is the source of the BCF Iridovirus?
• If it’s present in wild populations, are all populations equally affected, or are some free of the virus, perhaps as a result of genetic differences?
• If the iridovirus is present in all populations, is the health of the fish compromised in any way, or are they immune to it?
• If they are immune, why are aquarium stocks affected, e.g. could handling and/or transportation stresses act as vital triggers?
• If this is the case, how can it be avoided?
• Can virus-free research and breeding stock be obtained if the virus is widespread in the wild?
• Does the concept of mariculture hold any promise for the local fishermen who are not used to this practice, having traditionally earned their livelihood directly from the sea?
• What part, if any, could ex situ captive breeding programs play in the conservation of the species?

Even answering just one of these is likely to prove challenging. Then, as is the nature of things, answering one question will, undoubtedly, raise many more. But a start has to be made somewhere. At least the joint team kicks off with an advantage: it has access to all of the data and groundwork carried out by LINI over the past five years or so.

Some Early Results
We are only in the earliest stages of what is destined to become a long-running journey of discovery and conservation program. Already, though, some interesting information is emerging regarding a multitude of questions relating to the BCF. The following very briefly summarizes just a few aspects of the initial stages of this fast-growing knowledge base.

As expected, there are several introduced populations. For example, there is a well-known introduced population at Luwuk in Central Sulawesi, as well as several lesser-known, or totally unknown, ones in Bali. There’s also another well-known alien population at Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi.

Interestingly, and perhaps contrary to expectations, bearing in mind the highly polluted water in Luwuk harbor, the population there appears to be thriving. As in Lembeh Strait, it could even be proving to be invasive.

Could these introduced fish be collected and exported, rather than those from “natural” habitats? Despite the apparent simplicity of this question, it’s a multi-faceted one that isn’t easily answered, and it raises further questions, especially regarding genetic flow between populations and sub-populations that, in turn, could have significant consequences for the species as a whole.

Moving on to the island of Peleng—more specifically, to Bone Baru, the main center of BCF activity—the team learned that, despite the official legal quota for BCF being 15,000, many more are being collected and exported illegally. Happily, though, local fishermen report that things are improving.

The Banggai Triangle—a small area encompassing three villages on separate islands, so named by Matt Wittenrich—has been identified as being fundamental to the BCF’s future, since it holds over 70 percent of the total BCF population. Taking into consideration the fact that the team covered most of the BCF’s natural range, including the Banggai Triangle, in just one day, its significance becomes self-evident.

Adding further concern to the above-mentioned illegal activity, habitat destruction via blast fishing and cyanide fishing (though not directly for BCF), uncontrolled forest clearing with its consequent devastating and reef-suffocating run-offs, etc., are all proving very real additional threats which need to be addressed.

The coming months and years will reveal much more about the status of, and prospects for, the continued survival of the BCF in the wild, and for the establishment of a sustainable fishery. One central feature will be the findings of the studies currently being undertaken with regard to the iridovirus. At the time of writing, the first results of the investigations being carried out in Indonesia by GRIM were being awaited. These analyses are being backed up by further studies in the U.S.

Amazing Story
The U.S. team went to Indonesia on a discovery mission and returned to base in early July “with an amazing story to tell.” This is gradually evolving and I will keep readers posted via my regular International Waters column.

The challenges are undoubtedly many and daunting, but, as Matt Wittenrich emphasizes, “we are excited and encouraged to have formed great working relationships with both LINI and GRIM on the ground in Indonesia. I truly believe that this is a fantastic relationship…one with real potential to make a difference in the trade.”

Meanwhile, back in Indonesia, Lilley reports that the local agencies and fishermen, “were all excited by the visit of so many foreigners. We learned many things from each other, and shared our knowledge and experiences.”

There is, clearly, positive synergy between all the parties concerned, and long may this continue for the benefit of all, especially the beautiful Banggai cardinalfish.

Shortly after the U.S. team departed from Indonesia, Lilley and her team conducted a monitoring survey of BCF at Bone Baru, Bongo and Teropot. The sites at Bone Baru and Bongo were in No-take Zones and there were slight increases in the densities of both recruits (newest fish) and juveniles. At Teropot, though, where regular collection occurs, the number of adult fish was declining. The team observed some declines elsewhere in areas where sea urchins and anemones are being collected for human consumption (sea urchins and anemones provide habitats for recruits and juveniles).
LINI has therefore asked the District Fishery in Peleng for, “further controls and increased monitoring of BCF collection and trade via the southern part of the Banggai area.” They have also urged the authorities, “to monitor the exploitation of habitats of the BCF juveniles, as this may be affecting the populations of BCF in the wild.”

Acknowledgements: I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Gayatri Lilley and Matt Wittenrich for their invaluable and constant feedback before, during and after the Banggai visit. It is thanks to them I have been able to include much of the information in this report.
Also, Ret Talbot’s field updates published online in CORAL Magazine have been of great value. I urge all interested readers to check these out via the magazine’s website: Finally, I extend another round of thanks to Lilley for sending me a number of photographs, along with permission to use them in the printed version of this article.

John Dawes is an author and ornamental aquatic fish industry consultant. He has more than 4,000 articles published in 13 countries and has written, edited and contributed to more than 30 books. John, along with his wife, Vivian, has received the OFI Special Award, and is a Fellow of the Zoological and Linnean Societies, a Chartered Biologist and a Member of the Society of Biology. <HOME>

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