You'll never UPS a blue tank to Joseph Caparatta.
Caparatta's company, New York Aquarium Service in Freeport, N.Y., maintains saltwater aquariums for some high-profile accounts in the publishing and recording industries. But before any clownfish or yellowtail damsel finds itself swishing around a tank in a Madison Avenue conference room, it's hand-picked by Caparatta.
"If I bring them fish and they drop dead, it makes me look bad," he says. Also for that reason, he selects fish from certain localities such as Hawaii and Australia and avoids those from others.
About 98 percent of saltwater fish are "collected" in the wild, compared to a piddly 2 percent that are "aquacultured," or captive-bred. But as Caparatta knows, not all fish are caught using the same methods, which vary from country to country. Which is why where a fish originates is a significant factor.
Up until several years ago, "cyanide fishing" was a common way of procuring saltwater fish, which account for about 85 percent of the trade in "marine ornamentals." (Corals and invertebrates such as clams make up the rest.) Thanks to publicity and protests from environmental groups, that method which involves flushing out and stunning fish with a squirt of dissolved cyanide has dwindled.
But according to the Honolulu-based Marine Aquarium Council, a nonprofit consortium of conservationists, hobbyists, government agencies and aquarium-trade representatives, it's still common in the Philippines and Indonesia, which provide more than half of the world's marine ornamentals.
"The cyanide ruins the digestive bacteria in their intestines, so the fish can't process food," Caparatta said. "They keep eating and eating, but they get emaciated and eventually die."
While hobbyists feel the impact of cyanide fishing with purchases that go belly up, so do the fishes' native habitats. Cyanide destroys coral reefs where fish live, damaging already fragile ecosystems.
Because MAC's mission is marine conservation, it will be unveiling a voluntary certification program during the next several months.
"The need is to have an industry and a consumer group that actually can make a choice" about whether to collect a fish ethically or buy one that is, says Paul Holthus, MAC's executive director.
Fish that gain MAC certification must be collected using nondestructive methods, Holthus said. But the process also will focus on standards of handling, husbandry and transport for example, making sure fish are not unduly stressed by being left in the sun.
Suppliers and exporters will be independently audited by a third party for compliance. Certified fish would be identified with a sticker on the pet-store tank an oval logo showing a piece of coral and a fish whose tail is a checkmark.
A benefit to novices
Holthus acknowledges that certification might create an uptick in prices something that already exists for fish from desirable collection sites such as Fiji and Bali. Then again, he posits, lower morality rates might offset the costs for the facility upgrades and documentation systems required for certification.
In terms of the environment, MAC's "core standards" have their limitations for example, they don't regulate the number of fish collected. Still, says James Wiseman, president of www.reefs.org, a Web site devoted to reef aquariums, certification is "probably the only way to achieve everybody's mutual goals, which is to lower the environmental impact of the aquarium hobby."
As retailers become certified, they will be listed at www.aquari umcouncil.org.