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COLUMN ONE

Tropical Catch of the Day

The search for exotic fish for aquariums can be destructive. An L.A. firm is part of efforts to clean up the industry.

September 28, 2002|JERRY HIRSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VITOGO REEF, Fiji — Bobbing in a lonely coral reef, Manoa Kurulo spies his tiny prey, takes a snorkel breath and dives into the water. The nimble blue-and-orange quarry darts away through the stony underwater garden.

Kurulo is a lumbering giant in comparison. Slicing through the water, he gradually herds his prize--a Fiji blue dot puffer the size of a man's thumb--into a fine mesh net strung between two stands of coral. The little fish is worth its weight in silver. He scoops it into a bucket already sparkling with an orange-and-brown goatfish and three shimmering silver-green damsels.

The puffer has survived enormous odds to reach adulthood in a sea of hungry predators, disease and storms. Now, it is on the verge of embarking on a new and unnatural migration across the globe in the cargo hold of a 747.

Kurulo's bucket is the first stop in a 5,500-mile journey that will carry the puffer from the pristine waters of Fiji to a warehouse on a stretch of 104th Street near Los Angeles International Airport known as "Fish Street," regarded as the hub of the world's aquarium fish trade.

Kurulo will get about 38 cents for his fish. By the time his little puffer reaches a tropical-fish store on Pico Boulevard, it will sell for $13.

Driven by advances in aquarium technology and the economic boom years of the 1990s, exotic fish and the coral where they live are among the hottest wild-caught pets in America and Europe. They make up a $235-million annual trade that has become both a blessing and a curse across the Pacific.

In a good week, Kurulo earns upward of $100 harvesting fish and live coral, more than twice the World Bank's per capita income estimate for Fiji. He sends much of his earnings back to the remote island village of Wayalevu, where his wife and daughter live in a village of traditional thatched Fijian bures and concrete-block homes.

Thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, Walt Smith, Kurulo's boss and president of marine animal wholesaler Walt Smith International, drives his black BMW X5 to his new 15,000-square-foot Fish Street warehouse--both the fruits of Fiji's reef fish and coral.

Yet along with the bounty have come questions over whether the industry is contributing to the demise of the world's coral reefs. Across the Pacific, thousands of divers have culled the waters of moray eels, yellow tangs, coral banded shrimp and other exotic marine creatures in their desperation to eke out a meager living. None of the popular tropical fish are in danger of extinction, but in some areas, fish such as yellow tangs and Bangai cardinals have reached dangerously low levels, marine biologists say.

The Indo-Pacific is notorious for its dangerous and destructive methods for capturing fish. Collectors often dive into the water with plastic air tubes wrapped around their waists, tethering them to old paint compressors. Periodically, they take breaths from the tubes, typically inhaling a mixture of air and exhaust fumes.

Divers in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam often squirt cyanide into the reefs to stun the fish, making their capture easier. Many of the fish die of poisoning, slowly wasting away on the trip to the United States or succumbing during their first weeks in a hobbyist's tank. Other divers destroy the reef habitat by using hammers and chisels to hack apart generations-old coral heads, breaking them into pieces small enough to fit into home aquariums.

By some industry estimates, as many as one-third of the 30 million aquarium fish harvested each year perish in the long chain that leads from the reef to the hobbyist's tank. They die by stewing in hot plastic bags and buckets of stale water as they wait for shipment. Piles of tiny fish are scooped out each day from stuffed Styrofoam shipping boxes that are short on water to trim shipping expenses.

"In some shipments if they get only 50% mortality they are happy," said Craig Shuman, a scientist for Reef Check, a monitoring group based at UCLA's Institute of the Environment.

Striving for 'Green'

Given the odds, Kurulo's puffer is one of the lucky ones. He was caught by Smith's company, one of a group of leading collectors in Fiji attempting to transform the industry into a "green" and sustainable business by varying their fishing sites and improving storage and shipping practices to slash the mortality rate.

His Fiji station also is experimenting with collecting fish at the early-juvenile stage and raising them in captivity.

Kurulo, like other collectors in Fiji, has learned that a gentle capture is a crucial factor in the fish's chances for survival.

When frightened, his little puffer will inflate its body to nearly twice its normal size to make itself look more formidable to predators. But Kurulo's underwater moves are so deft that the puffer and three others caught within minutes show little signs of alarm as they are transferred from the reef to the boat.

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