A man dives under the crisp blue surface of the salty water and is suddenly engulfed in a busy world of color and bursts of life. His well-trained eyes lead him to a small overhang on the reef that is populated with colorful wrasses. In one swift motion, he extends his arm and scoops up several fish in his hand net. He quickly lets a few dull fish go and then heads towards the surface to bag his catch. Instead of killing the fish for food, they are preserved in buckets of aerated water until they are delivered to the distributor to be shipped across the world and decorate home aquariums. From this description, one might easily assume that this scene is taking place in Indonesia or Hawaii; however, this is also a common sight on the East African, offshore reefs of Kenya. Africa has largely been left out of the international aquarium trade conversation simply because its coasts do not rank among top exporters. This lack of discussion about smaller fisheries that comprise the aquarium trade is problematic because it does not allow for comprehensive analysis of the trade and frankly devalues the smaller contributors.
In order to better understand the complexity of the aquarium trade and how marine ornamental fish and corals are sourced, it is necessary to spotlight specific regional fisheries that have a history of involvement with the trade. For instance, Kenya boasts an impressive 125 miles of offshore barrier reefs along its 333-mile-long coast which stretches toward the Kenya-Tanzania border, but is hardly ever recognized internationally for its marine biodiversity. Those who have been lucky enough to submerse themselves in the bustling underwater world off the Kenyan coast, describe it as an idyllic ocean scene filled with clear water, bursts of bright fish, and sightings of apex predators all leading them to believe that the reef ecosystem is healthy and balanced. Though there is great diversity among the marine ornamental fish species found on Kenyan reefs, the most common fish are wrasse, angelfish, butterflyfish, and clownfish species.
Since the 1970’s, Kenya has been active in the marine ornamental fish trade which has supported various coastal communities. Today, Kenya Marine Center, located near the capital of Mambasa, is the largest marine aquarium fish exporter in Kenya. Its expansive 90,000 Liter flowing seawater facility is able to accommodate a wide variety of fish, invertebrates, and corals that are shipped all over the world. Of course, other local fisherman not affiliated with this distributor also contribute to the trade by collecting and selling ornamental marine species through other channels. One would think that this kind of large scale operation which has existed in Kenya for nearly as long as the worldwide aquarium trade has, would be at least mentioned by the mainstream media when concerns over aquarium trade sustainability are debated. Even though Kenya exports over 500,000 fish to the United States each year they are one of the only African countries to do so, and still compose a small portion of the global trade. However, Kenya’s reefs have existed relatively unharmed with over 40 years of fishing for the aquarium trade in contrast to the fragile reefs in heavily fished areas of the Indo-Pacific. Which begs the question, what is Kenya doing right to balance economics and ocean preservation?
Due to overfishing of many food fish species, Kenya imposed a law which mandates that 10% of its ocean waters be protected. This has resulted in a large Marine Protected Area off Kenya’s coast that gives refuge from exploitative fishing to all types of marine life. By nurturing a healthy ecosystem through the use of strategic no fishing zones, Kenya is not only protecting food fisheries from collapse but also bolstering the potential for sustained growth of ornamental fisheries. In Kenya, it appears that the delicate balance has been struck between profiting from the ocean and preserving it for future generations. A scientific study conducted by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute in 2014 showed that the majority of fishing sites along the coast had either sustained or increased catch from 2007 – 2011 without major damage to the environment being observed following these periods of fishing. Although laws are in effect to minimize overfishing, Kenya’s ornamental reef fisheries are at a heightened risk of promoting localized population depletions, for instance, depleting a certain species on one reef while it remains abundant elsewhere. This is especially the case for species which are perceived as rare by consumers in the aquarium trade, because often these species’ populations are naturally smaller and therefore at a higher risk for exploitation. Though no major cases of rare species depletion in Kenya have been published, it remains a potential threat to reef health.
Currently, the top three collected species from Kenyan waters are: blue streak cleaner wrasse, sea goldie, and the fire goby. These species compose 23% of marine organisms that are removed from Kenyan reefs and shipped for use in aquariums in the United States. Furthermore, these species are not listed as especially vulnerable in the Hobday et al study done in 2007. In addition, there are only 5 species out of all the East African ornamental fish species in Kenya that rank as highly in danger due to fishing activities. The rest of the species have either a moderate or low vulnerability to exploitation which means that it is unlikely that these fish will experience localized population depletion. Furthermore, overall loss of biodiversity on the reef is unlikely as long as safe and sustainable fishing practices continue to be used. Both scientific and observational studies are in agreement that the current Kenya marine ornamental fishery does not threaten the health of the ecosystem and that it uses sustainable methods of catching and distributing fish for the aquarium trade.
Given this overall positive review of the Kenya aquarium trade fishery, we have to consider why it is not being used as a model for other small nations or even attracting more scientific studies. Ultimately this comes back to money, as Kenya is a small nation who does profit from the aquarium trade but is not a large enough contributor on a global scale to be considered important when discussing policy impacts on reef ecosystems. However, given its lasting success in producing marine ornamental fish for the aquarium trade with minimal damage to the environment, that has been reported, Kenya should be further studied to assess how the fishery’s methods and national policy have created a positive future for Kenya’s reefs. Therefore, no matter how great or small a contributor to the global trade, every nation involved should be analyzed and assessed in order to serve as a guiding model in sustainability for others or to serve as a model of why large scale changes in the industry need to take place.