Tackling illegal cyanide fishing All the photos used in this publication have been taken by OATA and are for illustration purposes only.

Public and home aquarium bodies join forces to fund new research into this illegal practice

The use of cyanide to catch marine fish for the aquarium & live fish food industries started in the 1960s. It became widespread in the following decades and by the 1990s many governments had made fishing using cyanide illegal. Fishers dissolved cyanide in bottles to be sprayed into coral reef crevices or drop it to the seabed in drums. Both methods stun the fish which are then easier to catch. This illegal practice is also used to catch live fish for food and can harm the fish, the fishers and coral reefs.

Due to the nature of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, it is difficult to say how widespread this practice is today.

It mainly occurs in the Coral Triangle – an area stretching from Malaysia and the Philippines, to Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, known to have the highest diversity of coral building reefs and coral reef fishes anywhere in the world.

The legitimate trade which sell or display wild caught marine fish want to stamp out this illegal practice. They work hard to ensure their supplies of marine fish are sourced legally and sustainably. Businesses have also established and promoted initiatives for local fishers within the Coral Triangle to improve welfare standards and promote safe and sustainable capture methods.

The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association & Sea Life have joined forces to commission new research from Cefas (the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), an independent UK executive agency. We asked Cefas to look at how fish metabolise cyanide, which is the best indicator to test for to show fish have been caught using cyanide and to review the currently available tests.

Cyanide detection tests are the most talked about way to solve this issue. But these tests need to be simple to use in the field in areas where fish are caught & robust enough to prove that fish were caught using cyanide beyond all reasonable doubt in a court of law. At stake are the livelihoods of many thousands of families. 370m people live in the Coral Triangle with the majority directly reliant on the ocean for food and their livelihoods.

A cyanide detection test sounds simple in theory. But in order to be robust, reliable and repeatable, it needs to overcome a number of issues...

It needs to establish that fish have been caught using cyanide (showing elevated cyanide levels above a background level cyanide in the area where fish are caught).

Cyanide is produced naturally by bacteria, fungi, algae, plants & some invertebrates. It can also be introduced into water through industrial processes like mining and agriculture such as cassava processing, both of which are widespread in areas where marine fish are caught. So in order not to criminalise innocent fishers, a test needs to show fish were caught using cyanide.

It needs to test for the best indicator of cyanide exposure.

The major pathway for cyanide detoxification is the conversion of cyanide to thiocyanate. Therefore, thiocyanate has been highlighted by Cefas as the best indicator to use in a cyanide detection test.

This is a big breakthrough in the quest for a test.

Testing needs to be quick, simple and non-invasive so it can be easily carried out by law enforcers in the field where fish are caught.

Finding a validated test that will stand up in a court of law has been a key stumbling block in trying to stamp out this illegal practice.

It needs to avoid ‘false positives’ results.

Fish can produce thiocyanate by pathways other than cyanide exposure so levels need to be established that show exposure as a direct result of cyanide fishing.

It needs to take into account the differences in how cyanide is metabolised between fish of the same species, different species and at different life stages.

So where next in the quest for a reliable field test to tackle fish caught using cyanide?

Five reasons why we believe our new research by Cefas brings us closer to finding a validated cyanide detection test...

1 For the first time in 10 years the available scientific evidence has been brought together and examined by an independent UK Government organisation.

2 There is now a clear understanding of the issues to be tackled to create a validated cyanide detection test and how they can be overcome.

3 Cefas has identified thiocyanate as the best indicator of cyanide exposure currently available. giving researchers a clear idea of what to measure when they create a test. Other indicators that need further scientific research have also been suggested.

4 There’s been an independent examination of the tests currently available to determine which are the most robust, reliable and repeatable to give accurate, consistent results.

5 There’s a clear set of independent recommendations about the next steps that need to happen to make progress.

OATA now looks to research institutions and industry partners to take forward these recommendations and we pledge to play our part in helping where we can.

The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA) is the 'voice' of the UK tropical fish and aquatics trade and represents a wide range of businesses, from retail shops and manufacturers, to wholesalers and importers.


OATA, Keith Davenport

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