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Indonesia to update conservation efforts for aquarium favorite cardinalfish

  • Indonesia’s fisheries ministry says it is working on a new conservation road map for Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), a popular species in the aquarium trade globally that is found only in the waters around the country’s Banggai Archipelago.
  • The fish is caught in large numbers — an estimated 500,000 to 900,000 individuals annually — and is exported mainly to the United States and Europe.
  • The updated conservation plan will evaluate the previous five-year plan for the cardinalfish, and use this to inform the national strategy for the next five years, the ministry said.
  • The cardinalfish’s habitat, the Banggai Archipelago, is considered to be in the heart of the Pacific Coral Triangle, which is home to the highest diversity of corals and reef fishes anywhere on the planet.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government is drafting an updated five-year national strategy to protect an endemic reef fish species that’s popular in the global aquarium trade.

Indonesia’s fisheries ministry said recently it was working on a new action plan to conserve the wild population of the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), a commercial coral fish found only in the waters around the Banggai Archipelago off the eastern coast of the country’s Sulawesi Island. The fish has been harvested from the wild and heavily traded among aquarium enthusiasts around the world since the mid-1990s, with most exports going to the United States and Europe.

“The population [of the Banggai cardinalfish] is relatively small, that’s why, to protect the sustainability of the species, the ministry has designated the fish as limited protected, its habitat as a regional conservation area, and made it the national mascot for ornamental fish,” M. Firdaus Agung, the fisheries ministry’s acting director of marine biodiversity conservation, said in a press release published Sept. 20.

Banggai cardinalfish. Image courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.
Banggai cardinalfish among anemones and sea urchins. Image by Christopel Paino/Mongabay Indonesia.

The updated strategy will evaluate the Indonesian government’s conservation efforts for the cardinalfish and its habitat from 2017-2021, and lay out the nationwide strategy for the next five years, the ministry said. Overfishing, destructive fishing, habitat loss, and climate-induced warming ocean have contributed to the population decline. The unsustainable trade over the past few decades in particular prompted the U.S. and the EU to push, unsuccessfully, in 2007 and 2016 to restrict the species’ trade under CITES, the global wildlife trade convention. The last effort resulted in decisions that tasked Indonesia with ensuring the sustainability of international trade of the cardinalfish by implementing conservation and management measures.

The Banggai cardinalfish is captured in large quantities — an estimated 500,000 to 900,000 individuals annually. It was among the top 10 most imported aquarium fish into the U.S. in 2008 and 2011, with wild-caught imports into the country between 2005 and 2011 ranging from approximately 118,000 to 160,000 individuals annually, according to a NOAA report. The report also showed that Indonesia was the only source of wild-caught Banggai cardinalfish.

Indonesian law already imposes stringent licensing requirements for the harvest, transport and trade of cardinalfish. The fisheries ministry in 2021 also banned wild harvests of the fish in the Banggai Archipelago during two brief windows — February to March and October to November — which are the peaks of the fish’s spawning period. Captive breeding of the fish also occurs in several sites, including Ambon and Bali, coupled with restocking efforts in the wild, but the wild population remains threatened.

The species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. NOAA classifies it as threatened, and it’s the first marine aquarium fish to have become an international CITES issue due to mounting concerns of overharvest leading to its potential extinction. The ornamental fish trade contributes significantly to Indonesia’s economy, with exports valued at around $34 million annually. The volume in domestic trade for the Banggai cardinalfish is reported at between 1.1 million and 1.4 million individuals, with each selling for around 20,000 to 25,000 rupiah ($1.30-$1.70).

Banggai cardinafish in a coral reef. Image by Christopel Paino/Mongabay Indonesia.

At the latest CITES Animal Committee in June 2021, it was agreed that Indonesia would continue to monitor the trade without the need for any international restrictions.

“This is good news and demonstrates that CITES recognises that species listing is not the only solution available to ensure the sustainability of trade,” Dominic Whitmee, chief executive of the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, said in a statement in June 2021.

The cardinalfish’s habitat, the Banggai Archipelago, is considered to be in the heart of the Pacific Coral Triangle, which is home to the highest diversity of corals and reef fishes anywhere on the planet. The Indonesian government in 2019 established the Banggai Dalaka Marine Protected Area in an effort to conserve the cardinalfish and its habitat.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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