While writing an article about the recent study published in Science magazine predicting collapse of the world’s fisheries by 2048, I came across this press release. Unless people worldwide become aware of these growing problems (overfishing in general and the live reef fish trade), they will continue unabated until the marine species populations collapse taking marine ecosystems with them, the seafood industry collapses removing a source of protein heavily relied upon worldwide along with hundreds of thousands of jobs, coral reefs die — before global warming kills them — because important reef fish species are fished out… Like global warming, overfishing has a snowball effect that will become so large by the time it’s taken seriously that it will be too late.

I thought I’d share this press release because the live reef fish trade is a particularly insidious industry that is very difficult to monitor. I still think we need a global governing body to implement policies and monitor their enforcement — this is the world’s problem, we need high level leadership on a global scale to address it. National and local leadership is also needed with support at the international level.

Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies


Twenty of the world’s leading marine scientists have called for action by governments to halt the unsustainable plunder of the world’s ocean resources.

In letters to the international journal Science, they call for more countries to regulate the expanding and currently unsustainable trade in live fish collected from coral reefs, which threatens the livelihoods of millions of poor people.

This follows an earlier warning by 15 of the scientists about highly mobile “roving bandits” who clean out entire fisheries and then move on to the next resource beyond the reach of local authorities, taking advantage of slack world trade rules and ineffective fisheries management to sell their plunder.

The 20 Australian, British, Canadian, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Swedish and US researchers are now calling for special attention to be paid to the fisheries and international trade in coral reef resources.

According to Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the answer to the crisis in marine management lies in:

  • extensive market reform
  • use of the precautionary principle
  • establishment of sea property rights, and
  •  the building of multilevel institutions, from local to global, that can learn from and share each other’s experiences in how to successfully manage natural resources.

“We are already seeing that the intense targeting of key species by these mobile roving bandits can seriously destabilize marine systems, causing unpredictable collapses,” he says.

A team led by Cambridge University’s Dr. Andrea Manica has tracked an expanding wave of booms and busts in fisheries radiating out from Hong Kong, a major hub for international trade in live reef fish and other marine products. He warns that areas such as the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Eastern Pacific are at high risk of similar uncontrolled exploitation. “Several countries at the edge of the expanding wave of exploitation have started management plans and are taking steps to control the live fish trade”, he says.

“The removal of key species like parrot fish – which keep coral reefs free of weed – impacts the health of the entire reef, especially when the corals are already stressed by climate change”, says Professor David Bellwood, a senior researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The Napoleon wrasse, a giant reef fish that commonly reaches 2 m in length and lives for more than 30 years, is especially vulnerable. “This is the first commercial reef fish to be listed on CITES, (the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), in response to its vulnerability to fishing and international trade. The convention is one of the few with any teeth for fisheries” says Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, of the University of Hong Kong”.

The scientists say there is now sufficient evidence to conclude that reforming markets – which have opened up as a result of global trade liberalization – is an important strategy for controlling roving bandits.

They argue that regional surveillance is essential to reveal the full extent of market demand for ocean produce.

“As well as the trial fisheries and live fish management plans that have been initiated in some places, there are some encouraging signs that licensing, monitoring and enforcing can be effective at a local scale”, says Prof. Boris Worm from the Dalhousie University.

“Multilevel action, from the local to the international, is needed to establish institutions that are able to learn from experiences with roving bandits, develop decision-making skill in an environment of uncertainty and complexity, and respond quickly to shifts in demand from global markets,” says Professor Fikret Berkes of the University of Manitoba, Canada.

However, the scientists say, the strongest argument for balancing international trade and local needs is the social inequity that arises from the export of the dwindling coral reef resources of developing tropical nations.

“Once those resources are destroyed and forgotten, it is the local people who bear the costs of reduced options for future development,” they warn.