Marine fish caught illegally using cyanide is one of the biggest reputational issues facing us. Reports of fish caught in this way tarnish the reputation of the home aquarium industry and we want to see this illegal practice ended and to trade only in legal and sustainably sourced fish.

It is against the law in many countries to catch fish in this way. Due to the nature of this illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, it is difficult to say how widespread it is today, although we know it does still happen, mainly in the Coral Triangle – an area stretching from Malaysia and the Philippines, to Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. This area has the highest diversity of coral building reefs and coral reef fishes anywhere in the world.

Many thousands of livelihoods in this area rely on providing live fish for the aquarium and food fish industries. So to ensure we do not criminalise innocent fishers it is vital to find a validated detection test that accurately identifies fish caught illegally with cyanide. The chemical can also be present in water through industrial, agricultural and natural processes. Without a test that will stand up in a court of law it is difficult to take successful prosecutions.

In 2008 the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) organised a Cyanide Detection Testing workshop which brought together experts and managers from key import and export countries to tackle the issues facing the regulation of cyanide fishing. It put together a number of recommendations. While a number of studies have been published since then, there has been little progress in tackling the issues to find a validated test that would enable proper enforcement by the authorities.

So in 2017 OATA joined forces with Merlin Welfare and Development (part of Merlin Entertainments which run the Sea Life Aquariums in the UK) to commission independent scientific reports examining the current challenges and how these can best be overcome to implement a robust and practical cyanide detection method. The suitability of current tests was also reviewed in a bid to come up with recommendations on ways forward to halt this illegal practice.

The two reports were undertaken by executive agency The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), with the Fish Health Inspectorate (FHI) acting as independent co-ordinators. The reports are unique because they take a comprehensive and encompassing review of:

  • what is currently known about available cyanide detection methods,
  • the challenges that need to be overcome in understanding how marine fish metabolise cyanide,
  • which are the indicators to test for to identify fish caught using cyanide,
  • the efficacy of current available methods and to suggest ways forward.

Both reports aim to facilitate further scientific research which will lead to a reliable and robust method which can be used by law enforcers to prosecute those committing this illegal practice. This will hopefully also act as a deterrent, helping to stamp out fishing of this kind.

Scientists at CEFAS hope to publish the findings from both reports as a peer reviewed scientific paper in 2018.

We believe these joint reports bring the industry one step closer to finding a validated cyanide detection test because:

  • For the first time in 10 years the available scientific evidence has been brought together and examined by an independent UK Government organisation.
  • 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.
  • Thiocyanate has been identified as the best indicator of cyanide exposure currently available. Other indicators that need further scientific research have also been suggested.
  • 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.
  • There’s a clear set of independent recommendations about the next steps that need to happen to make progress.

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

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Tackling illegal cyanide fishing