Around the world several million ornamental fish collectors harvest an astounding 18-30 million fishes from coral reefs each year. Most collectors are men, though there are cases of all-female harvesting cooperatives, such as in Mexico where the “Mujeres del Golfo” or Gulf Women operate. In Indonesia, as in many countries involved in the marine aquarium trade (MAT for short), harvesters are scattered all over the country, with little regulation guiding how they harvest and handle fish. This means the process of catching aquarium fish can look very different from country to country, region to region, and reef to reef.

Our story begins in Central Sulawesi, an island province of Indonesia that resembles a scorpion with its stinger poised to strike. In one of the few remaining areas where blue tang populations remain healthy, our team was lucky to meet aquarium fishers from the indigenous group known collectively as the Sama-Bajau in the Bokan Kepulauan District in Central Sulawesi. Known as “Sea-Nomads” the Sama-Bajau have historically lived exclusively on boats, traveling with family units of 5 or 6 people, until forced resettlement pushed these nomads into coastal homes at the water’s edge decades ago. While displaced, their knowledge, understanding and savvy of the Indo-pacific seas remain unparalleled.

This was true for Rasdin, an experienced collector and father of two that we met in Central Sulawesi, on the remote Island of Toropot. A lifelong collector, Rasdin uses a hookah - a long plastic hose connected to an air compressor - to breathe underwater while collecting fish. In a show of underwater grace, Rasdin will dive down to reefs and create a barrier with a fine mesh net to entrap fish. Herding targeted fish into this barrier, he scoops up individuals with a small hand net, transferring them to a bag at his side. Each harvesting trip is different and many factors affect what he catches: seasonal fish breeding and feeding patterns as well as changing weather - some days he may catch a large, elegant emperor angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator), a coveted aquarium species, or the now world famous common clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris). Often, Rasdin will go to depths of over 150 feet to find certain elusive and expensive species of fish. For many reasons (including air bubbling in the bloodstream, which can cause death), harvesting for the marine aquarium trade is considered risky and many harvesters, though proud of their profession, do not want their children following in their footsteps. Instead as many parents around the world, they want their children to pursue education so they can follow a less risky career path.

For the blue tang, Rasdin can catch fifty or more in one harvesting trip, and for these he will get 1-2 USD per fish. Once in a retail store, the same blue tang can sell anywhere from 50-$300 USD depending on the size of the individual. Rasdin will keep the captured, live fish in a net pen hanging under his home for a week or two until the middleman comes to pick them up and send them along to the next step of the supply chain.