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Field Report from Solomon Islands - Clownfish Collection
Some people who have never witnessed source country fish collection assume that collecting fishes must be sort of like going to the grocery store. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I was reminded during my recent trip to Solomon Islands for Coral Magazine.
The day was hot and sunny, but there were thunderheads hovering over the distant Florida Islands on the far side of Iron Bottom Sound. Given that said islands were our destination, I was eager to get going, especially since we intended to cross the roughly 30-mile wide sound in a 25-foot fiberglass skiff with a 40 HP outboard and a load that would insure speed would be far from our most prominent attribute. Upon finally departing the beach adjacent to Aquarium Arts late in the afternoon, I resigned myself to getting wet, but thankfully rainsqualls were the worst of it, and we eventually made landfall in the Florida Islands.
Slipping past a rocky headland, we entered a channel cradled by rainforest-engulfed slopes spilling down to turquoise clear water. A village appeared amidst the heavy greenery near a beach crowded with dugout canoes. We made for it. As if on cue, the children of the village were soon shoving their nimble crafts off and piling aboard—sometimes four or more blonde-haired, dark-skinned smiling kids to a boat. They paddled toward us, saluting with the internationally recognized thumbs up amidst shrieks of laughter. It was, I must admit, one of the most remote places I’ve been that felt a lot like coming home.
By the time we reached the village, we still had a couple hours of daylight left. So, after making the requisite agreements with the village, we anchored a few hundred yards off the beach—a place a local fisher by the name of “Willie” indicated—to see the reef and get to the business at hand…collecting fishes for the marine aquarium trade.
I was quickly over the side of the boat where the world dissolved into a million tiny bubbles and the weightless wonder of the dive. I turned in the water to see the abundance of the reef stretched out in a gentle downward slope toward a wall descending into the depths. This is the coral triangle, and the reefscapes rarely disappoint. Willie, who wore a button down short sleeve shirt, loose fitting pants and no fins, had jumped into the water moments before me. He wore a mask and snorkel and carried only a hand net, and before I got my bearings (much the less my camera settings adjusted), Willie had already collected his first clownfish.
Admittedly clownfishes are easier to collect than many fishes—as they usually stay close to their host anemones—but finding a truly unique specimen, collecting it, and ushering it safely to the boat is far from what one might call easy. For starters, I’ve seen clowns draw blood before—that would be the blood of a would-be collector! In addition, sustainable collection means collecting only one or two clowns from a given anemone so that the attendant juveniles might step-up and host. In this way, the anemone remains defended against predation, and continues to provide additional clownfish for later collection.
As such, over the course of nearly two hours underwater, I watch Willie dive repeatedly to depths up to 35 feet collecting a handful of choice clowns from anemones spaced across the reef. Willie is one of only three divers who regularly dives here given the customary rights that dictate who can and who can’t fish a given reef. Given the health of this reef and the abundance of animals living on it, it would truly be near impossible for Willie to over-collect. But as he tells me later that night, there would be no incentive for over-collecting. While translation posed it’s problems, the core message was clear:
“If we take too much, we have nothing left to take.”
As I watch the sun set, I think about how this common sense approach to sustainable harvesting of the sea has served these villages well for generations. Is it a model that will preserve these reefs for the future?