Some readers will, no doubt, remember the days when it was widely claimed thatit was impossible to grow plants in freshwater aquaria serviced by anundergravel filter. This myth was repeated so often, via so many media, andover such a long period of time, that it became accepted as a ‘fact’ bycountless aquarists and members of the ornamental aquatic industry worldwide.It was a perfect example of something that is quite incorrect, but becomesaccepted as truth through sheer volume of repetition over time.

Now…take the following statements:

“If there is one trade in India which is completely illegal, unregulated andunlooked at by government and wildlife activists, it is the aquarium trade.Millions of fish are caught and put into small glass prisons every year wherethey die within a few weeks.

“If watching these poor animals struggle for space and swim endlessly to andfro in two feet of space is relaxing then you have to be as mentally disturbedas the fish probably are. In a mammal, this endless repetitive swimming wouldbe analysed as stress behaviour. But who cares about fish?

“Where do coloured fish come from? No one in the trade will tell you, or theywill give you vague replies like they have been bred in Kolkata or Mumbai. Butclownfish, for instance, the demand for which shot up after the cartoon Disneyfilm Finding Nemo, cannot be bred. They come from coral reefs and they arelong distance swimmers. Baby clownfish travel as much as 400 kilometres tofind anemones, without which they cannot live. 90% are killed by naturalpredators during their travels. Now the other 10% are being poached for your“relaxation””.

“Exporters from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore loot andsell millions of marine animals with impunity”.

“No rules are followed at all – by exporters or importers”.

“No airports keep records and Cochin is the worst”.

“The aquarium trade should be banned. Have we not banned hunting for mammalsand birds? So, why do we allow hunting, selling and buying of fish?”

Do these statements ring true in any way whatsoever? No, of course, not! Theperson responsible, obviously, has little or no idea what she is talkingabout. It is clear that she hasn’t read any of the relevant literature, or hasdone so, but has chosen to ignore it, maybe because the evidence and datafactually contradict what she wants to say. The person behind these and manyother equally incorrect statements is Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, Indian UnionCabinet Minister for Women and Child Development in Prime Minister NarendraModi’s government. She is an animal rights activist and environmentalist, isthe widow of Indian politician, Sanjay Gandhi, and is a member of theinfluential Nehru-Gandhi family.

She published the above comments in an article in the Andaman Chronicle on 3November, 2014. As happened with the undergravel filter/plants issue mentionedabove, this outpouring of impassioned, destructive, unsubstantiated andalarmingly incorrect ‘information’ must have somehow filtered through to theIndian corridors of power, as well as to a number of publications, to theextent that they appear to have been accepted as ‘facts’. This, whiledisturbing, would not have been disastrous if that’s where they remained, i.e.within the minds of those who unquestionably accept them as truths, or in thelines of newspaper articles.

Unfortunately, these false statements, supported by powerful anti-pet tradeanimal activist organisations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment ofAnimals), have been taken as fact, to the extent that, on 23 May, 2017, theIndian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, issued aNotification which, effectively, will put an end to the Indian ornamentalaquatic sector. Entitled: Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Aquarium and FishTank Animal Shop) Rules 2017 , this new law, which is already in force, setsout conditions and requirements that make it quite impossible to run anaquatic business at all.

Some of these would be quite laughable, if they weren’t so serious! Take, forexample, the following: “No aquarium or fish shop shall source fish caught bydestructive fishing practices, including – iv) trapped from Coral Reefs”. Doesthis mean that no fish collected on reefs can be sold, or only those collectedusing “destructive fishing practices”? Then, no aquarium shall keep, house ordisplay “(b) any species listed in the Second Schedule.”

The Schedule in question lists some 150 marine species by name, plus “Allcleaner (labroids and other species) wrasses”, no seahorses of any species,“Chromis, Damsels ( Chromis , Pseudochromis )” – plus some species ofclownfish, including the maroon clownfish ( Premnas aculeatus ), alloctopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus species…and so on…

Here are a few other ‘highlights’:

  • ”Every aquarium shall…prepare a collection plan indicating names of species and maximum number of fish tank animals of each species proposed to be kept, housed or displayed in the aquarium…”
  • ”Every aquarium (shall)…provide a naturalistic environment for the fish tank animals.”
  • ”Every aquarium…shall be closed at least one day in a week.”
  • ”Every aquarium…shall have on display appropriate signage discouraging visitors from approaching the fish tanks at close proximity.”
  • ”Every aquarium shall have a fisheries veterinarian or a fisheries expert employed full time…”

There are numerous other requirements, besides the above, which may…or maynot…apply to importers, exporters and retail premises. The doubt arises fromthe fact that they apply to ‘aquaria’…and an aquarium is defined as “afacility or establishment where fish tank animals are displayed.” Since suchanimals are displayed in public aquaria and importing/exporting facilities, aswell as at wholesale and retail outlets, one is left in considerable doubt asto whom these requirements specifically apply, but if they apply to shops,their total impracticality becomes immediately apparent.

Irrespective of this doubt, some of these rules are repeated and aretherefore, without doubt, directly aimed at shops and other commercialestablishments under the Trade section of the regulations. In addition, thereare other conditions, such as the prohibition of aquarium bowls and tanks witha capacity of less than 13 gallons (60 litres). Further, each tank must holdat least 4.55 litres of water for every inch of fish it contains. Think aboutit! Is one inch of guppy the same as one inch of pleco?

For marine fish, the volume per inch rises to 18 litres. Water oxygenationlevels must be above 80% saturation, 10% of the water must be replaced weekly(something that, obviously, totally ignores the fact that top-ups occur on anongoing basis as a result of the water that is removed every time fish aretaken out for sale), each tank must have a heater and thermometer (what aboutspace heating?), while each marine tank must also have a UV steriliser, andlighting must be turned on and off gradually with a dimmer. And this is notall…there’s a whole host of requirements regarding piping, pumps, filters,drains, gutters, well water, pressure valves, compressors, paints, metals,concrete, etc., etc.

Turning to the application form that needs to be submitted for a shop or otherpremises to be registered, the following must be included in the long list ofrequirements: details of the species and breeds of fish tank animals that willbe housed and sold, as well as the actual number of each species and breed offish tank animals concerned, the accommodation that will be provided, a recordof mortalities for each species, cause of mortality, details of any additionalspecies “acquired in the past year”, and numerous other matters.

It was clear from the moment that Dr. Mini Sekharan, Assistant Professor atthe School of Industrial Fisheries, Cochin University of Science andTechnology, announced at the recent AquaRealm Conference held in Singapore,that this new law had been ‘dropped’ on the industry without warning, that theIndian ornamental aquatic industry had been plunged into a severe, sudden,unforeseen and unwarranted crisis. Even the Indian Marine Products ExportDevelopment Authority (MPEDA), which also overseas the freshwater tradesector, was taken by surprise, indicating that central government went ahead(apparently taking on board the unjustified claims made by Maneka SanjayGandhi and other activists) without consulting the Authority or the ornamentalaquatic trade in any way whatsoever.

However, not all hope has been lost. Indeed, there was an immediate responsefrom the trade organisations like Ornamental Fish International (OFI), who arebacking the protests that are currently under way throughout India itself toget the new law repealed. Dr. Sekharan reports that she was encouraged to see,on her return from Singapore, that “even chief ministers of state weresupportively taking actions in favour of the ornamental fish industry.”

At the time of writing, there has not been any response from the centralministry, but it must respond to the flood of protests against this unjust lawat some stage. However, we don’t, at the moment, know when it will react, orin what way, so as we currently stand, the Indian ornamental aquatic sector isfacing a crisis, the likes of which neither it, nor any other equivalentindustry in any other country, has had to face.

In closing, I’d like to quote the following statement which I have receivedfrom Dr. Sekharan: “The ornamental fish industry in India has always receivedhuge support from the institutions, owing to its significant contribution tolivelihoods. The new rule came as a blow to the ornamental fish industry,which, in fact, has brought together stakeholders from all over India to joinhands and protest. The respective state governments have represented thematter to the Central ministry. We are therefore optimistic that the Centralministry will understand, discuss the matters with fisheries experts, and makeamendments to the new rule at the earliest”.

We all hope that this will come about…and the sooner, the better!

**FURTHER READING

The full text of the new law may be accessed at:

http://bwcindia.org/Web/Info&Action/Legislation/AquariumandFishTankAnimalsShop(English).pdf

The full text of the article by Maneka Sanjay Gandhi may be accessed at:

http://andamanchronicle.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5809:aquarium-trade-unlooked-and-unregulated&catid=22&Itemid=192

**ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Dr. Mini Sekharan, AssistantProfessor at the School of Industrial Fisheries, Cochin University of Scienceand Technology, India, for informing me of the new law and for keeping meupdated on developments.

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