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On Campus

January 25, 2001 - VOL. 28, NO. 01

A festival of fins: The World Wildlife Fund and Houston philanthropists are supporting efforts of UT Austin scientists to breed ornamental fish in captivity to help preserve coral reefs


Alexi Baker, College of Natural Sciences


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Researchers at the UT Austin Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) in Port Aransas, have received new funding to develop captive breeding techniques for tropical ornamental fish, an effort that will help protect the world's coral reefs.

Current techniques used to capture fish for the aquarium market, including use of explosives and poisons, can severely damage coral reefs. The World Wildlife Fund and Houston philanthropists Hugh and Angela McAllister announced donations totaling $75,000 to support the new research headed by Dr. Joan Holt, a senior research scientist at UTMSI.

Coral reefs are rich ecosystems that are home to thousands of plant and animal species. They are breeding grounds for many economically important fish, which makes them just as important to the world food supply as the rich farmlands of the American Middle West.

The underwater beauty of the reefs, with their exotic looking sea plants and jewel-toned fish, has made reefs an important resource to the tourism and travel industries.

Holt said one way to protect the valuable resources of coral reefs, while maintaining the high-dollar market in these colorful, sought-after creatures, would be to grow ornamental fish and shrimp in captivity.

"The culture of ornamental fish and shrimp would help safeguard coral reefs and provide a new source of animals for the aquarium trade as an alternative to wild capture," said Holt. "Coral reefs are suffering worldwide from coral bleaching, sedimentation and pollution from shoreline development. Losses from these causes are very serious. The harvest of food fish and aquarium fish adds further damage to coral reefs."

More than 90 million tropical fish are purchased each year around the world. But the $100-million trade often involves the use of cyanide or explosives to capture the fish, methods that actually kill coral. Dynamiting to stun fish and make their capture easier destroys coral reefs, which also serve to protect coastal areas from erosion and storm damage.

"We're interested in looking at alternatives to fulfill the demand for tropical aquarium fish that don't have the environmental consequences that the current fishing practices do," said Scott Burns, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Marine Conservation Program. "I think the research that's being done at UTMSI is very important in that respect."

Currently only freshwater fish are successfully bred in captivity, according to Matt Palmtag, a UT Austin graduate research assistant who will work with Dr. Holt and be supported by the new funding.

"With freshwater aquatic fish, reproduction in captivity is a successful industry that has been going on for decades," Palmtag said. "The technology and techniques just haven't been there for marine fish. They're mostly caught out of the wild at this point."

Holt has been working with coral reef shrimp and ornamental fish, recreating the water and light conditions ideal for spawning in the wild.

"Now, with this new funding, we can put more emphasis on solving some of the difficulties such as spawning the fish and finding proper food for the young so that they can grow and develop into adults," she said.

Once Holt and other researchers establish successful techniques for breeding tropical fish in captivity, those techniques will be introduced to fish collectors, who are often located in third world countries.

"By sharing this method of captive breeding with people in tropical coral reef areas, the people will be able to supplement their income by producing cultured animals," said the McAllisters in a written statement. "And [they will be] simultaneously bettering their economy by attracting controlled tourism to appreciate the natural beauty of the reefs."


January 25, 2001
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