New Aquarium Fish's Supply Dwindling Just Months After Discovery

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
Updated March 21, 2007
CORRECTION: The original title of this March 7, 2007,
article—"Aquarium Fish Threatened With Extinction Just Months
After Discovery"—exaggerated the threat to the fish, says
ichthyologist Tyson Roberts, who is extensively quoted. The
availability of the fish to aquarium suppliers at the discovery site
is rapidly dwindling, but, as mentioned later in the article, the
species most likely doesn't face a threat to its survival because
other populations of the fish probably exist in areas inaccessible to
fishers, he says.

The original article also implied that Myanmar's government should have already taken action on the situation. However, because of the danio's recent discovery, much remains unknown about it, so the government has not yet had time to fully consider the issue, Robert says.

Just months after the discovery of a colorful new aquarium fish in Southeast Asia, worldwide demand and intense exportation are already causing concern about the readily available supply of the species.

The celestial pearl danio (Celestichthys margaritatus) was first found in August by a commercial aquarium-fish dealer near the town of Hopong in Myanmar (formerly Burma), which neighbors China and Thailand (map of Myanmar).

Measuring less than an inch (2.5 centimeters) long, the fish is deep blue with pearly pink or golden iridescent oval spots. It lives in heavily vegetated ponds in a remote northern part of the country, which is largely off-limits to foreigners. (Related photo gallery: "New Sharks, Rays Discovered in Indonesia Fish Markets" [March 1, 2007].)

At first the danio's location was kept a secret. But it wasn't long before word leaked out to other commercial dealers, said Tyson Roberts, an ichthyologist who has collected fish in Myanmar for almost 30 years.

Within a few months one Thai company alone had exported about 15,000 of the fish, he pointed out.

Since then exportation—mainly to Japan, North America, and Europe—has probably been ten times that amount, Roberts added.

"Captive breeding may be the only way for the aquarium hobbyist to ensure a supply of the species in the future, since it reportedly is already nearly fished out in the area where it was discovered," he wrote by email.

Roberts is the author of a paper on the celestial pearl danio that appeared in last week's issue of the journal the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology.

He also named the new species, after white spots on its body that reminded him of stars and pearls. (Roberts's research was funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society.)

Call to Action

It's possible that the freshwater danio lives in other parts of Myanmar, Roberts said. But if so, the location would be more difficult to access, even by local commercial aquarium-fish collectors.

Meanwhile, concern for the aquatic animal's welfare has prompted some hobbyist Web sites to recommend that collectors stop purchasing the species altogether.

But so far, trade associations have not taken any action.

Ornamental Fish International (OFI), a worldwide trade association, wants more information about the tiny species' distribution and abundance before asking members to stop selling it.

"According to the information we have, the distribution area is very limited," said OFI President Gerald Bassleer.

"However, considering the area where it is found—from an ichthyologic view—this information would be highly unlikely and most probably given in by commercially driven arguments."

Fish Haven

The celestial pearl danio is only one of dozens of new fish discoveries made in Myanmar—a place, Roberts said, that few foreign biological collectors have ever visited.

Roberts, who lives in Thailand, said he has tried unsuccessfully for years to get permission from the Myanmar government to collect fish in the same vicinity as the danio's discovery.

Nevertheless, his work studying, collecting, and preserving the area's fish and culture will continue.

While many aquarium hobbyists still cling to the original name given the fish—galaxy rasbora—Roberts said the one he chose is far more suitable.

"Given the Chinese culture of Southeast Asia generally, and especially of the Southeast Asian aquarium fish trade," he said, "I cannot think of a more appropriate name for this spectacularly beautiful little fish."

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