PAGE 2 - COLLECTING METHODS
Capturing fish takes knowledge of the hunted species, the right equipment, and a little patience. Marine collectors often use 'cowboy methods' of 'rounding up the fish'. Regular cowboys work up and down rock canyons and around scrub brush and trees - rounding up stray cattle into a corral. For the fish cowboy the corral is a barrier net, two to six feet high. The rock canyons are the spurs of coral reef - the scrub brush and trees are the patch reefs and tall soft corals. The net has weights on the bottom to keep it hugging the sandy ocean floor and has cork floats on the top with just enough buoyancy to keep the net erect as a fence. The idea is to chase the fish you want into the fence and as they struggle to get through the net, you scoop them up with a smaller hand net before they can figure out some evasive move. You can be working in 30' of water and few if any of the fish that have come up against the fence net will attempt to swim over the net if they have approached at that level. This is because fish are wary of rapid vertical movement that might over expand their air bladder. Fish maintain neutral buoyancy through the regulation of a special air bladder in their body cavity, and it's regulation takes more time and concentration than what most fish have while fleeing from a fish cowboy.
The net can be curved into bags at the ends or butted up to a coral wall to help keep the fish moving back to the center of the net. For shallow water species (less then 3' of water depth) like Damsels and Chromis, the collectors can drive a school into the net and then pick the net up by the ends to scoop the small fish out of the water. Hundreds can be collected in a single scoop. Oh - oh, I know some of you are wondering; "How can the reef sustain its population with such heavy collecting of some species?!" Have you ever wondered how so many mosquitoes can keep showing up for the backyard barbecue when you know that the county mosquito abatement crew has sprayed everywhere killing millions and millions? Nature has created some species that proliferate in such huge numbers that their population size is basically restrained by only two things - food sources and habitat niches. So the concern for any species that is harvested in large numbers is understandable - unfortunately the ignorance over what is a sustainable harvest for any given species leads to irrational responses.
The ecological balances of nature are regulated by the same forces in both the jungle and the ocean reef. The animals at the top of a local food chain (Jaguar or shark) usually make up a very small portion of the biomass compared to those at the bottom of that food chain. Most animals and fish are territorial and as long as their habitat has the opportunity to renew itself the various species populations will seek to return to their previous equilibrium after periods of drought, fire, and harvesting. So for example; under normal circumstances a 1/4 mile of Micronesian reef might be able to sustain a yearly harvest of one shark, 10 groupers, 100 tangs, 200 butterfly fish, 2,000 damsels, etc. - as long as the reef remains healthy. This is called a sustainable harvest - the territorial niches left open by the harvested animals are filled by either the local population expansion or outside animals seeking survival by leaving the overcrowding (lack of niches for expanding population) of adjacent territories. Enlightened reef management uses this knowledge to make sure there are 'no touch - no take zones' inter-spaced along all reef systems (often called 'enchargement zones').
Getting back to the fish cowboys and their capture techniques - some not so shy species of fish can be herded into a hand held small net using the free hand to herd them in, other fish are tricked or trapped with a variety of special capture devices. The underwater cowboys do not ride sea horses, but they do catch cow fish and carry slurp guns! About those cow fish, they can discharge a poison that has no effect on the collector - but can kill a large quantity of other fish if kept in the same container or in a small holding system. And the slurp guns - they are a suction device that the collector uses to trick small fish out of their holes and crevices. With the suction plunger extended (pulled out) they put the mouth of the barrel up to the hole and slowly push the plunger in, creating a currant that the fish has to swim against. Then the collector rapidly pulls the plunger back, reversing the currant and catching the fish off guard, pulling him into the barrel of the plunger! Another method is baited traps (usually attended - not left on their own) made of wire or acrylic plastic sheets that make it difficult for the fish to find his way back out once he has been lured in.
Yes - fish cowboys have crabs in their seabed - and lots of other invertebrates! Most of the collecting on invertebrates is done at night, when the critters are most active. A reef aquarium system fairs much better when it has a balance of species that include specimens from this group. Some of the most bazaar organisms and the more dangerous animals are active at that time too. The big sharks move into the shallows looking for easy meal, but you are more likely to be harmed by a venomous snail that you pick up or the spines of urchins or the Crown of Thorns Starfish that you brush up against while struggling with a 5 knot currant.
Fish cowboys face a lot of dangers below and above water. I saw on the news the other day that 'Commercial Fisherman' was listed as the most dangerous profession in America. I worked as a commercial Salmon fisherman in my youth, and at the time I never gave the risks much thought until my boat was caught in a rip-tide and almost went under. Considering the circumstances, I would not have survived had the boat actually sank. Again, in military training I never gave danger much thought, lulled by the idea that millions of others were sharing the same experience, and those in charge of what was going on had things under control. I came very close to being killed a couple of times in training as a Forward Observer at Ft. Sill because I placed the responsibility of my safety in the hands of others! Being a fish cowboy is definitely more dangerous then anything I had done for a living before, but you are always aware of the dangers, always prepared, always using extra caution - or else! You have to take everything in to account and be very deliberate in your actions. There are old divers and foolish divers, but there are no old, foolish divers. Yet, with all things considered, driving a car on the highway is still one of the most dangerous things anyone can do!
We had a very rewarding experience in Palau, Micronesia. Besides being underwater cowboys - we were underwater farmers. Before getting into marine life collecting I had spent five years in the tropical ornamental foliage business, helping to build a tropical plant nursery in Florida and Puerto Rico. From that experience I was familiar with different methods of plant propagation, and in Palau we had the chance to apply some of that knowledge to the propagation of hard and soft corals. There is no need to collect many of the popular corals in the aquarium trade from wild populations. It is quite easy to have patch reefs of 'mother corals' (large, fast growing corals like Acrapora) that have a sustainable production of 'cuttings' (you break off 5-7 cm of the tips that will grow back within 6 months) for the growing out of the commercial corals (the coral tips are cemented to small pieces of dead coral that act as a base for the growing live coral). Coral reefs that have suffered degradation or destruction of some sort can be brought back around with these 'cuttings' as long as the water quality is good. Endangerment of species on land is generally linked to agriculture/logging practices and over hunting. Endangerment of species in the water is general linked to water quality and over fishing. So simple to understand - yet governments and politicians seldom work with those who have the knowledge and ability to help resolve the problems leading to the destruction of our wildlife, on land or in the water.