Marine Science Magnet High School Director of Aquaculture Eric Litvinoff puts
his students to work to build an aquaculture system. Photo by N. Spera/MSMHS
Upgrading the Value Chain means changing the paradigm of the way marine aquarium fishes are traded globally. When fish are sold, profits accrue to stakeholders in the middle of the chain--retailers, wholesalers, importers, exporters, and other traders--leaving little left for the fishers. In some source locales, fishers earn just pennies per fish, offering little incentive to handle, care for, and package them properly. Instead, fishers are incentivized to catch more fish in order to provide for their families.
The Campaign works to change the paradigm from this volume-driven approach to a value-driven approach, where all stakeholders in the value chain--including fishers--are incentivized to command premiums for healthy, high-quality fish that survive the trip from reef to retail. We do this by: 1) discovering strategies to move value up the chain, 2) developing a test to detect and reject cyanide-exposed fish in the value chain, and 3) teaching best practices in fish husbandry and business management to stakeholders throughout the value chain.
Cyanide Assay Development
Scientists and students from Mystic Aquarium, Roger Williams University, and UMass Boston are putting their heads together to study and measure how gene activity and the enzymes they produce are triggered in response to cyanide exposure in marine aquarium fishes. Measurement of these analytes can identify targets to develop a field assay that can be deployed to detect and reject cyanide-exposed fishes in the value chain. This work is generously supported by the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.
Resilient Species Selection
The status of fisheries populations or sustainability of fisheries for most species in the marine aquarium trade are poorly known. But we do know about species' life histories, and their popularity and value in the trade. Research Scientists and Interns from Mystic Aquarium have scoured available knowledgebases to collect data on market and life history characteristics among the most popularly traded marine aquarium species in the U.S. They've plugged these data into a Principal Components Analysis, which reveals insights to suggest which species are likely to be resilient to overfishing from the wild (= safe bets), and which may be vulnerable. While vulnerable species or populations aren't necessarily threatened, they can help fisheries managers prioritize limited resources to assessing the populations of these species.
Discovering the U.S. Marine Aquarium Industry
Dedicated volunteers from Mystic Aquarium systematically search the internet for marine aquarium businesses operating throughout the U.S. using a series of carefully considered and tested search terms. Discovered businesses are entered into a database that provides not only contact information but also categorizes them by sector (e.g., retailer, wholesaler, public aquarium, etc.). This database, now standing at 3,200 businesses, allows the Campaign to map the value chain, survey the industry to identify areas for sustainable business growth, and reach out to businesses with educational programs to improve fish husbandry and business management practices.
Value Chain Mapping
Campaign partner Dr. Bob Pomeroy, Fisheries Economist with the University of Connecticut and Connecticut Sea Grant, specializes in value chain mapping, a descriptive tool to understand interactions among economic agents. At the heart of the analysis is the mapping of sectors and key linkages. It prompts consideration of both the micro and macro aspects involved in production and exchange activities. The commodity-based analysis offers insights into the organizational structures and strategies of stakeholders, and an understanding of economic processes which are often studied only at the global level (often ignoring local differentiation of processes) or national/local levels (often downplaying the larger forces that shape socio-economic change and policy making). These insights can identify market interventions and investments.
Something Fishy Inc. is a Rhode Island-based aquarium maintenance business that applies best management practices in fish husbandry and business strategy in its own business. The success that Something Fishy has nurtured over its years in business has attracted the interest and curiosity of its peers. As a result, the business has positioned itself as a leader and role model in the marine aquarium industry, and routinely organizes workshops to guide other businesses toward successful business practices. They've held workshops at their own showroom, Mystic Aquarium, and the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America, the largest industry conference in the nation.
The Marine Science Magnet High School is a Connecticut-based aquaculture-themed school featuring a 20,000 gallon State-of-the-Art aquaculture learning laboratory where students get their hands wet while learning skills in husbandry and aquaculture in their catalog of courses that includes Advanced Aquarium Research, Aquaculture and Resource Management, Aquarium Science, Aquatic Husbandry, Environmental Science, and Marine Science and Studies. The School was named a School of Distinction for Overall Performance in the 2018-19 School Year by the CT State Department of Education. Graduates matriculating out of the school are skilled, trained, and ready to apply best practices in aquarium science and husbandry in entry-level jobs in the marine aquarium industry. Partial funding for this program has been generously provided by Connecticut Sea Grant.
Mystic Aquarium is a world-class public aquarium that educates and inspires 800,000* visitors that come through its doors annually. Conservation is at the core of the Aquarium's values. As part of its conservation ethic, it educates its visitors about ways of thinking and behavior changes that they can adopt to make the oceans a healthier habitat. This Aquaculture Exhibit at the aquarium draws guests in with the "baby-fish" factor, then prompts visitors to think about the fish in their home aquaria. Where do they come from? Are their fish wild-caught or aquacultured? Either way, are they sustainably sourced? Visitors are then equipped with these questions to ask their aquarium stores at their next fish purchase.
* in 2019