FISH COWBOYS

INTRODUCTION

It was only 10,000 years ago, more or less, when man started settling down to cultivate crops and practice animal husbandry. So is it any wonder that the 'hunting instinct' is still with us? For some that drive to seek out and possess may translate into collecting Baseball Cards or Barbie Dolls, but for a lot of other people it is a primal need that can only be satisfied by hunting/fishing and gathering wild plants in the untamed areas of nature.

Now the 'hunting & gathering' can be done in many different ways and with different goals in mind. My personal evolution has taken me from the level of collecting for food production to the 'bring em back alive' level of capturing specimens for garden, terrarium, aquarium and science. And of all the types of commercial 'live collecting' in the wild that I have experienced and made a living at (ornamental plants, parrots, small mammals, terrestrial invertebrates, tropical fish, reptiles & amphibians) - the most enjoyable has been the Marine Tropical Fish Business.

Tropical rain forests are the most spectacular terrestrial environments you can experience for color, sound, smell, and diversity of life forms. In fact it is overwhelming for most of us. The majority of visitors to tropical forests are very limited in their actual appreciation of what there is to observe because of their ignorance of what they are looking at - it takes much time and study to be able to understand what is there. Then there are the physical hindrances that make full appreciation near impossible. The thick jungle hides much - activity in the tall forest canopy is difficult to observe, and most animal activity is occurring at night! One of the best ways to understand the bio-density (as well as the diversity) of the jungle is to observe the frantic animal activities of the evening with night vision glasses. Extraterrestrials have probably said as much when discussing the study of humans.

All of the above can be said about tropical coral reef systems as well. But instead of night vision glasses, we use strong illuminating lights while looking into the reef's night time activities. The biggest difference for the observer in the two systems; you are dealing with gravity in the rainforest, but on the reef (using SCUBA equipment) you are a weightless three dimensional animal flying around like a bird. The capability of being able to go up and down as well as back and forth makes it much easier and enjoyable to observe all the activities in this biotope. And unless you are swimming against a strong currant, it is not as physically demanding as climbing up trees or over hills and valleys. Great for the lazy explorer of nature.

On the reef there is all the spectacular colors, a background of 'life sounds', and at least as much diversity as the rainforest - but no smells for the observer to contemplate! That is man's only real limitation of experience in water. But for the normal inhabitants of the world's hydrosphere, the transmission of chemicals (smell) is as important as it is for all life forms on land - which is to say, very important. For man, following your nose underwater is limited to direction finding.

This freedom of movement and access on the reef is one of the reasons I enjoy collecting in that environment. Another is that the temperature 'comfort zone' is seldom exceeded in tropical waters. You can work up a sweat underwater and not feel uncomfortable! Chasing fish can be hard and sweaty work (and your wet suit will have an odor to prove it), but you still feel 'cool'. Then of course you can always expect the unexpected down there - a visit by some big turtle or shark, or just the pleasant surprise of seeing some organism totally new or different to you. For the curious, those in awe of the wonders of nature, the kind of people that like surprises and challenges - nothing beats marine life collecting.

Like any commercial wild specimen collecting operation, there is a great deal of planning to do - preparation of equipment/holding facilities, and of course the research! Research into the marketplace for what is worthwhile to collect, research into the laws that effect all aspects of your activities, research into where the prey are found and their natural history, research into effective collection methods.

Commercially collected marine life specimens can be placed into three basic categories; fish, invertebrates, and plants. Those categories have to be taken into consideration when planning your operation - gathering/capture techniques, handling/transport techniques, and holding methods. Each category has its own unique approach and methods. There are exceptions and special methods for some varieties, but I do not want to make this too technical or detailed for this 'Field Notes'. If you want more information, I am available as a consultant!

The methods I will be describing here have been used successfully over a period of many years by my wife and I (and our collecting team) in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Care was taken to not damage the reef, over exploit the collecting areas, or cause any harm to the environment. Although I appreciate the philosophy of some who say that when on the reef you should "only take pictures and only leave bubbles", I feel that this is a very elitist attitude and in the long run it would not serve the best interests of man or the reef if everyone felt that way. There are several reasons for this conclusion: 1) those who phrase 'take pictures and leave bubbles' are in essence saying that only those people with time and money enough to go diving in exotic locations should be able to enjoy and interact with a reef environment ( very few people are able to do this - tropical reef divers are an extreme minority of the world's population), 2) when people are given the opportunity to interact with the marine environment through marine aquarium keeping they develop a sound appreciation of the world's reefs and are able to add immensely to our knowledge of reef ecology through the observations made in their hobby that they pass on to the marine community, 3) some of the newest and best medical drugs and the most promising medical research, involve substances derived from marine organisms - which means collecting for research.

So it comes down to this - people protect what they cherish or find valuable (definition of conservation = 'wise use'). Access to reefs and collecting from that environment enhances knowledge and appreciation of the value of the reefs. For those reasons people will put money and effort into finding methods to promote rationally sound management of the world's reefs as a renewable resource. If you want more information on 'how' - contact me.

And now that we have waded through this area where emotional hysteria sometimes pops up it's irrational and ugly head, let's get into the water!

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