Spotlight Kenya's Ornamental Marine Fish Trade

The current state of the ornamental marine fish trade is of interest to all of us. Here's how it works off of east Africa.
  1. An overview of Kenya’s Ornamental Marine Fish Trade

    On the western coast of the Indian Ocean, Kenya is the biggest exporter of marine aquarium fish. Other countries in this region include Madagascar, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Somalia. The reefs off the shores of these countries are rich in many colorful fish, and reefs extend all along the eastern coast of Africa from north to south.

    The trade in Kenya started sometime in the late 1960s and early 70s. At that time, about 48 species of fish were being harvested and exported. Today, that amount has quadrupled to over 200 species of fish belonging to about 35 families. These include Labridae, Serranidae, Blenniidae, Scorpaenidae, Pomacanthidae, Microdesmidae, Gobidae, and Chaetodontidae. Of note are the rare hybrid angelfishes that collectors stumble upon from time to time.

    The most abundant aquarium fish are the Bluestreak cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, Sea Goldie Pseudanthias squamipinnis, Fire goby Nemateleotris magnifica, the six-line wrasse, Pseudocheilinus hexataenia, and the twobar anemonefish or Allard's clownfish, Amphiprion allardi.

    Today Kenya has over 145 fish collectors catching more than 300,000 fish every year. The trade in these fish is worth upwards of US$700,000 annually. Two major companies control over 65% of the export market.

    Huma Picasso triggerfish, Rhinecanthus aculeatus
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

    Rare fish

    Triggerfish Balistoides conspicullum, the angelfish Pomacanthus chrysurus and Pomacanthus maculosus are some of the most valuable aquarium fishes. But hybrids of the various species of angelfish are the most attention grabbing and expensive.

    Hybrids occur at a higher than usual rate along the Kenyan coastline because different angelfish including the chrysurus, maculosus, "old woman", and koran share the same habitats in some places.

    The most valuable hybrids are those between the chrysurus and maculosus species. However, collectors can’t really go out to specifically look for them. When these fish are young, their colors are evolving so they are hard to identify.

    Exporters will usually pay the collectors varying amounts of money for different types of fish. The prices also depend on the size, color, and abundance of the fish.

    Firefish goby, Nemateleotris magnifica
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

    How the fish travels from the reef to the aquariums

    Collectors usually catch the most fish from December to April. From May to August, the western Indian Ocean experiences the south-east monsoon winds which result in rough seas, so, collection and export are low.

    The fishermen target juvenile fish because they are easier to handle and package for transportation. Sometimes they are more colorful, sometimes not. But younger fish have age on their sides. Young fish also adapt more easily to life outside the ocean and will live in aquariums for longer by default.

    Fish collectors either scuba dive or snorkel depending on their skill levels. Snorkeling only works around shallow reefs so it is a sort the entry-level of fish collection. Snorkelers tend to work alone or in pairs, so they have an added incentive to join scuba diving where teams are bigger.

    Most snorkelers transition to scuba diving once they grow in confidence and can afford or get access to equipment. Scuba divers often work in teams of 5 to 10 individuals. The collectors can earn wages ranging from $5 to about $15 a day on average depending on how many fish they caught and what fish they caught.

    One of the few surveys conducted found that all fish collectors were middle-aged men of between 25 and 42 years old and some of them had licenses but there were others who did not. Unlicensed collectors were mainly supplying fish to local hotels. Some fishermen with licenses to catch other types of fish and invertebrates were also observed catching ornamental fish on rare occasions so they could supplement their income.

    Koran angelfish, Pomacanthus semicirculatus.
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

    At the reef

    Typically, the collectors head out to their fishing spots in small boats, usually provided by the export companies. They then dive for anywhere between 2 to 4 hours a day. They can do this daily until they meet their target to satisfy orders. Such expeditions usually last 7 days.

    The exporters equip their fish collectors with full fishing gear, including nets and scuba or snorkeling gear. The government bans the use of explosives and all chemicals including cyanide when fishing, so the collectors use nets.

    From the reef to the holding center

    When collectors catch the fish, they keep them in bags or water containers. They transfer these bags from the boats to the vans usually waiting at the shore. The vans then go straight to the holding centers

    At the holding centers

    Fish exporters have invested in good aquarium equipment to ensure the fish survive and are healthy enough to export as soon as possible.

    When the fish arrive, staffers sort them using criteria like health and breed. They keep the fish for observation for some time to ensure the catch is healthy before shipping.

    Injured and infected fish are kept away from the healthy ones to prevent the spread of the disease and treatment is administered. The average mortality rate for fish caught is 2%.

    Spotband butterflyfish, Chaetodon punctatofasciatus.
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.


    Exporters must get permits from the fisheries department before they can send consignments to their clients.

    Preparation for shipping includes assembling the right packaging materials and starving the fish for about 48 hours before shipping to prevent them from fouling the plastic bags during transportation. Then, they pack and seal the fish into special plastic bags that contain oxygen.

    Packing is a challenging and costly process that can contribute to up to 50% of the total operating costs for exporters.


    Some fish collectors do not work for specific exporters so they sell their catch to the highest bidders. They can play different sides and this can cause conflicts.

    Sometimes the collectors also feud with fishermen targeting edible species because reef habitats are rich in both ornamental and edible fish.

    Researchers have also found some collectors fishing in Marine Protection Reserves. “Fishing is usually permitted in reserves only for regular rather than ornamental fishing, but this is not enforced well,” explains Dr David Obura, a leading marine biologist.

    Impacts and the way forward

    Because the collectors target small fish, there are concerns that this can affect the populations of targeted species. So far, no studies have addressed how the different species are faring locally but in other places like the Philippines, the fishing has been shown to significantly affect both the fish populations as well as the health of the reefs and the balance of the reef ecosystem.

    The state-funded KMFRI (Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute) has been working with various entities to improve breeding of several species in aquariums. Dr Gladys Okemwa, a Fisheries and Conservation Scientist at the institute says “KMFRI has trialed in situ culture of some coral species. There are ongoing plans to trial other marine fish species and invertebrates in collaboration with the aquarium industry.”

    What about the exporters? Rene Jorgensen, the CEO of Kenya Tropical Sealife--the biggest exporter--says that the company is setting up a coral and clam breeding center to minimize reliance on harvesting from the wild and maximize sustainability.


    Coral Culture-

    Data and species-

    Tropical Sealife-

    Impact of fishing Philippines:


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    Author Profile: David Kimutai

    David loves visiting the ocean, and his favorite saltwater aquarium fish is the dwarf angel, genus Centropyge in the family, Pomacanthidae. He is a freelance science writer and digital marketer living in Nairobi, Kenya.

    His love for aquariums started when he was young, when together with his brothers, they fished a trout from a local stream and kept it alive at home for days before releasing it.

    His forum name is Davidangelfish.

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