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Coral Reefs in the Balance

A Filipino fisherman inspects a tropic fish
A Filipino fisherman inspects a tropic fish

Hong Kong, the bustling entry point of East Asian commerce, is the hub of the global live fish trade. Not all the fish found there end up in home aquariums. Some fish, like the giant grouper, humphead wrasse and coral trout, are caught live near Pacific coral reefs and kept in tanks until they are served up in restaurants. Depending on the size and species, a single fish can cost hundreds of dollars.

And in Chinese medicinal markets, another species of reef-dweller, the seahorse, is sold to make traditional treatments for impotence and other ailments. The trade in these reef species is on the rise, and biologists say the reef populations are threatened.

NPR's Chris Joyce joins Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, considered one of the world's experts on the live fish and aquarium trade, at the Hong Kong market to investigate the reef fish trade.

The journey continues to the tropical reefs of the Pacific. On the tiny island of Jandayan, near the island of Cebu in the Philippines, "lantern-divers" swim along the reefs in the darkness of night to hunt for one of the world's most exotic animals -- the seahorse.

Under the glow of their lanterns, the divers capture seahorses to sell to aquarium fish dealers in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Dead ones go to the traditional Chinese medicine market. It's a meager living, but there are few alternatives for making a living.

Joyce and the Radio Expeditions crew travel to Jandayan to join biologist Amanda Vincent and the lantern fishers to learn about Project Seahorse, an international effort to preserve this island's way of life while keeping seahorse populations from dying out.

The spectacular and exotic fish that fill aquariums all over the world are caught wild in coral reefs by divers like Fred Durayas. Durayas is a Filipino who once dynamited reefs to get fish to eat. He switched to catching aquarium fish using cyanide to stun them -- but the cyanide is killing the reefs.

Now Durayas is learning to catch these exotic fish with nets. Joyce travels to the Camotes Islands of the Philippines to investigate a program to help people like Durayas make a living, while preserving the reefs that shape their livelihood.

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Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.