The potential of the ornamental fish industry has been recognized by international markets and the recent decades saw rapid global growth in the industry. This growth was also felt by Sri Lanka, an island surrounded by the Indian ocean and blessed with an abundance of marine life that transcends many other regional countries in terms of marine biodiversity.
The collection and export of coral reef fish go as far back as the 1930s in Sri Lanka, with several small-scale collectors operating in Colombo, the country’s busy commercial capital. As the air freight facilities expanded during the 1950s, the trade of coral reef fish also bolstered, paving the way for the thriving export sector of ornamental fish that the country proudly boasts today. As research suggests, by 2000, the aquarium fish sector as a whole accounted for 1.4% of Sri Lanka’s export trade, following prawns and lobsters as the third highest in volume and value amongst the fisheries products exported by the country.
Sri Lanka exports both freshwater and marine fish. However, the value of marine fish exported is higher than that of freshwater fish and 70% of the total foreign exchange of aquarium fish comes from marine fish. While the domestic market is not too keen on ornamental fish, the demand for these vibrant specimens in international markets is always soaring.
With flashing colours that are aesthetically pleasing, Sri Lankan ornamental fish find their homes in aquariums maintained by those who seek the therapeutic effects of this century-old hobby. Much more than just a decorative statement, ornamental fish help hobbyists to synchronize with nature, to slow down their busy schedules to match the tranquil pace of nature and to reap the healing power that immersion in nature entails.
The majority of the fish exported by the country is wild-caught by scuba divers and snorkelers who explore the western, southern and eastern coastal waters of Sri Lanka during the non-monsoon seasons. Targeting both shallow inshore reefs and offshore reefs, they refrain from using harmful chemicals and techniques. Sri Lanka is mindful of the environmental impact of the ornamental fish industry and has subjected the ornamental fish collection to rigid regulations imposed by the government and related authorities. As a result, collectors ensure that the fish they produce to the markets are ethically and sustainably collected.
The main marine ornamental fish varieties exported by Sri Lanka are Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Tang fish and Clownfish.
Hailing from the Chaetodontidae family, Butterflyfish is one of the most widely sought-after aquarium fishes. Around 115 species belong to this family and only some of them can be bred and kept in captivity. In their natural habitat, they are concentrated in the Indo-Pacific Ocean region and can be found frequenting tropical reefs.
They stand out among the others with their disk-shaped thin bodies and peculiar snouts with which they tirelessly peck at corals and reefs. Their colouring is sure to catch your eye – they wear bright coloured stripes placed in contrast with striking backgrounds. Adding to their charm, their length rarely exceeds 20 cm. They are hardy fish capable of adapting to peaceful aquarium life. Most species of Butterflyfish are shy and will do just fine in a tank with peaceful mates. All you have to do is make sure that the tank is big enough for them to swim around and that there is plenty of space for them to play hide and seek in! And, as diurnal animals, they are active and energetic during the day and rest during the night, which means that you get to observe their behaviour all day long.
Marine Angelfish are not to be confused with fresh-water Angelfish. With somewhat rough scales and a relatively smaller mouth, they commonly sport silver coloured thin, deep bodies with vertical dark linings. The colouring of the body changes as the fish matures, meaning that they wear a different attire every day! And there are fewer than 100 species in the relatively smaller Pomacanthidae family; some of the most widely known angelfish species are Black and Gold Angelfish, French Angelfish and the Queen Angelfish. They have a sharp spine on their cheeks, the marker that distinguishes them from Butterflyfish. Even the biggest among them do not grow longer than 46 cm.
Usually, the saltwater Angelfish requires bigger tanks. If your Angelfish are small-sized, a 20-55-gallon tank will suit you just fine. However, if you are going for medium or large-sized Angelfish, your tank has to be 55 gallons or bigger. They start as males and become female if and when they lose their dominance. So, you don’t have to worry about determining their gender. There is a tendency that one male will adapt harem behaviour and mate with several females of the same species. They can be territorial during the mating season so it is best to keep competitors away.
Dubbed Surgeonfish or Doctorfish, Tang Fish adds a bright splash of colour to your aquarium. These tropical marine fishes of the Acanthuridae family are vibrant and have a razor-sharp spine that resembles a surgeon’s scalpel, hence the dubbed names.
There are about 75 species in this family and they vary in colour, depicting shades of blue, yellow and black. Inhibiting Indo-Pacific oceanic regions, they thrive around clear waters surrounding coral reefs. One of the many reasons behind the always-rising popularity of Tang Fish is that they can live up to 25-30 years when properly taken care of.
Tang Fish reach 6-12 inches when fully grown and should be kept in a big tank. You would need a 150-gallon tank or bigger. If put in a small tank, they could become stressed and quite aggressive too. Further, Tang Fish is considered to be prone to diseases; it is always a good idea to keep newly bought fish quarantined for at least a month before introducing them to your tank.
Perhaps the most popular of the ornamental fish species, the Clownfish is best known for movies like Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Sporting bright hues of white and orange, they have a distinct charm that attracts the eye instantly. On average, they grow up to 3-4 inches long and have a dorsal fin that is lined with 11 spines. Born as males, they can change themselves into females; once the transformation is done, there is no going back.
They usually live close to anemones, a creature that anchors itself to a surface and uses its tentacles to hunt by releasing a toxin. Clownfish however have developed a certain immunity to this toxin and live unharmed near anemones.
They have a peaceful temperament when kept with the same species. If you are planning on having anemones as well, you will need a 50-gallon tank or bigger. Many opt to pair Clownfish with anemones and some suitable types are Bubble Tip Anemone, Leathery Sea Anemone and Magnificent Anemone. However, if it is just the Clownfish, you are good with a smaller tank. They are also easy to feed and will thrive on the diet of an omnivore.
Sri Lanka is one of the leading ornamental fish exporters to the world with our aquariums and fish farms successfully captive breeding some of the most exotic and rare freshwater, marine and brackish water fish species and marine ornamental invertebrates in the world