Ret Talbot interview about Banggai Rescue
Advanced Aquarist: There has been a lot of discussions about Banggai Rescue since it was announced last week. We appreciate you talking with us about this project, providing more details and dispelling some misinformation about Banggai Rescue.
I suppose the best place to start is: Why should aquarists care about Banggai Cardinalfish?
Ret Talbot: The simple answer is because so many questions exist about the species, and many of those questions are directly related to the aquarium trade. Should the species be listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List as it currently is? Should it have received the CITES listing which it failed to receive? Why is there so much anecdotal evidence of a mysterious virus causing high mortality of apparently healthy aquarium specimens? Does the virus exist in native populations? Introduced populations? What is the real impact of the trade on the population levels of the species, the health of the ecosystems to which the species is endemic, and the socio-economics of local fishers and their families? I could go on and on.
To answer your question another way, aquarists should care because there are so many conflicting opinions from industry leaders who run the gamut from saying “What’s the big deal—there’s nothing wrong” to, “This is a crisis to which we can only respond by ending the trade in wild-caught Banggais.” We hope to be able to give the average aquarist a resource that will allow him or her to be able to begin answering these questions themselves, and, perhaps more importantly, contribute meaningfully to a truly sustainable future for the trade.
Advanced Aquarist: To my knowledge, Banggais are now found outside the Banggai Archipelago, with populations established throughout Sulawesi, Indonesia and beyond. Are they still in danger of extinction?
Ret Talbot: It seems clear to me from the interviews I have conducted and the research I have done that you are correct in saying there are now thriving introduced populations of the fish outside the species’ endemic range. Of course this, in and of itself, is something worth studying, as it seems fairly clear those populations were introduced secondary to the aquarium trade and, in at least one case, possibly a dive operator. I am not a scientist, and so I will respectfully reserve judgment regarding whether or not the species is in danger of extinction until I know more. I do think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered, however—hence this project.
Advanced Aquarist: There is some confusion about what the Kickstarter pledges will underwrite. Can you clarify the mission and goals of the Banggai Rescue Project?
Ret Talbot: Absolutely. The Kickstarter funding will, as the name implies, “kickstart” the project. As I’m sure you can imagine, the project—producing the book and all the research, writing, illustration, production, and printing that will go into producing the book—will cost far more than the $25,000 we are seeking through Kickstarter. The Kickstarter funding will, however, allow us to get the project off the ground by helping to cover the costs associated with embedding me as a journalist with the scientific expedition, by helping to fund the work that will go into establishing the breeding protocols, and by helping fund the editing, production and printing of the first edition of the book in time for MACNA 2012 in Dallas.
Moving beyond just the Kickstarter funding, the Project itself will also involve collaboration with a team of scientists, collaboration with partners in Indonesia, and collaboration with academic institutions and others hoping to scale mariculture and aquaculture initiatives up to a commercial level both here in the States and in the source country. While we look forward to that collaboration and even helping to hopefully fund some of those initiatives that will benefit the species, the ecosystems from which the species originates, the local fishers and their communities, and the trade at large, it’s important, I think, to remember that Banggai Rescue is ultimately about a book we hope can initiate some important dialog and, dare I say, reform in the industry.
Advanced Aquarist: To piggyback on an earlier question, why should aquarists contribute to the publication of a for-profit book?
Ret Talbot: As I alluded to a moment ago, even with all of us working on a shoestring budget, the book is going to cost a lot more than the $25,000 we are seeking to raise through Kickstarter, which, by the way, only allows fundraising for for-profit projects. We are willing to pour ourselves into this project with little hope of actual financial remuneration because we believe this is an important topic, and we hope aquarists will as well. So it’s not so much that aquarists should contribute, but rather it’s that we hope aquarists will want to join us in this endeavor by contributing and making it possible for us to get this thing off the ground.
Personally, I see the story of the Banggai cardinalfish as a microcosm of the trade at large, and that is primarily why I want to see this book published. If you have read any of my writing, you know I am an advocate for a robust and sustainable marine aquarium trade based on a combination of cultured animals and well-managed marine aquarium fisheries. Telling the story of the Banggai cardinalfish will help aquarists better understand the trade and its real impacts. Every time I speak, aquarists ask me how they can use their purchasing power to support the future of a sustainable marine aquarium trade—this, in my opinion, is one good way.
Oh yeah—and the rewards we are offering at each pledge level are really cool too!
Advanced Aquarist: From proposal to funding to expedition to book, the timeline appears very compressed. Do you believe the timeline is achievable for publishing the book in time for MACNA Dallas, which is only 6 months away?
Ret Talbot: You are absolutely correct! It is super compressed, but I think we can do it, and MACNA will be a great place to showcase the work. Having said that, much of the work has already begun for all of us on the team, so it’s not like we just started. I’m guessing the first edition will most likely be a somewhat limited run for MACNA, and I bet you’ll see a revised edition coming out later as we learn more about the breeding protocols.
James Lawrence, who has committed to publishing the book through Reef to Rainforest Media, would be in a better position to comment on the production schedule, but I can say for my part that I’m confident I can get my copy to editorial by the deadline.
Advanced Aquarist: On a related note: How does Matt Pedersen plan to conduct research on breeding Banggai with such short time? There are already several documents published about breeding Banggai. What does the Bangaii Rescue Project hope to contribute with the funds marked for captive breeding research?
Ret Talbot: I can’t speak for Matt, and personally I am, at best, an accidental fish breeder. What I can tell you is that, like me and like members of the scientific team, Matt has already begun working on this project by interfacing with other breeders, reading the extant literature and working in his own fish room.
While there are published accounts of breeding Banggais in captivity, and while many have the impression that this is an easy species to breed, the reality is that there is nobody of whom I’m aware who is consistently producing tank-bred Banggai cardinalfishes at a commercial scale. So again, we have another key question—why is a fish that is supposedly so easy to breed and whose status in the wild is so questionable not being bred consistently on a commercial level? I have some of my own opinions on that question based on stories I have researched in the past, but it’s Matt who is going to do the legwork to attempt to answer that question definitively in the book and provide the protocols that will hopefully jumpstart both small and large scale commercial breeding of the species.
Advanced Aquarist: The press release makes mention of a science team. However, the project page has not provided any details about the science team. Why has this information not been made available?
Ret Talbot: This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the project to date for those of us on the team. We are so excited about collaborating with these specific scientists given their expertise, and we want to share that excitement with everyone. The fact of the matter is, however, that mounting a scientific expedition to a foreign country is no simple feat. It is absolutely critical to the success of the scientific expedition and the book project that the scientists dot all their proverbial i’s and cross all their t’s before they go public.
What I can tell you is that the team is in touch daily with collaborators in Indonesia to insure the work undertaken in the Banggai Islands is legal and will benefit local scientists, conservationists, aqua- and mariculturists, fishers, fisheries managers, and all the other people already on the ground in Indonesia working hard on issues related to the Banggai cardinalfish. This is a huge collaborative effort, and we don’t want to jeopardize anything in the name or PR. As soon as everything is in order, we’ll get the word out.
Advanced Aquarist: Can you provide any information about the scientists at this time? What are the objectives for their scientific expedition?
Ret Talbot: As I just explained, I really can’t go into too many details. I can tell you I have read their proposal, and I have spoken with members of the scientific team, and I am very humbled to have the opportunity to work with such talented and credentialed individuals. I can also give you a little scoop here, and that is that we just announced Dr. Gerry Allen as our senior advisory board member. I don’t think there is anybody affiliated with the trade who is in a better position to comment on a project concerning this species. The fact Dr. Allen has vetted the project and the scientists should give everyone confidence in what we are attempting to do.
Advanced Aquarist: What relationship will the Bangaii Rescue team have with the science team?
Ret Talbot: The most direct relationship is that I will be embedded with the scientific expedition in Indonesia in May. My primary role will be to shadow them and, as a journalist, document what they are doing and what they are learning about the species. This will result in some of the early chapters of the book. Once the scientific team is back in the States, they will be interfacing with Matt on the breeding protocols with their efforts much more focused on large-scale commercial breeding.
To clarify, we are not taking the entire project team to Indonesia, as some have inferred. Of the announced team members to date, I am the only one going to the Banggai Islands with the scientific team.
Advanced Aquarist: Will the project publicly document the allocation of funds?
Ret Talbot: I don’t have an answer for you on that—it’s above my pay grade I’m afraid. We do have an internal budget, but likely that will remain fairly fluid depending on how the fundraising effort progresses. While it is not common for a publisher to produce a book’s budget for public consumption, I realize this is a somewhat different beast given that we are using Kickstarter and asking people to essentially invest in the project.
If I were looking from without and trying to decide whether or not I wanted to invest in backing this project, I guess I would look at the end product—the book—and then decide how much I felt the book was worth to me considering the impact it could have on the species, the ecosystems where the species originates, the local fishers and their communities, the trade, and, ultimately, the individual aquarist. I’d also take a serious look at those rewards. For example, I know I’m married to the artist, but receiving an original Karen Talbot painting at the $2,500 level would certainly tempt me.
Advanced Aquarist: Our hobby has attempted crowd-sourced projects in the past which resulted in delay or failure. The Elegance Coral Project and Salt Study comes to mind. What assurances can you provide that the Bangaii Rescue Project will not repeat past mistakes?
Ret Talbot: I am not very familiar with those projects, but I am pretty familiar with Kickstarter, and it is a platform which has established a fair degree of credibility in a short amount of time. The fact that we are doing this through Kickstarter is one degree of assurance. Beyond that, I think you can look to James Lawrence’s credibility as the editor and publisher of Coral Magazine and Amazonas Magazine. As many people will know, James is no newcomer to books, having published more than 150 book titles for national distribution. Six of those titles have sold 100,000 copies or more, and his creation, Microcosm, Ltd, is responsible for a string of highly acclaimed bestsellers, including the award-winning Conscientious Marine Aquarist and The Marine Aquarium Handbook: Beginner to Breeder.
In short, I think we’ve put together a team with a proven track record when it comes to telling a story, promoting a robust and sustainable marine aquarium trade and actually getting things done in a timely fashion.
Advanced Aquarist: You have become the de facto public champion for a sustainable aquarium trade, and I really can not think of a better person to speak on our behalf. How did this passion come about?
Ret Talbot: You are kind, but I should point out there are many sustainably-minded people who have been involved in the hobby and the trade a lot longer than I. Many of these folks have gone beyond championing sustainability by actually doing something about it. I'm fortunate I get to cover some of these stories for publications like Coral Magazine, and it's a real pleasure to be able to share what I learn with readers and audiences around North America.
In terms of how I got to where I am as "the guy who covers sustainability issues in the trade," it really all began with our own aquarium. As a freelance writer, I covered other fisheries, conservation, science, and sustainability issues for years before I ever penned anything for the marine aquarium media. These are topics I have been passionate about since my grandfather first taught me to fly fish. Interestingly enough, that same grandfather also instilled in me a love of aquarium-keeping. As I moved into my professional life, my passion for fly fishing also became central to my career as both a guide and a writer, but the same did not happen with my passion for aquaria. I almost always kept tanks, but it was truly just a hobby.
When the call to boycott all wild-caught Banggai cardinalfish was issued a few years back, I was intrigued that the discussion that emerged was remarkably similar to the dialogs in which I was engaged regarding other fisheries. After a conversation along those lines with James Lawrence at Coral, he suggested I interview some people in Indonesia about the Banggai story, and suddenly, I found myself engaged in discussions about the impacts of marine aquarium fisheries such as the one in the Banggai Islands. Readers responded well, and James green-lighted a multi-year series of articles in Coral that has allowed me to research many of these fisheries firsthand and report back to aquarists.
In the absence of third-part certification and the degree of transparency a fishery such as this one requires in order to be categorically deemed sustainable, the aquarium media can--and I would even go so far as to say should--play a vital role in educating aquarists about the fundamental issues surrounding sustainability. Once aquarists have the information, then they can make an informed decision about how they choose to use their purchasing power. Being in a position to help aquarists make those choices has been one of the more rewarding aspects of my writing career, and, yes, it has become a passion.
Advanced Aquarist: Thank you so much for your time. Keep up the good work you're doing on behalf of aquarists everywhere.