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International team examines trade in saltwater aquarium fish

A worker shows baby clownfish at a breeding facility in Buleleng, Bali, Indonesia, April 13, 2022. Experts hope to steer the aquarium fish trade away from wild-caught fish, which are often caught with poisons that can hurt coral ecosystems, but only about 4% of saltwater aquarium fish can be bred in captivity, largely because many have elaborate reproductive cycles and delicate early life stages that require sometimes mysterious conditions scientists and breeders struggle to reproduce. AP Photo / Tatan Syuflana Experts around the world are tinkering over water temperature, futzing with lights and trying different mixes of microscopic food particles in hopes of happening upon the particular and peculiar set of conditions that will inspire ornamental fish to breed. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

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The Jakarta, Indonesia, team of health and science reporter Victoria Milko, video journalist Andi Jatmiko, reporter Edna Tarigan, reporter-photographer Firdia Lisnawati and photographer Tatan Syuflana, collaborating with New York video journalist and motion graphics producer Marshall Ritzel, video journalist Kathy Young, global enterprise photo editor and designer Maye-E Wong and Washington video journalist Angie Wang produced a unique two-part series about how and why aquarium fish are captured and transported around the world, whether legally or not.

Not long after Milko moved to Jakarta for the AP’s Health and Science team, she noticed aquarium fish at a market near the office. She suspected there would be a story connecting the fish seen in fancy aquariums in the West to the sensitive tropical reefs in Southeast Asia. She was right — and like many good stories,this one had multiple layers,some of them dark.

Fish are caught using cyanide to stun them; it weakens the fish but kills many while destroying the reefs they inhabit. As Milko learned more,it became clear that many AP journalists would be needed to show how the trade stretched around the world and how difficult it was for authorities to regulate it. The team in Indonesia went on a dive with a fisherman in Bali, visited breeding operations and met with middlemen at a warehouse in Jakarta to show how the fish were caught and gathered for export.

In the U.S.,the team needed months to get skittish U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials to agree to an on-camera interview. The journalists had to overcome similar issues getting pet stores and enthusiasts to talk about such a sensitive topic. The second story, about captive breeding,presented its own challenges,mainly because the tricks and techniques of captive breeding are such closely held,valuable secrets. But after months of newsgathering the team had it all — a deeply reported package stocked with vivid photos and video of fisherman,middlemen,experts,officials,pet stores and enthusiasts.

The sprawling and innovative enterprise package highlighted the global reach and depth of the AP,from Indonesia to Bali to Florida and Rhode Island, while a robust social media plan engaged readers and viewers.

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