With the looming release of my very limited stash of Lightning Maroon Clownfish to the open market, one of the questions that’s been struggled with is what to sell them for.  That question generated many more thought provoking discussions about the origins of the fish, and the ethics of producing it in the first place.  You might recall my post in August of 2012 covering the retail pricing of other PNG Maroon Clownfish; what you didn’t know was that this post had been drafted, and has been sitting there while we debated whether it should be posted or not.
Ultimately, at LOT has changed since August 2012, but we’ll get to that at the end
The Going Rate?
Let’s start with “price”.  I paid a 4-digit figure for mine – a huge risky investment – the most expensive fish I have ever owned.  I got lucky that it didn’t die, made it, and successfully spawned.  I got even more lucky to find that the trait was genetic.
Over the past few years, most truly NEW and or RARE captive bred clownfish are released into the market at around a $300 to $400 price point.  But that’s with a steady supply backing them up.  To date, the Lighting Maroon pair has not spawned again (I have not overtly coerced them into it again, preferring to let them come to mating naturally), which leaves me with only a handful of fish to release.  So what are they worth?
Well, back when investigating the prices of PNG Maroons I spoke with Dan Navin, head of EcoAquariums PNG.  He gave me some great insights.  Before we get to that, it bears mentioning that the reality of a THIRD Lightning Maroon Clownfish being caught and exported from PNG is hypothetically plausible.  Case in point, collector Steven Paul, who caught the Lightning Maroon I now own, has been attributed as saying “…he knows where more lightnings are, he just hasn’t gotten around to catching more of them for us yet…” at Reef2Rainforest.com.  So it’s certainly POSSIBLE that some other day, some other year, some other lifetime, another wild-caught Lightning Maroon could show up.
Which brings me to the question – what’s that next wild-caught Lightning Maroon Clownfish worth?
I would not let the next wild lightning go from here for less than a $5000 retail price. For less than that, Id keep it here and try to breed it ourselves. Or send it to a successful breeder with a community kickback contract in place.”  That was Dan Navin’s initial response in 2012 – I assume he was talking $5000 USD.
The Impacts of Captive Bred Lightning Maroons
Of course, I did point out that he might be hard pressed to get that amount once there are 10, 20, or 2000 captive bred Lightning Maroons running around, to which he responded, “You hit the nail on the head though, when you said that we will not be able to fetch as high of a price for our next lightning maroon, after you start making these available as captively produced. The same can also be said about our other, much more common but less aberrant maroons, like our horned and mis-barred. This reduced value will have a direct impact on our collectors.”
Navin’s concerns are certainly valid given that the current “sustainability” model in place in PNG does require, among other things, that divers be “well-paid” for their fish.  A diver who finds a slightly aberrant maroon clownfish currently has a little bit of a financial bonus awaiting him, and as I showed in a prior blog post, that’s a fairly regular occurrence so far.  The restricted supply is what keeps the value of these wild fish high, and that could change in the future, directly impacting a diver’s bottom line.
To extrapolate the issue, Navin believes that the Lightning Maroon I possess was sold for far too little, the diver paid way too little, and the community missed out on receiving long term benefit from this fish.  On some counts, knowing the numbers Navin conveyed, I’d perhaps agree.  I too have long since wondered if exporting this Lightning Maroon was the right thing to do, or if this amounted to a case of “bio-piracy”.
The Decision To Export the Lightning Maroon
David Vosseler, head of SEASMART PNG, was the one responsible for making the export decision.  The only other option would have been to keep the fish in PNG and to attempt to breed it there.  Vosseler conveyed to me that the notoriety generated by exporting the fish was good for PNG and the fishery; at the time it brought more marketing value than the fish itself could fetch.  The fact that this fish wound up residing with me, where it would get full ongoing coverage on this website, was another main goal…the marketing merits of this fish as the ambassador for PNG, as well as a feather in the cap for the SEASMART brand, are certainly proven and haven’t faded from communal memory.
But perhaps most important, SEASMART did not have the facilities, resources, or technical expertise to breed any marine fish, so that was clearly off the table, leaving export as the only option.  If they had retained the fish in PNG, it’s doubtful that there would be any Lightnings to speak of today either, as the program was cut well short in 2011, and this fish would’ve either been returned to the ocean, exported to someone else if they even could have pulled off one last export, or maybe ended up in some aquarium somewhere in PNG.  Ultimately history has proven, in my opinion, that Vosseler made the right call to export this fish…an opinion as unbiased as I can offer.
Future Wild Lightning Maroon Clownfish May Come With Added Obligations
Still, I can empathize with Navin’s view that the PNG community was not rewarded sufficiently for the production of the fish, and that production of them in the future may cause more harm than good to the people of PNG. Navin elaborated –  “[It] just seems fair to me that a good portion of the proceeds of any captive breeding efforts go back to those people who would otherwise be getting a better price for their catch. They have no ability to breed the fish themselves, and have no ability to stop anybody from doing so. They are simply just trying to etch out a meager existence in this quickly developing world which has essentially passed them by. Again, I think you can get a higher price for these fish if you promote the fact that a community kickback is in place. This benefits the villagers, and you.”
Certainly a compelling argument, but when Navin had initially proposed that I give a 50/50 split of my own sales to a hypothetical entity in PNG, my jaw hit the ground!  After all, I’m the one who did all the work, invested all the money, and took ALL the risk.  The next biggest investor in me, was perhaps Blue Zoo, who skipped out on offers many times more than what I paid.  They avoided the quick buck (they didn’t LOSE money though), but they could’ve gotten far more.  They avoiding “cashing in to the max” on the premise that this fish ought to go to a breeder to be preserved and propagated, vs. a collector of rare fish who’d just watch the fish.  Navin seems to disagree with that sentiment, and this disagreement is echoed in his opinion of who should get these Lightning Maroons I’ve produced.
“Regarding you selling [the F1 Lightning Maroons] to breeders, I would much rather see them go to a rich people, who will simply pay you a good price, and put them in a big old aquarium where they will live out there lives… and die,” wrote Navin.  “Send them to more breeders, and I think you will be compounding the problem. The end result will be that lightning patterned maroons become a dime a dozen, and all value will be lost. You are better off, as are PNG collectors, if you keep these more exclusive.”
But he does have me thinking, and this concern is what drives the “community kickback contract” that Navin mentioned earlier.  He elaborated; “if anyone has any intentions of breeding it, there will be a community kickback policy in place. Not an EcoAquariums kickback, but a community kickback, specifically targeting the village school, from whichever community reef the next one comes from.”
What’s My Responsibility The Breeder of Lightning Maroon Clowns?
The other side of me looks at my project and realizes that my goal here was the preservation of rare biodiversity.  I have perfectly ugly endangered species of freshwater fish in my basement that I am trying to breed solely for the preservation of their genetics.  There is no one telling me I should be “kicking back” anything to a town in Mexico simply because I am breeding Characadon lateralis.  When I look at this topic through that lens, I realize quite quickly that if the fish didn’t carry a quadruple digit price tag, I don’t think we’d be seeing the same ideas coming forth.  After all, is Dan Navin sending out every fish he collects with a contractual agreement that if you breed it, you are required to pay a royalty back to the PNG fisher who caught it?  Not that I’m aware of.  Should he?  Maybe?!
I certainly have no legal obligation to convey any future profits from this fish to anyone other than my family, my fishroom, and my son’s college fund!  I could argue that, just as David Vosseler had suggested, the ongoing spotlight on the PNG Lightning Maroon, and thus on PNG fisheries in general, has paid off in non-monetary ways by continuing to feature this fishery, and thus, create the market demand for the PNG fish.  That IS the dividends they elected, and are now collecting.  They’re getting payment from me right now as I take my personal time to write yet another blog article talking all about EcoAquariums and sustainably-harvested Papua New Guinea reef fish.
How Could A “KickBack” Work?
Still, I have thought about the concept of the “kickback”.  In the discussions about retailing my offspring, I have indeed considered the idea of “giving back”, and I stumble mainly on the logistics of doing so, and of getting other people to buy in.
I’ve looked into patenting the genetics, which would then make it illegal to propagate the fish without a license – such a license could then enforce payments back to the patent holder.  However, since the animal is not cloned, and is not a GMO, it’s not something that can be covered under patent law. Such a patent would cover my ongoing investment, and could also facilitate a community kickback program akin to the one Navin asked for.  Regrettably, no such patent can be had.
In other interest groups…for example Hostas, there ARE patented plants that require a license to propagate.  However, this is not some 50/50 split of gross sales (as Navin initially propose), but a flat fee paid per plant produced and sold..a royalty.  I believe these patents last for 14 years (I’d have to check that), during which time nurseries do have to pay the patent holder a royalty.  This is however a reasonable fee, perhaps anywhere from $0.25 to $1 per plant.
There need not be a patent to create a contract that is agreed to on the purchase of these fish; we even have examples such as Ocean Rider, who’s checkout process required you to agree to NOT propagate certain of their strains/hybrids.  That of course stops no one, and is very difficult to enforce.  In the case of the Lightning Maroon, I very well could create such a contract on all fish derived from this line, which in turn would require people to pay a kickback for each fish sold.  And if you think about it, in the LONG TERM, it would be really cool if each Lightning Maroon sold, until the end of time, produced a $1 kickback going back to Fisherman’s Island.
The reality, however, is that no one wants to keep track of this kickback, and it’s incredibly easy to skirt the system.  While I could see a professional organization like ORA, Sustainable Aquatics, Propaquatix, etc, being willing to participate in such a program, the moment hobbyists get the fish they’ll start undercutting retail prices and I don’t think for a second the hobbyist breeder who’s anxious to cross a Lightning with a Gold Stripe really cares one bit about paying a $1 royalty per fish to someone in PNG.
In my ideal world, I’d love to see something like $1 of every Lightning Maroon clownfish produced from now until the end of time go back to the village in PNG where my fish came from. However, there is also the issue of WHO collects all these funds, and who gets them to PNG, and how is that done in a transparent, non-corrupt manner?  I just don’t see that happening!  Pragmatically, Navin probably wont’ be able to enforce any community royalty agreement on any future wild Lightning Maroon they produce, specifically because after a couple years, it’s entirely plausible that the fish being produced could be a mixture of my currently “license free” fish, vs. fish out of whatever contract he’s had a breeder enter into.
Another Outgrowth of the “Contract” Concept – Preventing Hybrids
Of course, this all relates to another concern of mine, and that is the future hybridizing of Lightning Maroons with Sumatran Gold Stripe Maroons.  I have TREMENDOUS issues with that cross…it’s irresponsible and could be extremely damaging to the long term genetic preservation of a CLEAN PNG line of Lightning Maroon Clownfish.  I truly want any breeders to only use other White Stripe Maroons from PNG, which in 2012 were only available  through UniqueCorals.com (the US source for EcoAquariums PNG, which is the only export operation in PNG).  I can probably make a contract that you can’t do this, force people to agree to it, and yet still, no matter how much a rail against it, there will be some smart-ass breeder somewhere who is thinking about the short-term profit, and not the long term responsibility that they have as breeders.  I will have no problems villainizing such a breeder for such greedy & shortsighted pursuits.
Is there a verdict?
I am not writing off the notion of agreements for royalties to PNG, and agreements to only breed to PNG White Stripe Maroons.  Still, I suspect that any giving back that comes from my Lightning Maroon Clownfish could only be a one-time thing led by me and a partner retailer if we decided we wanted to do it, and I think the only real prevention of hybridizing these wonderful fish is that the breeding community polices itself.  At the moment, no final decisions of any kind have been made, but I suspect neither royalties or breeding contracts will be pursued as they’re terribly unenforceable.  I assume these fish will enter the market largely as their mom came to me – no contract, no royalty, just a fish to do with as I pleased.
What do you think?
I absolutely welcome ideas and thoughts on the topic of “royalties” and “breeding contracts”; are you for it, against it, do you know of situations where this is implemented successfully?  Do you have ideas on the legal framework to set this up?  Can the aquarium hobby and industry embrace such an idea voluntarily, or is my pessimism well-founded?  Does doing this open a Pandora’s box for all other geographic lines and distinctly wild-sourced mutations in clownfish?
The Odds of Another Wild Caught Lightning Maroon Showing Up (and the future of EcoAquariums PNG)
As I alluded to at the start, a LOT has happened since this first conversation was had.  At the end of 2012, EcoAquariums PNG ceased operations, as 2012 they had been operating at a loss.  In late February, 2013, Dan Navin relayed that “[while] the business generated cash for the collectors and our employees, it barely made enough to cover the high operational costs in PNG, and certainly never put a penny in my pocket”.  The net result – at the moment, all this talk of a $5000 wild caught Lightning Maroon with a kickback is moot; the odds are currently nil that any more PNG fish are going to be showing up in the near term, let alone any more Lightning Clownfish.
Still, this could change.  When asked about the future of EcoAquariums PNG, Navin is looking at a more pragmatic approach to the business.  “EcoAquariums is in a state of dormancy for now. I hope to resume with small, boutique exports later this year.” Navin’s hope is that he can secure a full time income from another source of employment, providing a cushion of funding for the unforeseen problems that can crop up in a business like this.