Collecting your own animals can add an extra element to marine fish or reef keeping. Those people that live in the tropics have fairly easy access to tropical marine fish and invertebrates. After obtaining the necessary permits you can catch your own animals - of course the same rules apply to catching your own as do buying - understand how you will keep your new acquisition before you acquire it.

The biggest benefit to catching your own fish is the time from ocean to tank is reduced to hours rather than days. Many self caught fish will be eating within hours of entering you tanks.

What about those people that don't live in the tropics?

There a number of sub-tropical and temperate coastal areas where tropical marine fish can be caught. I am most familiar with collecting in the areas around Sydney, Australia, but there will be other areas in other parts of the world where tropical marines can be found.

I believe that tropical marines should be found on the US east coast at least as far north as North Carolina but even further north is possible due to the strength of the Gulf Stream.

The details below on collecting tropical marines around Sydney should apply to a lesser or greater extent to just about anywhere these fish are found.

Collecting tropical marines around Sydney

What fish can you catch in Sydney?

Marine aquarists that live in and around Sydney are quite fortunate that during the summer months a great many marine tropical fish are found off Sydney. These tropicals include 6-7 species of angels, almost 20 species of butterflyfish, triggerfish, wrasses, gobies and even Moorish Idols.

Of the angels, the Keyhole Angel, Centropyge tibicen, is extremely common and it is rare that you don't see at least one in a season. The other species are more variable and none may be seen in some years and in other years large numbers may be caught. For example, 14 Chaetodontoplus meredithi were caught in Sydney in early 1976. Semis ,Pomacanthus semicirculatus, and bicolors ,Centropyge bicolor, are not uncommon. In Aprl 1977 I caught a pearlscale angelfish, C. vrolikii at Shelly Beach, nearl Manly and in late May 2004, I caught a conspicuous angel, Chaetodontoplus conspicillatus, at Seal Rocks.

Chaetodon spp. are always common, especially, C. auriga, C. vagabundus, C. citrinellus and C. flavirostris and it is not uncommon to see up to 5 of each species on a single dive.

A large number of wrasses can be found and the most common would be the cleaner wrasse.

See Species for a more complete list.

Where do the fish come from?

None of the tropical marine fish found off Sydney actually breed here and most cannot survive the winters where the water temperature gets as low as 14°C (57°F). Most of the tropicals found around Sydney during summer and autumn breed in the waters off southern Queensland and Northern New South Wales and some may even come from further north.

How do they get to Sydney?

Some marine fish lay their eggs on some form of substrate, rocks, coral even algae. Some eggs are cared for by one or both adults and others there is no care. Some species lays there eggs in the open water where they are carried away by the currents. In almost all marine tropicals, the newly hatch larvae float up from where they hatched an join the plankton. Here they are at the mercy of the currents - which is good for that species as it can spread into other areas but may also result in the larvae being deposited in areas less favourable.

During the summer months there is a general but fairly strong current that flows southward along the east Australian coast. This is called the East Australian Current and is actually made up of a series of eddies. The eddies and associated currents work in much the same way as the atmospheric high and low pressure systems and the resulting winds. Like a high pressure system in the southern hemisphere, water moves away from high areas of the ocean surface, however, the movement of the water is deflected to the left due to the Coriolis Effect which causes them to circulate in an anticlockwise direction. These eddies themselves tend to move in a southerly direction.

The fish larvae that are living in the plankton are carried by the East Australia Current down the New South Wales coast and deposited at various sites, including Sydney. Because of the variable nature of the eddies the dropoff points are not always the same and this accounts for the variability in the species found at different times within a season and from season to season.

Where can you catch tropical marines?

Tropical marines can be found just about anywhere there are outcrops of rocks in relatively shallow waters, i.e. 0-10m (0-30'). As you need to snorkel or dive with SCUBA to catch them, the area needs to be relatively calm. The ends of beaches tend to be good spots but also inside bays and harbours are usually calm.

In the immediate Sydney area, fish can be caught at most of the beaches, including Palm Beach, Long Reef, Shelly Beach, Clovelly, Malabar and Long Bay. There are also a number of spots in Sydney Harbour, such as Balmoral, Clifton Gardens, Clontaff, Nielsen Park and Watsons Bay. I have caught angels and Heniochus under Manly Wharf and Chaetodon under Spit Bridge. Collecting is no longer allowed at some sites as indicated by the strike-through.

Further afield there are many spots including Terrigal to the north and around Wollongong and Bass Point to the south. One of the best spots on the NSW coast is Seal Rocks near Forster.

How do you catch them?

While it may be possible to catch some marines by trawling or with seine nets, by far the most effective method is using hand nets while snorkelling or diving with SCUBA.

The nets don't need to be anything elaborate but they need to have fine enough mesh to catch some of the smallest wrasses and a size large enough to catch some of the larger fish like Moorish Idols. If the mesh is too small or the net too large, it becomes to difficult to move through the water. I use green mosquito netting attached to a wire coathanger (the ones you get with Laundry/Dry Cleaning). This gives a good size mesh, although the smallest cleaner wrasses go straight through so you have to catch them with a plastic bag. The nets need to be deep enough so they can be flipped over trapping the catch in the bottom of the net.

Most fish can be seen swimming in the open, but close to hiding places and are not at all difficult to be found. This is particularly true for wrasses, but also applies to most Chaetodon, Heniochus, tangs, triggers and damsels. Angels are quite secretive and you will be lucky to see them unless you look very closely in crevices and under ledges. Most lionfish are also found under ledges and rocks but this is because the prefer to be upsidedown.

When attempting to catch fish, it is much easier to make the fish swim into the net that to move the net over the fish. When working in the open it is best to use two nets and use one net to chase the fish into the other net. In more closed conditions, like in a crevice, often a knife works best to chase the fish into the net.

Once a fish is caught it should be transferred to a heavy duty plastic bag which can be slid under your weight belt or BC straps. This means the dive can continue and a number of fish can be caught.

Is it legal?

In New South Wales, a standard Recreational Fishing Permit is required for any collecting. These can be obtained from most bait or fishing stores.

A specific aquarium collection permit is required to catch fish using a hand net on SCUBA and hookah - this is in accordance with the provisions of Section 37 of the Fisheries Management Act 1994. The permit allows for the use of nets less than .6m (2') in diameter and with a mesh size no greater then 5mm (0.2"). The permit is available from NSW Fisheries:

at a cost of $52 per year. Additionally, you still need a standard Recreational Fishing Permit. For more information, contact: Fish cannot be collected within Aquatic Reserves or the general use and recreation zones of declared Marine Parks and certain species cannot be collected, including Great White Sharks. See the NSW Fisheries web site for more information on protected areas and species.

Last updated: January 20, 2005