By Adina Solomon
When a Singapore resort wanted sharks, spotted eagle rays, an Atlantic goliath grouper and other tropical fish in its aquarium, it took planning, cunning and a full B747-400.
“People like to see large fish in aquariums, so there’s a big market for this,” Drew Christman, director of sales for forwarder Four Star Cargo, says. “There are very few suppliers in the world that can deliver large animals live across great distances, so the aquarium industry is very big.”
Public aquariums are gaining popularity across the globe, with emerging markets for them in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. That’s where forwarders step in, flying tropical fish and sharks around the world.
“The larger and the meaner they look, the more popular they are at these large marine aquariums,” Christman says.
Four Star Cargo is a forwarder in Miami that specializes in transporting marine life. Miami is a large transshipment and origin point for both saltwater and freshwater fish.
Christman says flying live fish and sharks is different than other animals because they are in a sealed container.
“When you seal the tank or when you close that bag, the clock’s ticking, and what’s unique about shipping fish in bags or boxes or large tanks is that they become a very confined environment,” he says. “So from a timing standpoint, the suppliers will actually prepare those shipments to withstand a specific transit time in order to deliver that animal alive.”
The shipment from Marathon, Fla., to the Singapore resort took about 37 hours. The 747-400 made an oxygen stop in Anchorage for the fish.
One of the keys to transporting fish and sharks is close communication between the customer and the airline, Christman explains. Documents must be accurate, and cargo must be delivered on time. Carrier rules and the International Air Transport Association’s Live Animals Regulations must be followed.
Christman says the consignee in the foreign country should be pre-notified.
“What kills live fish is not necessarily a lack of oxygen, although that’s just as important, but also being in the bag or being in the tank for an extended period of time,” he says. “So if an airline doesn’t connect, they don’t transport it in a timely fashion or they don’t connect in a timely fashion, that’s when you start to see mortality.”
“There’s a lot of steps to properly communicate who, what, when, where, why, how in case there’s an issue,” Christman says.
Almost all the air carriers have airtight procedures on paper on how they handle fish, he says.
“It’s just when you put that into practice – who can step up to the plate when the airline has a delay, cancellation, misrouted freight or they bang up the shipment, especially going from narrow-body to wide-body cargo,” he says. “A lot of the shippers have really redesigned their processes.”
They have also changed the types of shipping containers they use, using less Styrofoam and introducing double-lined bags for fish. Christman says better packaging has improved cargo handling.
Another challenge for live fish transport, like many other types of freight, is government regulations. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must look at and approve wild or captive-bred animals for export, Christman says.
Most sharks must have permits, which they receive at the last minute, he says. Four Star Cargo pre-alerts the government and airline, and pre-plans every step of the transport process, but problems can sometimes arise.
“Generally, everything moves smoothly. And when it doesn’t, if there’s a delay, cancellation, as long as these tropical fish personnel that own the product can be communicated with clearly, they can sometimes assist in mitigating losses to the carrier by maybe retrieving the shipment at origin or maybe utilizing an intermediary in the connecting city,” Christman says.
Right now, Four Star Cargo is obtaining changes to the IATA Live Animals Regulations for pelagic sharks, a type of shark that lives in the open ocean.
Christman emphasizes the delicate and time-sensitive nature of transporting marine life.
“Anything can create a snafu for these big transports,” he says, “and it all happens at the last minute.”