The Fishy Side of Aquariums

| 5/21/2008 9:41:53 AM

Banggai cardinalfish
The home aquarium trade is endangering coral reefs and hobbyists’ beloved marine pets. To stem the tide of destruction, consumers have to get involved.

As far as pets go, fish don’t have the most outgoing, cuddly personalities. But their brilliant colors and graceful movements have made aquariums vaunted fixtures in more than 800,000 U.S. households.

A home aquarium sounds harmless, but the trade that brings fish from coral reefs to our homes and dentist offices is deadly and unsustainable. Once lively reefs are being emptied of their inhabitants, leaving these crucial hubs of biodiversity in crisis. It’s a complex problem, with no easy solutions. Governing bodies haven’t stepped in to regulate the trade, and that means the power to make a difference lies in consumers’ hands.

The problem begins long before colorful butterfly fish and Banggai cardinalfish reach pet stores. Most fish come from coral reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia, where local fishermen make a living plundering fragile ecosystems that already have been damaged by warming waters (a phenomenon driven by climate change). Exporters pay fishermen per fish, says Drew Weiner, director of Reef Protection International, a Berkeley, California-based organization that seeks to educate the public about the aquarium trade and coral reefs. This pay-per-fish system has led to a deadly practice: Fishermen use cyanide to temporarily stun fish and make them easier to catch.  But less than 1 in 10 fish survive a cyanide stun, so the majority of stunned fish die hours later and arrive in the United States floating belly-up. On top of that, cyanide can damage surrounding coral and marine life not targeted for capture.

Even fish that are never exposed to cyanide frequently perish from trauma caused by the long trip from coral reefs to Los Angeles (where most major importers are located) to pet stores around the country. The result is millions of dead fish that don’t reach aquariums, further exacerbating demand for fish from over-harvested coral reefs.

Although the issue has gotten some coverage by the environmental press, the mainstream media have largely ignored the problem. The aquarium trade accounts for less than 1 percent of all the revenue generated from the ocean, so the problem hasn’t garnered attention on a large scale, Weiner says. The two largest sources of ocean revenue—recreation and commercial fishing—draw far more focus and have far stronger lobbying bases fighting for their interests.

bob hodges
1/5/2009 7:02:56 AM

Excellent article - and right on the tee with the misuse of funds .. I think someone should go after the Board of Trustees for their cluelessness on both the trade and basic management .. the book keeper who they eventually hired to be the CEO - luckily the book keeper didn't have a clue what he was doing and while trying to run the organization he ran it into the ground in little less than a year .. so it seems he was the best person for the job, well done to him for putting that dog out of its misery!! The industry should just be shut down, its doing a hell of a lot of damage to the already damaged reefs of Asia .. this is an industry in which the precautionary principle should be applied!!

Fish Friend
7/20/2008 8:43:53 PM

That may be true for freshwater fish, but less than 1% of saltwater fish sold for the home aquarium are captive-bred. The large majority are still being extracted off of their native reefs with most of those dying before ever reaching a retail pet store.

Colorado Springs
6/27/2008 9:45:21 PM

Almost all fish in the hobby industry are bred by hobbyist breeders. Why would you write such a thing?

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