The Fishy Side of Aquariums

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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.

A few legislative attempts to regulate the industry never made it off the ground, according to Barbara Best, a coastal resource and policy adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a government agency that provides nonmilitary foreign aid. In the context of coral reef protection, USAID has been working with countries like the Philippines to promote economic development while sustaining biodiversity. USAID serves as a member of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, a partnership of government agencies formed to create a national action plan for protecting coral reefs. In the National Action Plan to Conserve Coral Reefs, created in 2000, the Task Force called for improved domestic laws regulating the import of marine animals into the United States, but Best says it didn’t go anywhere. She cites a variety of factors for the stalled effort, including the difficulty of enacting effective legislation, concern for fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the trade, and other issues being prioritized by Congress.

Another program, the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), has tried to self-regulate the trade through an international certification program. Although MAC was created with good intentions, the program was never able to achieve its goal of certifying all the players in the trade, according to Weiner.

“It’s not something that’s been paid much attention to, but it’s a huge story because [MAC] sucked $20 million out of the donor community for this misguided certification program that was flawed from the start,” Weiner says. (Best acknowledges that USAID was one such donor; the agency financially supported MAC for three years but dropped support after realizing the program wasn’t effective.)

With an unsuccessful certification program and no laws regulating import of marine animals, captive breeding programs and consumer education appear to be the most viable solutions to the problem.

Captive breeding aims to reduce demand for wild fish by raising would-be pets in tanks and then exporting them to pet stores. But consumer education about the environmental benefits of purchasing captive bred fish is crucial: Less than 10 percent of aquarium species are currently tank-raised, and consumer demand remains high for species that are not easily bred in captivity.

Weiner says that–given consumer demand and legislative blockades–an all-out ban on the import of marine animals might be the only option to ensure the protection of coral reefs.

“[A ban] might be the easiest thing to do politically: Since there are so few stakeholders, who will complain? It’d be different if you were to try to shut down the commercial fishing industry,” Weiner says.

But a ban could also push the trade further underground, Best says. And that could make the industry even more difficult to manage. 

This leaves all hope with consumers. Hobbyists can reduce demand for wild fish by buying captive bred species whenever possible. If captive bred fish aren’t available, consumers should try to choose species that are less susceptible to endangerment. To help hobbyists, Reef Protection International (RPI) has created a Reef Fish Guide that directs consumers on which species of fish are safe for purchase. For example, the combtooth blenny is on RPI’s “take it home” list because it easily adapts to a home aquarium and isn’t at high risk for disease. Even though the fish isn’t currently captive bred, the species breeds frequently enough in the wild that it isn’t threatened by endangerment. On the other hand, the moorish idol is on RPI’s “keep it wild” list (i.e., don’t buy it) because less than 5 percent survive the transport to home aquariums, and if they do make it that far, they are highly susceptible to disease.

Finding captive bred fish or fish on the “take it home” list can be tricky, especially when dealing with large pet store chains. At, consumers can order 78 species of marine fish for home delivery, three of which (the cleaner wrasse, panther grouper, and large angelfish) aren’t recommended for purchase by RPI for various reasons. Petco sells captive bred fish, but the website doesn’t consistently specify which fish are captive bred. (A Petco representative, Ryan May, told via email that though some of the website’s and stores’ stocks are wild, most of its fish are captive bred and that the company is “always on the lookout for new resources so we can eventually not have a need for non-captive bred species in our stores.”)   

Instead of going straight to the big chain pet stores, Weiner recommends consumers seek advice from their local aquarium hobbyist club. These groups usually have current information on where to buy sustainably captured fish and corals. The Marine Aquarium Societies of North America maintains a database of 157 hobbyist clubs in the United States and Canada. These clubs often link to smaller, local pet and aquarium stores, where staff is knowledgeable about sustainability issues.

Jake Hagberg is the owner of Discovery Aquatics, an aquarium service and installation store near Minneapolis that doesn’t sell fish, and is a lifelong, passionate aquarium hobbyist.

“A lot of stores don’t give hobbyists the education they need to be successful,” Hagberg says. “They bring in fish that are really colorful and beautiful, but they don’t last long in captivity.”

If consumers don’t stop demanding endangered wild fish, they may be in the market for a new hobby.

“Eventually there is going to be a day when [pet stores] don’t have fish to sell,” Weiner says.

Image by jon hanson, licensed under Creative Commons.

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