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Photograph by Gerald Nowak, imageBROKER/Corbis
Published July 18, 2014
Watching flamboyantly colored fish flit about a saltwater aquarium can be relaxing. Figuring out where they came from, and whether they were caught in a sustainable manner, can be an exercise in frustration.
The aquarium trade is a global industry with no centralized database to track what gets bought and sold, and with no central governing body to enforce regulations. Collectors and exporters in places as far-flung as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Florida pump tens of millions of marine animals—more than half of which end up in the U.S.—into the multimillion-dollar business each year, often with little or no oversight.
About 1,800 tropical fish species are involved in the international trade, says Andrew Rhyne of the New England Aquarium in Boston and Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. Hundreds more species of invertebrates, including live corals, are also part of this pipeline.
Removing animals from the wild can have serious consequences-both for their survival as a species and for their habitat. But the effects vary from species to species. Green chromide fish, for instance, are quite plentiful in the wild, says Rhyne, and their "population is under no threat at all from [aquarium] collection." On the other hand, species like the royal or regal blue tang—the fish that Dory from Disney/Pixar's Finding Nemo was based on—have been overcollected and are in danger in the wild.
Now a campaign to stop the collection of reef fish in Hawaii, spearheaded by the group Sea Shepherd, is bringing some of these issues to light.
The organization is hoping its Reef Defense campaign will help push through stricter state laws and regulations in Hawaii dictating the collection of reef organisms for the aquarium trade, says Michael Long, director of the campaign. Eventually, he says, "we hope that the aquarium trade will be banned altogether."
Catch as Catch Can
Of course, the very laws (or lack thereof) that govern the aquarium trade are part of the problem. Regulations and enforcement vary as widely as the geographic locales where fish are collected, says Rhyne.
"Some fisheries are really well managed," he says, "like Hawaii." Australia and Fiji also manage their aquarium trade activities fairly well. But the Philippines and Indonesia—which together account for about 86 percent of the fish imported into the U.S.—have some of the more poorly managed fisheries.
For instance, it's illegal to use cyanide—a poison that can stun fish and make them easier to catch—in the Philippines, says Brian Tissot, director of the marine laboratory at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. "But almost half the fish coming out of the Philippines [are] treated with cyanide."
Enforcement in the Philippines is left up to local municipalities, which usually lack the resources to police their waters.
Coming to America
On the demand side, tracking animals imported into the U.S. for the aquarium trade is a daunting task.
It's mandatory to monitor imported species listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and there are databases dedicated to those species. But the only animals on that list that are also involved in the aquarium trade are stony corals, giant clams, and seahorses. According to a 2012 study on the U.S. marine aquarium trade, the majority of fish are lumped into a single category—marine tropical fish (MATF)—by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If researchers want to look at the species and volume of fish coming into the U.S., they have to drill down into specific shipping invoices. For their 2012 study, Rhyne and his colleagues needed three years to sift through shipping data from 2005 alone. (The researchers are close to publishing their findings for subsequent years.)
Florida supplies more invertebrates (except for corals) to the industry than anyplace else does. And officials there do a fairly good job of tracking what fishermen bring in, says Rhyne. But they lack life-history data on many of the animals—including how fast they grow, how often they reproduce, and what their development from larvae to adult looks like.
"If you're fishing something intensively," Rhyne says, "you really need that kind of data to manage it properly." Otherwise, "you run the risk of overfishing [a species] and not knowing it."
Having that bank of knowledge can be incredibly helpful in an industry that can change quickly.
The 2003 movie Finding Nemo caused a "30 to 40 percent surge in demand for Nemo [a clownfish] overnight," says Rhyne. Fortunately, he says, clownfish were already being cultured in captivity, so there were enough to satisfy the increased interest. "Otherwise, that demand would have been taken out of the wild population." (Read about clownfish and their host anemones in National Geographic magazine.)
But the regal blue tang hasn't been so lucky. This species is hard to raise in captivity, Rhyne says, so "it's been overcollected in Indonesia and the Philippines."
These fish feed on algae, an organism that could overgrow the coral if the fish didn't keep it clear. Removing regal blue tangs from a reef could leave corals in jeopardy of being smothered.
So what should people do if they're thinking about starting an aquarium? The most important thing, says Rhyne, is for them to educate themselves. Taking the time to find captive-bred animals, like clownfish, is a good way to start.
"If they're not willing to educate themselves, they shouldn't have an aquarium," Rhyne says. Because "the things we buy over here have a big impact on coral reefs."
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Everything concering this sort of issue may exists a kind of limits,and meanwhile, it's the undifined limits on varying occasions that somewhat puzzle us.There's actually no sense in totally confining people's demand for entertainment even if it's eco-unfriendly or high-carbonic.To some extent, Only when we find the appropiate limits and available methods can we put the environmental regulations into accesible and effective ones as well as spread and cultivate the awareness that creatures live in harmony with the planet, purified pleasure filling in.
is it impossible to breed instead of taking alot from the wild? or taking them is easier, faster, hence more profitable. the usual corporate short-thinking.
Seems to be the way for so many species these days .. not a day goes by where one does not read about x and y going towards extinction or other. We have done so much harm to this planet, and greed will outlive survival, I imagine ...
"Rhyne says. the things we buy over here have a big impact on coral reefs"
They are animals, not "things."
Fish and other aquatic animals should be treated like the sentient, autonomous beings they are and not like commercial commodities. They belong in nature, not captured for personal profit or pleasure. There’s no way to replicate the complex conditions found in the ocean, and there is no valid justification for robbing these beings of their natural home and the ocean community of its residents. According to a recent article by biologist Alex Rose, an estimated 80% of collected fish die before they are sold and 90% of the survivors die within a year of captivity.
National Geographic should be promoting respect and protection for the natural world. It is troubling but sadly not surprising for it to present as objective authorities people who profit from harmfully exploiting nature. As a matter of journalistic integrity, Rhyne and Tissot’s vested interests in the industry, noted in the comment posted by Reef Rescue Alliance, should have been stated in the article.
Kudos to Sea Shepherd for confronting this inhumane industry. Anyone who is interested in providing a good home for fish should contact humane societies or rescue groups. They often have fish who are in need of such.
This report is sadly uniformed. Please note that both Andrew Rhyne and Brian Tissot are hugely vested in the industry. Rhyne has a doctorate in aquarium husbandry, which might as well be buggy whip repair if the aquarium trade is banned. He also works for the Georgia Aquarium, the nefarious outfit now suing National Marine Fisheries for "the right" to import 6 or 8 more beluga whales for that circus. Tissot is part of the grant funding juggernaut in Hawaii that writes about $750K per year in grants to "mitigate" the damages of this devastating industry. Tissot & company have mitigated for nearly 30 years with a wake of devastated empty reefs in Hawaii.
Beyond poor sources of info, this report accepts at face value that green chromis--what you call "chromed"--are in no danger of over collection. Chromis are in fact the most collected species in the world, just like the banggai cardinalfish that was also impervious to decline--until they collected it to the verge of extinction. Now they blow smoke on heroic efforts to bring the banggai back, killing dozens of brood pair on every failed attempt.
The aquarium trade is not hundreds of millions but 4 billion, once you count the stands, tanks, lights, filters, pumps, et al. It is voracious and will do or say anything to stay in business. Worst of all its crimes to date--the lion fish invasion of the Atlantic Seaboard and the Caribbean. Lionfish DID NOT SWIM THERE. Trafficking in wildlife for the pet trade is bad deal every time--bad for the source habitat, bad for the destination habitat and bad for reef health and wild species. Now why would National Geo go to top apologists on a commercial extraction than to those who fight this crime as volunteers?
Determining captive bred, reef-friendly, fish vs. reef-caught fish will soon be an easy task with the upcoming launch of the FREE iphone/ipad app, Tank Watch - The Good Fish/Bad Fish Tool for Saltwater Aquariums. Hobbyists, reef and wildlife lovers will no longer need to stare and wonder where those fish came from. Tank Watch will help correct the public misconception -- nurtured by the aquarium trade -- that a captive fish was captive bred. It will also show which wild fish were likely caught with cyanide and which are being depleted by aquarium hobby demand. See a preview at www.TankWatch.org
As someone who has had and still has a reef tank, it is important that the aquarist does his research. I only buy Coral Fragments- this is for two reasons. 1. They are propagated in captivity. 2. The feeling of taking a tiny coral and watching it grow into something larger is great. I also only try to buy captive bred fish. This is difficult at times because some of the wild ones are so beautiful but if you want the hobby to sustain you need to focus on captive bred only. As stated earlier technology is making it easier to get more species captive bred and that will only improve. Patience is the name of the game and anyone who has ever had a successful reef tank will tell you that you need patience to be a success anyway.
Rhyne couldn't be more wrong: how in the world can Hawaii, with it's comparatively tiny reefs, be 'well managed' when at least 3X more fish are captured there for aquariums than from Australia's Great Barrier Reef? The only answer: the trade and their researchers are addicted to Hawaii's yellow tangs and will say anything to keep them flowing into their tanks.
What about freshwater fish? I'm curious if the same situation exists there. I know a lot of the more common ones are easy to breed but are there a lot taken from wild populations?
Saltwater aquariums are very much linked to technology. As our tech progresses, we can can harder species to breeding captivity. in the last few years, the reproduction of corals through cutting (known as frags) has been revolutionizing the marine aquaculture face. Its a tightrope though as to figure out the breeding strategies of each fish, we will inevitably need to bring more in.
For freshwater aquariums, the breeding cycles of most fish is understood but how can we replicate the planktonic phase?
@Robert Gunardi You are 100% correct. It is nearly impossible to breed them which explains why of the 1800+ species imported by the U.S. AQ trade, only a few dozen can be captive bred and supplied at commercial levels. Of those, just 20 are suitable for novice aquarists, representing the majority of those in the hobby.
@Robert Gunardi Captive breeding will work for some species, but not others. The regal blue tangs, for instance, are hard to breed in captivity (at the moment), so more of them tend to be taken out of the wild than say clownfish.
@Robert Gunardi many of the fish are now captive bred and there are around a dozen large companies all racing to do the "new" species, along with several small time organizations doing the same. Capitolism at its finest, all while preserving these animals for generations to come whether or not global warming wipes out reefs as we know it.
Sentient, autonomous beings?
They are fish, not unknown indigenous jungle tribes with higher learning capability. I get protecting natural habitats, and eco-systems, but anthropomorphism is easily as scary as ignorance, and possibly more harmful in the long run, no matter how passionate and wordy your argument is.
@Reef Rescue Alliance You are the one who is sadly uninformed I'm afraid. Andrew Rhyne, is not invested in the industry due to the exemptions that aquariums and zoos get all the time for collection of species for scientific display. The aquarium trade is completely separate from public aquariums.
You also show your ignorance when you don't even know that the word "chromide," to which the author refers, is synonymous with "Chromis" And that their relation to Bangaii Cardinal poplulations is misleading at best, and a flat out lie at the worst. Bangaii's low fecundity due to the their unique reproduction technique (a mouth brooder) has resulted in a decline in populations (which never were exorbitantly high like you claim), however, they have significantly rebounded as they have become easier and easier to breed in captivity leaving wild populations alone. Breeding them in this industry has become common place (without losing brooding pairs at all) as much as you can butter your toast (which maybe difficult for you to do considering you can't do some basic research). As for the green chromis, they are scatter spawners and produce thousands of young at once vs the 10-30 bangaii cardinals are able to spawn at one time.
Our worst "crimes" to date that you claim also are not true. You cannot claim that the industry had anything to do with it. In fact, we are the ones that are largely doing something about it! Ships that are coming to the caribbean empty their bilge water all the time, and the planktonic stage of lionfish is plenty long for it to make it there alive and well and is more likely than a couple specimens making it into the gulf from a tank. Also, "wildlife trafficking" is a buzzword and implies illegality... none of this is illegal.
I have a question for you... and take this seriously... if you believe that global warming is going to wipe out our reefs via bleaching and acidification, then WHY are you opposed to saving a part of it for when we get our environmental house in order? What is seriously going to happen to these reefs if you can't have your way and get legislation through that will ultimately stop the earth from warming? Are you just going to let these animals go extinct? And saving them is extremely possible. As more and more species are bred in captivity, as more coral restoration projects are fulfilled due to the contributions of hobbyists throughout this country, we are doing so much good it really makes you look like a fool. We have in just the past few YEARS, successfully broke into the realm of captively breeding tangs, wrasse, anthias, and angelfish which was considered impossible just 10 years ago. Also, EVERY species of coral that has come into this hobby has been captively propagated. Maybe instead of being on the INSANE side of the argument, you would like to come over to the SENSIBLE side and put your resources into aquaculture vs lobbying.
A doctorate in "aquarium husbandry" is not synonymous with "wild capture techniques exclusively used in the marine aquarium trade." This is an extremely useful degree that can be applicable to solving numerous world problems including but not limited to mitigating world hunger and malnutrition through sustainable aquaculture techniques. To try to degrade someone's education and expertise to a functional singularity teetering on the edge of existence is ignorant, particularly considering the myriad problems that such knowledge could help to solve. Also, the opinions of a public institution do not automatically mirror those of every employee, so unless you have personally spoken with the man whose validity you are trying to discredit about his beliefs in regard to marine mammals in captivity, then it stands to reason that your condemnation of the Georgia Aquarium is merely an attempt to tarnish his reputation through association instead of fact. The other person you try to demonize here, actually conducts research geared towards better understanding and managing economically important fisheries, of which the marine aquarium trade is one. As a scientist, he has no logical reason to fund research that would intentionally mar our understanding, and consequently protection and management, of ecosystems that are essential to coastal life, because misinformation would be detrimental to the long term sustainability of this fragile, but renewable resource.
Green chromis and Banggai cardinalfish could hardly have more different reproductive habits if they were ants and elephants. Chromis are demersal spawners that produce, at minimum, several hundred eggs per spawn. Banggai cardinalfish are mouth brooders that rarely produce more than 30 eggs per spawning event. Chromis are widely distributed throughout the Indo-Pacific, whereas Banggai cardinals are an endemic species concentrated within the Banggai archipelago of Indonesia. Also, the progressive captive breeding efforts spearheaded by the marine aquarium community have demystified the spawning habits of Banggai cardinals and we now have the knowledge needed to save these fish. No smoke is being blown here, just acknowledgment of much needed scientific research that is finally being conducted.
Invasive species originate in many ways. Sea lampreys decimated Great Lakes fish populations through the building of canals which connected previously separate waterways, but that doesn't mean we should ban the development of waterways. Zebra mussels detrimentally colonized the Great Lakes through dumping of ballast water, but banning ocean going ship travel is not the answer. Lionfish in the Caribbean likely originated from a seaside aquarium destroyed during a hurricane, but that is no reason to close an economically valid fishery. There are countless land-based examples that can be viewed in the same light. The answer to all these issues is research and regulation. If proper regulations are in place, potentially dangerous invasive animal situations can be better avoided.
Wild collection, if properly managed, can provide a strong economic incentive to protect reefs in traditionally underdeveloped coastal areas and raise the standard of living for indigenous fisher communities. A sustainably managed marine aquarium trade has the potential to help preserve our world's reefs and better thousands of peoples' lives. The secret is all in how it's managed and how much we know, so research and education is, as always, the key to success. There are also incredible captive breeding efforts led by both hobbyists and professionals in the marine aquarium trade, with the goal of reducing collection pressure on certain reef species. The issues are far from black and white--as is the case with nearly every fishery--and many of the inherent problems could be solved with research and regulation.
so, you like fish?
Extensive research has been conducted for many years closely documenting Hawaii's marine aquarium fishery. Hawaii actually has one of the best understood and well-managed marine aquarium fisheries in the world. Many of the fish collected on Hawaii's reefs are prolific and highly fecund species that produce thousands of eggs every time they spawn, meaning that they typically have a high catch limit due to how quickly the population can replenish itself and how fast they reach sexual maturity. Depending on the species composition of a given collecting site (e.g. Hawaiian reef v. Great Barrier Reef), total allowable catch limits can vary considerably in response to the reproductive habits of the particular fishes being collected. This is the actual answer.
@Robert Evans The vast majority of freshwater fish are now captive bred, which is a fantastic accomplishment considering how many of them were almost exclusively wild caught in the not so distant past. Due to the ever-growing diversity of tank bred species that are now available in the aquarium hobby, wild collection pressure continues to dwindle as aquarists buy far more of these captive bred animals in comparison to their wild caught counterparts. This is absolutely the same direction the marine aquarium trade is headed.
@Robert Evans The campaign against trafficking in wildlife for the pet trade is growing and is also generational. While only 98% of freshwater aquarium species can be captive-bred, any glass tanks can be a set-up for youth in need of greater challenge. Only 2% of saltwater aquarium species can be captive bred. Freshwater tanks are a gateway hobby to salt--with its challenges on chemistry, salinity, acidity, hygiene, disease, etc. The aquarium industry strives to gain green status, to up the number of tanks worldwide from 2 million to 5 million. With hobbyists now proud of 50% captive bred, more tanks will only bring more pressure to more reefs, so more hobbyists can engage in the guilty pleasures of more exotic species. Tennis or cooking or photography might be better bets for the world at large.
@C. Dufour We largely have replicated it and many companies have large rotifer colonies to bring these small fish out of their planktonic stage.
@For the Fishes @Robert Gunardi I, unlike "For the Fishes" am going to leave you with a bit of proof that great strides are being made in the captive rearing of tangs vs saying its impossible. http://risingtideconservation.blogspot.com/2014/06/one-small-steppacific-blue-tang-update.html?spref=fb
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
@For the Fishes @Robert Gunardi A FEW DOZEN LARGE COMPANIES... not a few dozen species... we are actually growing by the month as far as captive bred specimens is concerned... Scribbled angelfish and blue masked angelfish being the two that were new in the month of July alone. You can't falsify the facts "For the Fishes," saltwater fish breeding is becoming more and more mainstream and will soon overtake the industry. I myself bred 5 species of fish since the first of the year, with another on the way. I can name way more than 20 species that are suitable for novice aquarists... the 20 could be covered in the damselfish family alone.
@Paul Poeschl No, just a few dozen are available commercially. Compared to the 1800+ imported by the U.S., a few dozen does not equal "many".
@Barry Aquarius@Mary Finelli I have raised a pair of bred ocellaris clown for over 9 years and they show remarkable intelligence. They recognize me (or human), they know when is feeding time and the spoon I feed them with. When the female was sick and had to be quaratined in separate tank the other swam around the tank looking for her. This is not your typical gold fish.
@Alex Rose @For the Fishes Monitoring does not equal management. A 75% decrease in yellow tangs on reefs where they're collected, decreased biodiversity in butterflyfishes, and disappearing rare (expensive) species does not equal "well-managed", unless you are using total collapse as your bar. There are no TAC limits in Hawaii, there are no permit limits in Hawaii. The Great Barrier Reef allow 150,000 fish TOTAL to be removed annually, while Hawaii allows an unlimited number. You are misinformed and parroting the AQ trade.
@Reef Rescue Alliance @Robert Evans Saying that "only 2% of saltwater aquarium species can be captive bred" is absolutely untrue. Every one of them "can" be captive bred, ability is not the issue here. Cracking the breeding code of certain species, pelagic spawners in particular, is time consuming and space intensive and requires the rearing of larval foods that are exactly the right size. It can be done, it just doesn't happen overnight. The possibility of a largely captive bred hobby is an attainable goal in the marine aquarium trade, and several companies and organizations are working to make this a reality.
If more and more captive bred fish are available, it is logical to assume that aquarists will buy these fish. If aquarists are buying captive bred fish it means they're buying less, not more, wild caught animals, translating to a reduction, not increase, in collection pressure on reefs. So yes, hobbyists are proud that increasingly more of their fish are sustainably sourced, and more will continue to be every year.
@For the Fishes @Robert Gunardi Also, I work with a major wholesaler, a partnership in which I send them my babies for credit while they send me different species to breed, a partnership that has been very beneficial to take pressure off wild populations of those species. I can produce hundreds of fish for the two that I take in under a year.
I challenge you to actually do research vs throwing out baseless "facts" on a random website.
@Robert Tseng @Barry Aquarius @Mary Finelli This is a conditioned response. You feed them, hence they recognize your presence and your spoon as their food source. And goldfish do actually respond similarly when conditioned to receive food from a human. Being alone versus in a mated pair is a huge deviation from the daily routine of a structured social hierarchy and triggers this response. I keep tank bred clownfish as well and they also behave as you mentioned, and they are fantastically interesting and beautiful creatures, but I don't think either of us is trying to say that they are sentient and autonomous beings...
@For the Fishes @Alex Rose Correct, monitoring does not equal management, that is why I said management instead of monitoring. One way that the numbers of fish collected are managed in Hawaii, particularly in the case of yellow, cole, and achilles tangs, is by having a size limit. Hawaii allows collection of certain species (and only within the 40 on the "White List") within a given size range; if these fish are too small or too large they are not to be collected. Obviously that is not to say that it never happens, but the vast majority of fish collected are part of the legal take. Bag limits apply to the fish species that make up 91% of all fish collected on Hawaii's reefs.
Also, 35% of Hawaii's coastline is completely off limits to aquarium trade collection, essentially establishing safe zones or Fishery Replenishment Areas (FRAs) for these fish to reproduce unchecked by this factor. Because of these no take zones, the population of yellow tangs has actually increased in the last decade by over 30% (not dropped by 75%) despite the fact that there has been an 81% increase in the number of wild yellow tangs collected. This increase in tang population density outside these expansive no take zones proves that the fisheries management principle of MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) is an extremely effective way to sustainably manage a fishery, whether we're talking about a food fishery or the marine aquarium fishery.
When I refer to Hawaii, just to be clear, I am talking about the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA).
Since you seem to be deriving your numbers from "facts" provided by the rantings of Snorkel Bob which are rife with unfounded accusations, unsubstantiated claims, and emotionally-charged anecdotes, the only "parroting" happening in this conversation originated on your end.
@Alex Rose @Reef Rescue Alliance @Robert Evans Researchers have been trying to breed yellow tangs for decades. Still no luck. Out of the 1800+ species imported by the U.S. trade, only a few dozen captive bred species are commercially available to hobbyists and of those, only 20 are suitable for novice aquarists, who, by far, represent the largest segment of the hobby.
Studies show that most aquarists aren't interested in "sustainably" sourced animals. The prefer them to be cheap (i.e. wild caught). One study showed that aquarists would continue to buy species even after being informed that it is highly unlikely they will be able to keep them alive. They like their colors and the challenge of trying to keep them alive. They don't call saltwater fish-keeping The Dark Hobby, for nothing.
Breeding them is definitely cheaper than transporting them from a reef in the Philippines. Also, tell that to the numerous aquarists that have purchased the captive bred A. mccullocki at $500/fish or the captive bred H. clarion that wholesaled for more than a grand.
@For the Fishes @Alex Rose @Reef Rescue Alliance @Robert Evans As production of captive bred marine animals increases as it has steadily, their price will decrease accordingly. More people are buying captive bred (or in the case of some tangs, captive raised) animals and eventually, buying tank bred livestock may actually become the cheaper choice. The consumer you are talking about who only cares only about cheap fish and views them as disposable and replaceable commodities, is the same person who releases a ball python or monitor lizard into the wild when it gets too big, or feeds a scarlet macaw french fries and diet coke, or gets rid of their untrained pit bull when they don't like how it acts, and these people should not own pets, period. But they do, and there is no way to control who buys what animals. This leaves us with two options for fish: a) forbid all people from owning any marine fish, or b) make sure that the animals available are collected or produced in a sustainable manner. One of these options seems unreasonable, the other, much more logical and plausible.
Education, as always, is key. This problem you are describing is an issue on the consumer end, and the more educated people are about a subject the more likely they are to make the socially conscious choice. There will always be people who don't belong keeping aquariums doing just that, as well as people owning all other manner of animals that they can't or don't properly care for either. The buying power of customers strongly influences the market and the balance between sustainability and price is slowly shifting towards the former. If it weren't, home breeders and captive breeding companies would be out of business, and they are all flourishing.
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