03 Jul 2013: Report

New Initiatives to Clean Up
The Global Aquarium Trade

An estimated 30 million fish and other creatures are caught annually to supply the home aquarium market, taking a toll on some reef ecosystems. Now conservationists are working to improve the industry by ending destructive practices and encouraging aquaculture.

by rebecca kessler

To bring a kaleidoscopic glimpse of tropical marine life into their living rooms, aquarium hobbyists depend on a steady supply of live fish and invertebrates from the world’s imperiled coral reefs. Bagged and boxed, the animals are flown in from biodiversity hotspots like Indonesia and the Philippines in the so-called Coral Triangle. But poor handling and long supply chains have raised concerns that too many creatures die in transit or soon after arrival. Some marine populations have taken a hit, and destructive collection practices — including the use of cyanide — have damaged precious reef habitat.

In Hawaii the issue has ignited into full controversy, though scientists say the trade there is better managed than in many other regions. For several years, activists have sought to get aquarium collection banned through lawsuits, legislation, and public pressure. In May, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, best known for its confrontational anti-whaling crusades, launched a new campaign to end the trade in Hawaii — and eventually elsewhere — for good.

That effort comes on the heels of several failed attempts to introduce sustainable practices by more mainstream conservation groups, scientists, and industry representatives. Meanwhile, other new efforts are raising hope in some quarters that the trade might be able both to satisfy first-world hobbyists and support sustainable livelihoods for people in developing nations. These initiatives include raising fish and coral in
New efforts raise hopes the trade might satisfy hobbyists and support sustainable livelihoods in developing nations.
aquaculture facilities specifically for the aquarium trade, as well as a promising new method for detecting fish caught after cyanide has been used to stun them.

“[In] Indonesia and the Philippines there are serious concerns about reef damage and fish mortality from the trade,” Brian Tissot, a marine ecologist at Washington State University, said in an email. A 2010 paper in the journal Marine Policy, on which Tissot was the lead author, called on the U.S. to take the lead in reforming the aquarium trade and its bigger siblings — the jewelry, home décor, and curio trades in dried corals, shells, seahorses, and the like.

“It’s very scary, and of course the impacts on those ecosystems are largely unknown,” he says of the magnitude of marine life that those trades are removing from reefs. “That’s what we worry about.”

Critters destined for aquariums are plucked from their home reefs in at least 40 countries throughout the tropics, with the Philippines and Indonesia supplying about 85 percent of the world’s aquarium fish. Poor fishermen typically sell their catch for pennies per fish into a complicated chain of dealers and middlemen. More than half the fish and other marine creatures land in the U.S., the world’s number one importer, trailed by Europe and Japan.

A consumer trend favoring tanks that emulate reef ecosystems — shrimp, corals, anemones, etc. — has increased the diversity of the catch. Around 2,000 fish species, 150 stony coral species, and more than 500 other invertebrate species now enter the trade, totaling perhaps 30 million reef fish and other animals annually, according to Andrew Rhyne, a marine scientist at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island and the New England Aquarium in Boston, who with colleagues has been scrutinizing trade records in unprecedented detail.

Yellow Tang
The radiant yellow tang is highly valued by aquarium hobbyists.
Retail prices vary widely. A common fish like the green chromis will set you back just a few bucks, but collectors have reportedly offered as much as $30,000 for rare individuals like peppermint angelfish. Globally, the trade may be worth up to $330 million per year, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program.

Some scientists and conservationists worry that the industry is further taxing coral reef ecosystems already gravely threatened by rising water temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution. They say the aquarium trade has taken its heaviest toll in the Coral Triangle, which encompasses a large area of the Pacific Ocean, including the waters of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. A chief issue in this region is the collateral damage to reefs, fish, and other marine life when fishermen break coral to get at their quarry, or, worse, squirt sodium cyanide and other poisons to stun fish.

In a 2012 analysis of a year of U.S. declarations forms and invoices from aquarium trade importers, Rhyne’s team found that most species entering the U.S. are abundant over wide areas, and therefore unlikely to be seriously harmed by the trade. However, although few studies have been done, a number of documented cases exist where the trade depleted or virtually eliminated some species in certain areas, experts say.

One such example is the blue tang, the 12th-most popular imported fish, which is overfished in Indonesia, Rhyne says. Retail prices are already high — even topping $100 for large blue tang — and the fish’s starring role in Disney’s forthcoming animated film, “Finding Dory,” will surely spike demand, just as “Finding Nemo” did for clownfish. “Fishers will have to
Collectors have reportedly offered as much as $30,000 for rare individuals like peppermint angelfish.
travel much further distances, further increasing handling stress, which in turn increases mortality, which increases collection pressure,” Rhyne wrote by email.

In addition to the ecological concerns, there are ethical ones. Robert Wintner, Sea Shepherd’s new vice president, and the Humane Society of the United States, among others, argue that the trade and hobby are cruel and too often deadly, and that a tiny tank is no place for a wild animal.

The toll on reef life in Hawaii, where Sea Shepherd’s pugnacious campaign is focused, is hotly disputed. Wintner — a longtime activist on the issue there under the nom de guerre of Snorkel Bob — says the problems are visible. He rattles off “horror stories” perpetrated by the industry that include the devastation of hermit crab, yellow tang, and featherduster worm populations, as well as smashing up coral to extract the latter.

“These guys are taking obscene amounts of fish,” Wintner says. “They are ‘Hoovering’ the reefs.” He dismisses many of his critics as complicit in the industry and describes most attempts to reform the business as greenwash.

Yet industry members and some scientists, including Tissot, who has studied the Hawaiian trade for years, say the Sea Shepherd campaign’s claims grossly exaggerate the impact in Hawaii. They say the business is much better studied and managed there than in the Coral Triangle, and shorter supply chains and gentler handling mean captured fish have far better survival odds.

Previous high-profile attempts at reforming the trade have collapsed. The Marine Aquarium Council launched a decade-long effort to train collectors and others in the supply chain to adhere to tough voluntary standards, but that initiative largely fell apart by 2009 because its sustainability claims were not verifiable, according to one analysis. And a bill drafted by several environmental groups to set sustainability standards for coral-reef wildlife entering the U.S. has foundered after the death of its champion, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, last December.

The criticism has prompted both bristling and soul-searching among hobbyists and business people. “From an environmental perspective there could be specific species or specific areas that are pressured, but from a global perspective it’s nil,” says Chris Buerner, president of Los
Some wholesalers are taking measures to improve the traceability of fish to avoid buying from unreliable suppliers.
Angeles-based Quality Marine, a leading aquarium animal wholesaler. Buerner, who served on the board of the Marine Aquarium Council, notes that the volume of fish taken from the sea for aquariums is minuscule compared to what’s taken for food. Nonetheless, he says it’s a good thing if all the scrutiny pushes the industry toward lower-impact practices, adding, “There are things the trade really should work hard to improve.”

Some public aquariums, retailers, and wholesalers like Quality Marine are taking measures to improve their practices, such as formalizing sustainability standards for purchased fish and improving animals’ traceability to avoid buying from unreliable suppliers, Buerner says. And a new industry-friendly eco-labeling system now under development, called SMART, would require adherence to catch quotas.

A recent breakthrough in developing a test for cyanide exposure in fish is being widely hailed. Fishing with the poison is illegal in most countries, but remains prevalent in about 15 nations that supply the aquarium business, as well as the much bigger trade in live reef fish for Asian food markets, according to a 2012 report by Defenders of Wildlife. Such a test would allow the industry to reject cyanide-caught fish, and U.S. law prohibiting the import of illegally collected wildlife could be applied, which could help finally eliminate the poison from the aquarium trade, experts say.

Aquaculture could also take pressure off wild fish, which comprise up to 95 percent of marine fish sold. A young SeaWorld initiative called Rising Tide Conservation aims to “write the cookbook” for breeding various marine fish species that have proven difficult to cultivate in captivity, says Judy St. Leger, the group’s director.


A Leading Marine Biologist
Works to Create a ‘Wired Ocean’

A Leading Marine Biologist Works to Create a ‘Wired Ocean’
Stanford University scientist Barbara Block heads a program that has placed satellite tags on thousands of sharks, bluefin tuna, and other marine predators to better understand their life cycles. Now, using data available on mobile devices, she hopes to enlist public support for protecting these threatened creatures.
Coral aquaculture is even farther along. For example, just a few years ago, Indonesians were hacking tons of coral from their reefs for export. In 2011, Rhyne says he flew to Bali to help advise the nation’s young coral mariculture program, and was impressed to discover an advanced system already in place. More species were under cultivation when he returned last summer. One of the biggest producers was a shell and coral exporter who had harvested wild corals for decades but now has a prosperous coral farm with numerous employees in the unlikeliest of places, just offshore from a cement factory and a ferry terminal. The area’s coral industry is rapidly moving from a wild fishery to aquaculture, Rhyne says.

Ironically, while the U.S. government urged Indonesians toward aquaculture, a government proposal to list 66 coral species under the Endangered Species Act would likely destroy the fledgling business, Rhyne says.

Even so, Rhyne and others see in coral aquaculture an inkling of how the aquarium hobby could help reef-dependent humans and animals alike. If you take away a fish collector’s livelihood, he’ll likely turn to another unsustainable fishing practice to feed his family. But done right, the aquarium trade could give people living in poverty both an income and a reason to preserve their reefs. It won’t be easy, though, Rhyne acknowledges.

“If your goal is to conserve coral reef ecosystems then you have to... look at the people involved in these trade chains,” says Rhyne. “If you don’t do that then you can never touch the conservation.”

Correction, July 8, 2013: An earlier version of this article reported that dynamite was used to collect fish for the aquarium trade. Experts say dynamite is used in the live reef fish trade for restaurants, but not for aquarium fish — a point also made in a United Nations Environment Program report.

POSTED ON 03 Jul 2013 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Science & Technology Asia North America North America 


The following related story news was announced in the UK national press on Sunday...

Bid To Combat Cyanide Fishing

A project aimed at curbing the deadly practice of cyanide fishing has been launched today (Monday, July 1st) by the UK-based Sea Life centre network.

Though illegal in most countries, the use of cyanide to catch live fish for both the ornamental and food markets is still widespread in parts of East Asia.

Now, for the first time, a test developed by a Portugeuse University research team has made it possible to find out if a fish has been exposed to cyanide…without having to kill and dissect the fish first.

“Cyanide fishing has decimated fish populations and killed huge areas of coral reef from the tropical mid-Pacific right across to east Africa,” said Sea Life biologist Chris Brown, the architect of the new project. “Fishermen squirt the poison into the corals to stun fish, enabling them to make quicker, bigger and more lucrative catches, even though most of the fish caught will often be dead by the time they reach port.”

Read More: http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=5799

Posted by Mark Oakley on 03 Jul 2013

This story is exhaustive but is a platform for aquarium trade greenwashing. Brian Tissot calls the industry "the most studied," and Quality Marine says the consequences are nil. Tissot has garnered hundreds of thousand$ over the years, mostly from NOAA, to study the trade to no avail. He will study forever, because it's a living.

Quality Marine is known for dirty conditions and high mortality. The bottom line is trafficking in marine wildlife for the pet trade. The data is spun just as tobacco data was spun, for the money. What species in the wild is okay for trafficking in the pet trade. Would it be Burmese pythons to South Florida? Or lionfish from Indonesia--that's the aquarium industry legacy in the Caribbean, and it's not going away. Aquarium trade wildlife trafficking is bad for the source reef, bad for the destination reefs and a severe compromise to ocean vitality. Too bad this report missed the bottom line.

Posted by Robert Wintner on 03 Jul 2013

I think the article is well written, although I don't feel that dynamite fishing is used within the aquarium trade, the industry has some ground to make up in regards to completely stopping the use of cyanide wherever it still exists.

I agree with statements made by fellow Marine Importer Chris Buerner of Quality Marine where he points out that many other industries such as the food industry have major impacts that need to be addressed and that the comparison to what the aquarium trade has is much less destructive in comparison. Even so, the industry is and should always be striving to improve collection techniques and be aware of sustainability issues.

Snorkel Bob continues to take a radical approach and offers no shred of constructive ideas on how the industry could improve. How can he call Quality Marine a place of "Dirty conditions and high mortality"....just another false statement that has ZERO credibility. QM and others live ourselves maintain well organized and professionally run facilities offering a high quality products. This is where the industry needs to be in whole, and others are following suit.

I feel the the story falls a bit short on pointing out the strides the aquarium trade has made
over the last decade, pointing out the improvements to filtering and feeding technologies as well as the improvements in handling techniques that have given the industry much better success on quality issues. Not to mention all the successes of coral farmers now found across the globe providing super high quality coral frags to thousands of hobbyists. Those coral fragments are the heart of the hobby and play a major role in the sustainability of our trade.

Overall, a well thought out article and I hope to see more work done by this group in the future.

Posted by Eric Cohen - Sea Dwelling Creatures on 03 Jul 2013

Dear readers,

As the author of this story, I want to thank you for reading it and for taking time to weigh in.

Robert, I appreciate your comments and understand your strong views on the issue, which you shared with me by phone. My intent with this story was to give air to many of the wide-ranging opinions on this rather contentious issue, and they are hardly unanimous. And if I may say so, I think on the whole the story does a pretty good job representing your position, including the points you make in your comment about greenwashing and your critics.

On the other side of coin, I’d also like to point out that much of the latter half of the article is devoted to improvements being made in the industry, by businesses, conservationists, and scientists alike — including a description of the potentially positive effect of coral aquaculture on the trade.

I do wish there had been more space to discuss the invasive species issue. I think most ocean observers agree with you that the lionfish — a gorgeous, poison-spined native of the Indian and Pacific oceans that is now voraciously gobbling native fish throughout the Caribbean and along the U.S. Atlantic coast — is a big problem, and in all likelihood an aquarium-trade escapee. It’s not alone, either: Florida waters alone are now home to more than 30 non-indigenous marine fish species — most of them from the aquarium trade, Andrew Rhyne’s 2012 paper notes.


Posted by Rebecca Kessler on 03 Jul 2013

While the marine aquarium fish trade has made strides in the movement toward captive bred fish species and is even further along with the propagation of coral species, there is much more that can be done to push those in the hobby to acquire fish species that are aquacultured and not wild caught. Does the industry need to try and propagate every new species that is discovered on the world's reefs? Absolutely not. Raising marine species is not the same as raising freshwater species, of which the majority are aquacultured. There is a lot of trial and error involved, and some marine species just can't be aquacultured. Those species are probably best left on the reefs. The industry needs to reassert its efforts to be truly sustainable not only for its livelihood, but that of the species on the reef as well.

Posted by J Virata on 03 Jul 2013

Marine life, including reef fish and critters, is by definition wildlife. These animals are captured and removed from their natural habitat to be treated as pets. It is long time known that wildlife trafficking leads to depletion and extinction.

While wildlife trafficking is socially condemned and unlawful in most parts of the world, the aquarium industry has managed to get away with this crime.

I am surprised this point is completely omitted on a this website devoted to the natural environment hosted by such a prestigious educational institution as Yale.

There is no such a thing as sustainable extraction due to the high mortality rate and the constantly increasing demand. An Aquarium Industry based on wildlife extraction is due to collapse and failure in the long term, leaving the planet with reefs depleted of life and condemned to die with a broken ecosystem.

The non discriminatory removal of species dramatically reduces or completely depletes the reefs from key players to keep that ecosystem healthy and renewable. Once the quantity is diminish below the breaking point, the reef declines and collapses to the point of no recovery.

If this industry wants to subsist in the only "sustainable" manner, they should concentrate in finding ways to farm their fish. But they know this is expensive and in many cases not possible due to the particular needs of some species.

I would like to see Yale educate the community on these issues, as well as the morality of the case (or complete lack off to be precise). Aquarists should know the whole extent and significance of their practices and consequences they have to the environment.

I'm glad to see the topic being openly discussed though and the different players given the fair opportunity to express their positions.

Posted by Fernando Lopez Arbarello on 03 Jul 2013

This article reports and informs in a clinical way like many others on the topic. While scientists and conservationists "study" our reefs, millions of fish disappear annually for a trade that generates billion $$$ in revenue from the sale of pumps, filters & hardware. The aquarium hobby and the scientists who study it "sustain" a steady stream of revenue for the suppliers.

Best management practices, exhaustive studies, professionally run facilities, and eliminating the use of cyanides & explosives sound appropriate and nice, but they don't increase fish populations.

Posted by Joan Lloyd on 03 Jul 2013

These conversations always line up the same way. One side claims the industry is depleting the reefs while the other side claims it is sustainable. Since to my knowledge there has never been an extensive scientific study to confirm either of the claims, it seems to me we should err on the side of reef protection until there is proof either way.

Three things are certain:

1) The global reef system is one of the most important systems to our survival.

2) All the reefs on the planet need help.

3) Mass collection of an important resource will not help the reef environment in any way.

Posted by Michael Roberts on 03 Jul 2013

Regarding the Hawaii reef fish trade:

The problem with this issue, like many other important issues of our times (e.g. climate change), is that many people are too eager to accept negative, highly charged and emotional statements that distort reality, while objective data collected over many years and presented in unemotional, dry scientific reports go unread or are dismissed off-hand as somehow biased. Tissot, Walsh and others have clearly shown that Hawaiian reefs are capable of sustaining a managed fishery for reef fishes. When these data can no longer be dismissed by opponents they change tactics and make new charges based on ethics, which guarantees that this issue will never go away.

The tropical fish trade in Hawaii will only disappear when people decide they no longer want to keep tropical fish in aquariums (not likely), if science is wrong and the fish really do disappear (highly unlikely based on 30+ years of data), or laws are passed banning the practice (also unlikely in Hawaii given the record of legislation on this subject since the 1970's).

So, have at it everyone. Keep arguing who is right or wrong it will never end. As for me, I will stick with the biologists who I find highly credible.

Posted by Bruce Carlson on 04 Jul 2013

I would LOVE to have a marine aquarium but will not do it unless I know I can source captive-bred animals, so it looks like it will have to remain a dream.

I live on the coast of Kenya and conservationists here are appalled at the number of reef fish, shells and corals being exported for almost nothing. People living in poverty need an alternative income if this practice is to stop- or the government needs to legislate against it and police the legislation. Oh, if only aquaculture were a viable alternative for these coastal communities! Would researchers please work on this in a hurry before our reefs are totally destroyed?

Posted by Dawn Goebbels on 05 Jul 2013

With all due respect to Mr. Carlson, you may want to do your own review of the objective data regarding the aquarium trade in Hawaii. In 2007 Walsh reported that aquarium collecting was responsible for major declines of reef fish. Last month he released more bad news regarding drastic declines in fish. His own data shows that of the top 20 AQ collected species in Hawaii anywhere from 16 - 18 of those species have decreased since 1979. The species seeing the heaviest pressure have decreased the most ranging from 50 - 100\%. Worse, this has taken place in the areas closed to AQ collecting. The massive number of fish leaving Hawaii reefs for U.S. mainland household aquariums is the reason behind the declines. Hawaii is the world's third largest supplier of reef wildlife for the AQ hobby. Driving the level of loss on the reefs is the level of loss in the tanks. As you know most beginner aquarists accidentally kill off all their fish in the first months of learning how to keep a saltwater tank. Within a year, most saltwater aquarists quit the hobby. Why? I like to think it's because they have a conscience. And the letters they send us, certainly attest to that.

A recent poll showed that the vast majority of Hawaii residents want the AQ trade ended. They want Hawaii's reef fish on Hawaii reefs, where they belong, not dying and being wasted in some far off living room tank. They believe that ONLY captive bred animals are suitable for aquariums - never wild ones.

There is no possible way that the decimation of Hawaii species by the AQ trade would be called "sustainable" by anyone not somehow vested in continued unlimited access to Hawaii reefs and fish. As a leader at the Georgia Aquarium you should be discouraging this hobby. How many credible zoos encourage their visitors to keep wildlife as a hobby or pet?

Right now there are enough captive bred species to supply the world demand for livestock for saltwater tanks. But that doesn't stop Sea Dwelling Creatures, Quality Marine, and all the rest from bringing in 11 million wild ones every year. Reef wildlife trafficking continues because trade members are afraid that hobbyists will become bored with just 50 species to choose from instead of the 1800 currently imported. No hobbyists=no money.

The trade must stop its addiction to wildlife now.

Posted by Rene Umberger on 11 Jul 2013

Following alongside collecting for the aquarium market is the lucrative trade in rare mollusk shells, particularly tropical gastropods with extraordinary color and/or ornamentation. Harvesting the highest-value shells generally means taking the specimens live and then killing them to avoid the abrasion that can occur when a dead shell is knocked around on the substrate by waves and currents. I have checked out the online sales sites and have seen beautiful shells that should have been left be. Ordinary predation plus collecting pressure cannot be beneficial for the rarer species. I recall posting about this on a shell-collectors' website originating, I believe, from the University of Georgia. Although the site was not ordinarily refereed by its management, my posting got me on a moderator's list that prevented further posts from appearing until after review. The shell entrepreneurs had complained, of course, at any suggestion that conservation should take precedence over profits at least with respect with the scarcest mollusks.
Posted by W.T. Ward on 08 Sep 2013


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rebecca kesslerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. A former senior editor at Natural History, her work has been published by ClimateCentral.org, Conservation, Discover, Natural History, ScienceNOW, ScienceInsider, and Environmental Health Perspectives. She has previously written for Yale Environment 360 about the fatal impact fishing gear is having on whales in the North Atlantic and about efforts to restore prairies in the U.S. Midwest.



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