aquarium tropical fish trade
July 21, 2014

Could The Fish In Your Aquarium Be Harming Coral Reefs?

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While watching brightly-colored fish flit about in an aquarium tends to be a calm and relaxing experience, monitoring exactly where those aquatic creatures came from and what methods were used to capture them is an entirely different story.

According to Jane J. Lee of National Geographic, the aquarium fish 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… into the multimillion-dollar business each year, often with little or no oversight.”

Andrew Rhyne of the New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University told Lee that roughly 1,800 tropical fish species in all are connected with the international trade, and that hundreds of coral and invertebrate species are also involved. More than half of the millions of fish traded annually wind up in the US, and it can be extremely difficult to figure out where they came from and whether or not they were caught in a sustainable manner.

Taking fish – or any other type of animal, for that matter – from their natural habitats could have serious consequences both for the survival of their species as well as their ecosystem of origin, Lee said. For example, the royal or regal blue tang, better known as the inspiration for the Dory character in the movie “Finding Nemo,” have been overcollected and are said in be in danger.

Ecologists, led by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, are spearheading a campaign to end the collection of these fish in Hawaii, the National Geographic reporter said. The organization is hoping to use its Operation Reef Defense initiative to get tougher laws and regulations pertaining to the collection and trade of reef organisms passed in the state, director Michael Long told Lee. Ultimately, they hope to get the aquarium trade “banned altogether.”

On the official Operation Reef Defense website, Sea Shepherd officials claim that 30 percent of the global coral reef population has died over the past 50 years, and another 30 percent has been severely damaged. Over the next 25 years, they argue that another 60 percent could die off due to human-induced activities such as pollution, overfishing, costal development and global warming.

“With the oceans of the world under attack from commercial extraction and pollution, our mission remains steadfast to defend marine habitat and wildlife to the fullest extent – from the smallest of reef species to the largest marine mammals and apex predators,” explained Sea Shepherd Hawaii Director & Operation Reef Defense Campaign Leader Deborah Bassett. “Time is running out for these great rain forests under the sea, so we must act now.”

That could be difficult, at least in terms of the aquarium-fish related end of things, because both the rules and the enforcement of those regulations vary from region to region, Rhyne said. While fisheries such as Hawaii, Australia and Fiji are said to be well-managed, Indonesia and the Philippines (which account for a combined 86 percent of all aquarium fish imported into the States) are said to have fairly poorly managed fisheries.

In fact, even though it is illegal to use cyanide in order to stun fish and make them easier to catch in the Philippines, Humboldt State University marine laboratory director Brian Tissot told National Geographic that nearly half of all fish coming from that region have been treated with the poisonous substance. This is due to the fact that enforcement of the national regulation is typically left up to local agencies that lack the resources to effectively patrol the waters.

Likewise, Lee suggests that the importing of fish into the US is not monitored as well as it could be. While all species listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have to be monitored and listed on databases, the only animals involved in the aquarium trade included on those lists are stony corals, giant clams, and seahorses.

“According to a 2012 study on the US marine aquarium trade, the majority of fish are lumped into a single category – marine tropical fish (MATF) – by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. If researchers want to look at the species and volume of fish coming into the US, they have to drill down into specific shipping invoices,” she said, noting that it took Rhyne and his colleagues three years to review one year’s worth of data for a recent study.

If people are thinking about starting an aquarium, Rhyne told National Geographic that it is important for them to do their homework. A good first step, he noted, is to take the time to track down fish that have been bred in captivity, not in the wild. “If they're not willing to educate themselves, they shouldn't have an aquarium,” the researcher concluded, because “the things we buy over here have a big impact on coral reefs.”