Posted 9 months ago on July 11, 2013, 11:12 p.m. EST by coenraadclement
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Cleaning up the global aquarium trade
About 30 million fish and other creatures are caught annually to supply the home aquarium market, taking a toll on some reef ecosystems. But conservationists are working to improve the industry by ending destructive practices and encouraging aquaculture.
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 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.
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“[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.
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 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.