I had a high school science teacher who used to tell us to replace the word “data” with “facts” when using it in a sentence. That way, he suggested, you will insure you are using it properly because, while people frequently don’t use it as such, “data,” like “facts” is plural. Today I frequently repeat that advice when discussing the aquarium trade and aquarium fisheries. I repeat it not to correct my audience on proper usage, however, but rather to reinforce that data are, quite simply, facts. In an era of big data, data journalism and the ubiquitous infographic, we sometimes forget that the fundamental reason we seek data is because good data should represent an indisputable reality, and we should be making decisions on reality rather than on unsubstantiated anecdote.
When it comes to the aquarium trade, there are precious few indisputable realities quantified—the trade has almost no data. Not having data is a luxury the aquarium trade and aquarium fisheries can no longer afford. Not having data makes the trade unable to adequately defend itself against false allegations of unsustainable harvest. Gone are the days when it sufficed to simply say the aquarium trade is so small—the harvest of marine life for aquaria is so inconsequential when compared to other fisheries—that sustainability is a foregone conclusion. Given a history of well-defined shifting baselines and overfishing across a broad swath of commercial and artisanal fisheries, it no longer suffices to say, “We know we’re sustainable because we’ve been fishing here for 20 years, and we’ve seen no effect of that fishing on populations of marine life.” Instead of anecdote, the aquarium trade needs hard data.
When data are available, they can work wonders. The aquarium trade has seen this in Hawaii, where anti-trade activists have attacked the aquarium fishery over what they claimed were unsustainable practices. More recently, the aquarium trade saw how data were used successfully to respond to the implication made in a recent Endangered Species Act (ESA) petition that trade was overfishing orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula) from the wild. While initial allegations in the media of the U.S. aquarium trade importing as many as 400,000 orange clownfish annually rallied public support against the aquarium trade, the actual data show less than 50,000 orange clownfish were imported to the U.S. each year between 2008 and 2011. Further, the data show that 80 percent of those clownfish were imported from two countries outside of the species’ range, suggesting that the imported fish were actually aquacultured or mislabeled fish and do not represent, as some alleged, fish taken from the wild. As the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) clearly laid out in its recent decision not to list the orange clownfish under the ESA, even if 100,000 wild orange clownfish were harvested globally each year, that harvest would only represent 0.0076% of the global population, which NMFS conservatively estimated at 13-18 million. In short, the data show the allegations of overfishing of the species were, in fact, unfounded.
While I started this blog entry talking about the paucity of data in the marine aquarium trade, I want to close by pointing to the data that are available. Recently, the best single source of marine aquarium trade data was made publically available through the Marine Aquarium Biodiversity and Trade Flow database (www.aquariumtradedata.org). A joint initiative between the New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University, the database makes species level U.S. import data available to the public. While the database has its limitations and only represents U.S. imports for select years, it is the best available marine aquarium trade data available at present.
In fact, it is the data used by NMFS in the orange clownfish ESA decision, and it also informed the proposed decision to list the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) as “Threatened” instead of “Endangered” under the ESA. The value of having these data—these facts—available should be clear to trade, governments and NGOs alike. What started as a limited pilot project looking only at a handful of years of U.S. imports will hopefully be expanded to a global scale, providing real-time monitoring and feedback on trade activity and helping shape the future of a responsible, sustainable and defensible marine aquarium trade about which all aquarists can be proud.
Ret Talbot is an award-winning freelance science writer and photojournalist with nearly 20 years of experience covering stories from some of the more remote corners of the globe. His most recent book Banggai Cardinalfish, explores the natural history, biology and conservation status of this endangered coral reef fish.