How Much is That Seahorse in the Window?

What are the true environmental costs of the marine curio industry?

The aquarium hobby, I believe, is sometimes unfairly singled out as the cause of this and the demise of that. Of late, there have been a few high-profile news stories that have placed the hobby in the media’s crosshairs. For example, we’ve recently heard of the supposed link between escaped aquarium lionfish and the population explosion of them up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Of interest in this regard is this recent, albeit anecdotal, post on one of my blogs: “When I lived on Grand Cayman Island there was a restaurant that had marine fishes, including a black volitans lionfish which is not a native fish. When the restaurant closed down all the marine fishes in their display tanks were simply dumped into the ocean. Now the lionfish is prowling the Caribbean.”


Then there is the cause célèbre of the Bangaii cardinalfish, which because of its popularity in the marine hobby and its limited range in the wild does appear vulnerable should its fishery not be properly managed in the future. But for the most part the marine aquarium hobby is pretty responsible. Hobbyists have really been making a sustainability push in the captive propagation of more and more corals, marine invertebrates and fishes in recent years.

According to a recent American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) Survey, the number of keepers of saltwater fishes in the United States in 2006 was around 800,000 households. Households keeping freshwater fishes amounted to 14.2 million for the same survey period. If every one of those households keeping marine fishes decided to buy three Bangaii cardinalfish tomorrow (they are currently all wild caught), there goes the wild population (estimated at 2.4 million individuals). But that’s not how it works. Some may keep a few Pterapogon kauderni, but others may keep anemonefishes, damselfishes or butterflyfishes. The point is that we all have to keep working to sustain the marine side of the hobby.

Does every breeding project need to have a cash payout as its final goal? Whatever happened to the joy of puzzling out breeding behavior and raising fry to maturity? What happened to sharing this information with other hobbyists – for free and because it is good for the hobby, for the environment and for species we can move from wild-caught to captive-propagation status? Maybe it is because of this breakdown of a sense of community that the number of households keeping marine fishes has flatlined through much of the first decade of the new century.

There are an estimated 25 to 30 million seahorses collected from the wild each year. Ninety five percent of these are for the Asian medicinal trade, while the remaining wild-caught seahorses end up as key chains or refrigerator magnets and as aquarium animals. Google “dried seahorses” and see what comes up. This in spite the fact that all Hippocampus species are listed as vulnerable on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species list.

Curious About Curios
The total number of people in the U.S. who keep marine fishes may be 800,000, but I’d be willing to bet that the number of people who have some sort of desiccated seahorse, starfish or sand dollar, not to mention all manner of decorative shells (each of which more than likely housed a live animal at point of harvest) is well into the millions. Those of us who live in the heartland and vacation a few times a year at some beach-front resort often innocently saunter into the local souvenir shop and purchase some cool-looking preserved sea creature and some shells for ourselves, our kids and for friends and family back home. Most of these animals are harvested in abundance in the Philippines, Indonesia, but also in the Indian Ocean and off the coast of Brazil.

I decided to see how many marine curios (dried sea animals that are made into key chains, paper weights, refrigerator magnets, necklaces, etc.) I could come up with in my house in five minutes of looking. As you can see in the attached photograph, I came up with one conch, two Linckia seastars, two cowfish, one horseshoe crab, five more shells (representing five more once-living creatures) and two shell necklaces (souvenirs for my daughters I got a couple of years ago from a curio shop in Daytona Beach), which together amount to about 124 (yes, I counted them) marine invertebrates. Final tally of deceased sea creatures that I found in my five-minute search of my home – 135! And I don’t even go out of my way to collect this stuff. It has a way of finding me.

I’m not advocating a pauperization of the summer vacation by forgoing all manner of marine souvenirs. I’m also not suggesting rounding up all the marine curios in your house and using them as fire starter. What I am asking is that people become more aware, spread the news (e-mail this blog to others) and on the way to becoming more responsible hobbyists become more responsible consumers of all things birthed in the sea.

On FishChannel, you can go download for free my “Things You Can do to Save Reefs.” The online version provides links to other websites about our oceans and the creatures living in them as well as the various threats to our oceans. Print out the pdf (the color version is much nicer) and affix it to the wall in your fish room or to your office bulletin board, and try to do something each day to help the oceanic environment. And imagine the impact if everyone in those 800,000 marine tank households did exactly that, every day.

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