Reef Aquarium Hobby Ecological Concerns

Are the corals and fish in the oceans being affected adversely by the reef hobby?

Q. I have a 20-gallon aquarium that is decorated with base rock, plant rock and some worm rock, and houses a small yellow tang, a coral beauty and two sebae clownfish. I’m thinking of stepping up to a 55- or 75-gallon aquarium, but I have one major concern. I fear that in an effort to enjoy a reef system in my home I will be contributing to the destruction of the world’s natural reefs and fish. What conservation steps are taken worldwide to protect these? Are there any good sources of captive-bred saltwater fish and rock and coral? Any information would be helpful. I love a marine aquarium, but I can’t fully enjoy it given my concerns.

A. You raise a very important question that I am sure many aquarists have probably wrestled with — though unfortunately, most likely not enough of them. What you must ask yourself is do you believe that the earth’s natural resources should be left completely alone or is there some sustainable harvesting that you would consider tolerable? If you opt for the former, then you should probably do away with most of what you have in your v and keep only the clownfish, assuming these were tank-raised.

Few of the marine organisms now being sold in pet stores in North America come from anywhere but the ocean. However, there are now enough tank-raised organisms available that would allow you to maintain a reef aquarium without taking anything directly from the ocean. The downside is that some of the companies that produce these organisms have gone out of business in the last few years. Those that are still in business must compete with the supply of cheaper, wild-caught organisms, and also cannot provide the volume at present to meet the demand.

For many of these small companies, it is all but impossible to hold down prices with the normal mark-ups from producer to distributor/wholesaler to retailer to hobbyist. The accumulated increases are not competitive. This is why some companies have resorted to selling directly to retailers — it’s the only way they can compete.

Companies that can provide you with aquacultured live rock include Sea Critters (813-986-6521) and Tampa Bay Saltwater (813-875-3574), both in Florida. There are other suppliers of cultured live rock who will soon be offering their rock for sale in the future.

At present, the largest supplier of tank-raised clownfish, dottybacks and gobies is C-Quest, Inc. of Puerto Rico (809-845-3909). Their fish are also readily available from major retailers.

For live coral there is only one large-scale producer I know of, and that is Tropicorium in Romulus, Michigan (313-782-2622). Many of the corals they have for sale were grown in their aquariums. They have also recently set up a Tridacna clam farm in south Florida. Reef Science International (510-735-3258), on the West Coast, is also a major distributor of cultured corals and clams.

These are all domestic suppliers. Some would argue that setting up these facilities in consumer countries does little for the livelihood of people living in the countries where these resources naturally occur. The argument is: why not offer these people an alternative to collecting wild specimens by allowing them to earn a living by farming their own natural resources? In answer to this question, there are a number of Tridacna clam farms throughout the Pacific, with more being planned. Most of these produce clams for the food trade, but a number of clam farms are targeting colorful clams to produce for the aquarium market.

At present there are only a handful of coral farms around the world, but there are also plans to develop more areas in the Pacific basin for live coral farming, as well as in the Red Sea and the Caribbean. A recent operation has sprung up on Hawaii’s big island. Developed and managed by Gerald Heslinga, formerly of the Micronesian Mariculture Demonstration Center in Palau, this company is currently in the process of expanding its giant clam breeding facility, and may one day also be a source for farmed corals. Several individuals in Hawaii are now pursuing similar ventures.

In many ways, Hawaii is an ideal setting for a coral farm. The water and light are free, it rarely gets below 72 degrees Fahrenheit and has never gone above 100 degrees, and once cultured, no CITIES permits are required for export to the U.S. because Hawaii is part of the U.S.

At the Waikiki Aquarium we have recently completed a 2000-gallon outdoor coral farm that will double our current capacity for growing corals. At present we supply several public aquariums and researchers around the world with propagated corals, shipping out more than 600 pieces in the last year alone.

Unfortunately, for all the potential of live coral farms, they cannot satisfy the current demand for live coral — not only in numbers, but also in variety. Hope may lie in sexual reproduction of corals in quantities of several thousand per week, but these types of operations are probably several years away.

What I see developing is a situation similar to what has occurred in the freshwater hobby. The vast majority of the fish offered to people are raised in fishponds, but there is still a small market for wild-caught fish for the enthusiast. Perhaps the same will develop for live corals — lots of the easy-to-grow varieties for the average hobbyist, but more expensive, exotic, wild-caught species for a smaller number of obsessed enthusiasts.

There are currently no fish farms located in third world countries, and there may never be considering the shipping distances involved and the costs, technology and expertise required at present to raise these fish in captivity. As a result, organizations, such as Ocean Voice International and the International Marinelife Alliance (U.S. and Philippines, are working to educate the fisherfolk in the Philippines to use non-destructive ways of collecting marine fish, how to correctly handle and ship these fish (ensuring higher-quality fish), and how to receive better monetary returns.

Unless we can provide a viable alternative to these people, they will not, and indeed cannot, change when the lives of their families are at stake. Unfortunately, the use of sodium cyanide has spread from the Philippines and is now widely used throughout Indonesia, but Ocean Voice International is currently attempting to develop similar programs there.

The programs I listed above are admirable and need to be encouraged by hobbyists. If we do not purchase these tank-raised animals or those collected in a responsible manner, then make no mistake, these programs and businesses will fail. After all, we are why these businesses exist. Without our support they will disappear.

At the crux of your concern, though, is the assumption you made that the collection of marine life is destructive. Most of the legislation designed to protect coral reefs is aimed at much greater evils than collecting for the aquarium trade (i.e., overfishing, excessive pollution, siltation, freshwater run-off, etc.). This should tell you something about the impact that the aquarium trade has on wild reefs.

However, do not assume that we have no impact — I am sure we do. The questions are: How significant is it, can we measure it and can we control it? There is no hard scientific data on the impact the aquarium trade has had on coral reefs. However, I am quite certain that, if managed carefully, coral reefs could easily withstand the pressures of the hobby. Where fish collecting is involved, I have no doubt that it can be sustainable, and easily so. The problem is that no one knows how to manage coral reef resources well, and certainly not coral or live rock collecting.

The easiest course of action is to institute total bans on collecting, and this is why the live rock trade in Florida is dead. Now we will never know if live rock collecting could have been sustainable in Florida because no one can collect it anymore to find out.

There are a lot of laws in the countries where coral reefs are located, designed to protect them. Having the laws is easy, but enforcing them is another matter, and this is the problem in many of these coral-exporting countries. Couple this with rampant corruption and you have a very nasty enforcement problem. It is easy for us in developed countries to sit in our homes and tell those in the Solomon Islands or Indonesia that they should stop collecting corals. But when your stomach is rumbling from lack of food and so are the stomachs of your wife and children, would you listen?

If you want to maintain your environmental ethics then I would suggest insisting that your retailer obtain fish and live rock from the suppliers I listed above. If they refuse to do so, then find another retailer or contact these suppliers yourself.

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Fish · Lifestyle