The Saltwater Aquarium Hobby: Why Wild Caught?

his woman is caring for fish collected in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Alex Rose

Conscious consumerism as a way of shaping the aquarium hobby is an important topic because we all have the power to control what we buy. The potential for our decisions to incite positive change in this industry hinges on informed buying practices and knowing where our animals come from and how they are acquired. This piece will focus on the wild caught side of the trade, while the next piece will discuss the specifics of tank raised and tank bred animals, our three main options when stocking our tanks. There is an important place in the aquarium world for all of these options, but we need to understand the pros and cons of each one and the impacts they have on the trade before spending our money.

Coral frag aquaculture in Papua New Guinea
Coral frag aquaculture in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Alex Rose

Although there’s a growing number of species that are either reared or raised in captivity, the majority of the animals in the aquarium hobby are still wild caught/collected. Since this statement particularly applies to the marine ornamental fishes with more than 90% still being wild caught, I will focus on these animals.

According to World Wildlife Fund-Philippines, approximately 20 million tropical saltwater fish are sold annually, about 11 million of which are bought in the United States. According to a University of Florida study, up to 80 percent of certain marine tropical fish die before they are sold due to a wide range of unfortunate circumstances including harmful methods of capture, improper holding conditions, unsatisfactory shipping methods, and stress-related illnesses. The vast majority of these animals come from Indo-Pacific island nations where fishing with cyanide is unfortunately still a method used to stun and capture reef fish, often killing many in the process, and harming all reef life including corals and other invertebrates.

After collection, these stressed fish are typically maintained in sub par facilities before being shipped to the other side of the planet where some estimate that another 90% of the fish lucky enough to survive the trip will die within one year in captivity at the hands of inexperienced aquarists. This may sound like undeniable reasoning against buying wild caught fish, but if all wild collection of marine ornamentals stopped tomorrow, the associated reef health issues would not miraculously disappear as opponents of the aquarium trade would have us believe. Conditions would likely worsen because the indigenous people who depend on collection for their livelihoods would have to find other ways to support their families. The limited alternatives for these coastal peoples frequently include dynamite and cyanide fishing for food fish, rampant collection of sea cucumbers (bêche-de-mer) for sale in Asian markets, and jobs in the mining and deforestation industries, all of which are extremely environmentally unfriendly alternatives.

Sustainable fisheries are the answer to this problem. It’s not the fact that fish are being taken out of the environment that does the damage, but that the methods used and numbers collected are highly unregulated. Proper management of a reef where fish are collected for the aquarium trade would involve extensive survey work to determine the species composition and population densities of a given area, followed by adherence to set catch limits, minimally stressful and environmentally responsible collection methods, clean and stable holding facilities, and training in proper shipping practices. The establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) near collection sites would also be extremely beneficial because it would provide fish with a safe environment free from collection pressures. It has been shown in several studies that species diversity and population density both increase dramatically inside MPAs as well as in the areas directly surrounding them, a correlation that would greatly benefit aquarium fish collectors working near protected zones. Transparency at all levels of the supply chain is also of paramount importance to ensuring the legal and safe collection of these reef fishes.

As usual, the two main factors needed here to reform the trade are money and education. If more funding were available to dedicate towards survey work, training, proper equipment, functional facilities, and possibly MPA establishment, unsustainable fishing practices would be a thing of the past. Educating indigenous people about the value of their reefs is an incredibly important step as well.

Caring for collected fish
This woman is caring for fish collected in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Alex Rose

Wild collection for the aquarium trade has the potential to protect our world’s coral reef ecosystems by showing coastal people the true value of their natural resources so they understand the importance of keeping these underwater habitats healthy. If the reefs are healthy, there will be many fish to collect, and plenty of work, both for the current generations and those to come.

But education on the consumer side of the trade is equally important. Some reef fishes are just not well suited to life in a captive environment and should be avoided by all but the most experienced hobbyists. The first time fish buyer should not be considering animals like mandarin dragonets, butterfly fish, and Moorish idols, but should leave these almost undoubtedly wild caught and sensitive creatures to people with the known ability to care for them properly. We also need to ask our stores where these fish were shipped in from so we can avoid purchasing our animals from countries known for cyanide fishing (e.g. Philippines and Indonesia) in place of those that are making an effort to collect sustainably (e.g. Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji). In time and with industry support, we can help foster sustainable collection practices that will not only provide countless people with needed jobs, but protect our precious reef ecosystems in the process.

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Making “Blue” Choices When Stocking a Reef Tank 

Many of these same principles apply to live coral collection, though fewer corals are collected directly from the wild and shipped to other countries for sale in comparison to reef fish. A growing number of corals are aquacultured/ maricultured, essentially meaning that wild corals are fragged in their home countries and these frags are then raised in tanks or open ocean coral gardens before being sold. The popularity of tank raised and tank bred organisms is on the rise in the cases of both fishes and corals, and this topic will be discussed in my next article.

Alex Rose

 Alex Rose is a biologist (BS and MS Biology), diver (PADI Divemaster), musician, underwater photographer, and lover of all things aquatic. Her driving goal is to find ways to protect our world’s coral reefs through diving, writing, education, and the establishment of a sustainable marine aquarium trade.

Article Categories:
Fish · Saltwater Fish