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The Sustainably Minded Aquarist Part I – Wild Animals

By Ret Talbot - Posted Nov 05, 2014 09:00 AM
While covering the marine aquarium trade at the intersection of science and sustainability, I’m frequently asked what the sustainably minded aquarist should do. Over the next ten weeks, I’ll try to answer that question as best I’m able beginning with a fundamental truth of which many beginning aquarists are unaware.
The Sustainably Minded Aquarist Part I – Wild Animals

Recently collected Pacific blue tangs, Paracanthurus hepatus.

There are many similarities between the marine aquarium trade and the seafood trade, but perhaps one of the most important is that both are dependent on wild animals. While aquaculture exists for both aquarium fishes and food fishes, large numbers of wild fishes are regularly taken from the ocean to meet demand. This makes these two industries fairly unique in terms of their reliance on wildlife. When it comes to aquarium fishes, the number of species bred in captivity is on the rise, but more than 90% of the fishes commonly kept in aquaria still come from wild reefs. Whether you chose to keep fishes harvested from the wild or not, understanding how dependent the marine aquarium trade is on wildlife is essential to becoming a sustainably minded aquarist.

Why Is It Important to Know Where Your Fishes Originate?

bluetangbag.jpgMany new marine aquarists are surprised to learn most of the fishes available at the local fish store originate on wild reefs half a world away. Many aquarists are also surprised to learn that, in the majority of cases, traceability is, at best, poor. In other words, it is often difficult (if not impossible) to know where the fishes in the aquarium store originated. While the seafood industry has a variety of third-party certification schemes and ecolabels that help sustainably minded consumers make informed decisions, the marine aquarium trade currently has no such industry-wide program. A few businesses have attempted various ways to provide more information about a fish’s origin at the point of sale, but this is the exception rather than the norm.

Because of the lack of traceability in the marine aquarium trade, it’s difficult to know whether or not a given fish was harvested from a sustainable, well-managed aquarium fishery. For sustainably minded aquarists—just as it is for sustainably minded seafood consumers—this is one of the most challenging aspects of the aquarium hobby.

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is defined in a variety of ways, but at its most basic, sustainability is about insuring a future. Sustainable fishing is about insuring there will be fishes in the sea tomorrow, next year and one hundred years from now. It is about not taking so many fishes that wild populations fall below the levels at which they can produce enough offspring to replace those harvested. Sustainability is also about not removing too many animals that provide critical ecosystem functions like grazing algae or cleaning parasites off other fishes. Determining what a so-called sustainable yield is for a given fishery takes data.

In addition to environmental sustainability, there is also socio-economic sustainability to consider. Fisheries require fishers, and fishers frequently live in communities near the ecosystems in which they fish. The aquarium trade has the potential to provide one of the best economic incentives for conservation. If fishers make a decent, steady income from fishing the reefs adjacent to their villages, they are more likely to fish those reefs sustainably and protect them from other fishers who may seek to overfish them. Earning a fair price for the fishes they harvest can also have a dramatic sociological effect on a remote fishing village. Encouraging fishers to remain connected to the resource can bring beneficial socio-economic development to a village in the form of sanitation services, communication capabilities and medical amenities.

Solutions to Complex Problems

The sustainably minded aquarist is interested in supporting the trifecta of sustainability—environmental, sociological and economic. Unfortunately, in too many parts of the world, this socio-economic sustainability is not the norm for aquarium fisheries. The two largest source countries for aquarium animals—Philippines and Indonesia—are the countries about which the most concerns exist. They are the countries with the least traceability, the most illegal activity and often the poorest, exploited fishers.

Until such a time as comprehensive reform is instituted and real traceability is implemented, the sustainably minded aquarists may wish to restrict his or her purchases of aquarium fishes to the smaller developing island nations and places like Australia and Hawaii, where there is a great deal of fishery data. Often these fishes are more expensive, but the sustainably minded aquarist has a much better chance of acquiring a sustainably and legally harvested fish by avoiding inexpensive animals coming from the larger source countries.

In Part II of this series, we will look at why the smaller developing island nations and places like Australia and Hawaii, in addition to aquaculture facilities, are more often than not the best sources for aquarium fishes for the sustainably minded aquarist. We will also tackle the question of whether or not the sustainably minded aquarist should purchase only aquacultured fishes.

Author: Ret Talbot
Location: USA

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer and photographer who frequently reports on fisheries issues. He is a senior editor at CORAL Magazine, where he has been researching a multi-year story on sustainability and the marine aquarium trade. He frequently blogs about fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability at his own blog:


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