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The Sustainably Minded Aquarist Part II – Smaller Developing Island Nations and Cultured Fishes

By Ret Talbot - Posted Nov 18, 2014 09:00 AM
In this series, we ask what sustainably minded aquarists should do when it comes to sourcing animals. Last week, I suggested the sustainably minded aquarist source fishes from smaller developing island nations or fisheries in Hawaii or Australia. Today I’ll explain why and consider whether cultured fishes are the most sustainable choice.
 The Sustainably Minded Aquarist Part II – Smaller Developing Island Nations and Cultured Fishes

Some importers/wholesalers pass point-of-origin information on to retailers. Quality Marine, one of the largest importers of marine aquarium fishes, makes tank tags like the one pictured here available to all of their retail customers.

(Read Part 1)

There are myriad reasons why fishes originating in places like Fiji, Solomon Islands, French Polynesia, Cooks Island, New Caledonia, Maldives, and Kiribati are more likely to be sustainable choices over fishes from the larger source countries like Philippines and Indonesia. While there are sustainable aquarium fishers in Philippines and Indonesia (and also questionable ones in some of the smaller nations), there remains a high level of unsustainable and even illegal activity in the larger countries that the sustainably minded aquarist will want to avoid. The challenge is to support the sustainable fisheries or, at the very least, not support the unsustainable ones.

The Importance of Traceability

To support a sustainable fishery half a world away, aquarists need point of origin information. Breeders and some advanced aquarists talk about the concept of knowing where a fish originates as knowing its provenance. To know a fish’s provenance—the exact region or even reef from which it was harvested—is to be able to trace the supply chain from retail store back to the fishery. This is why tractability is so important to the sustainably minded aquarist.

A pair of G.watanabei sold by Quality Marine.
A pair of G.watanabei sold by Quality Marine.

The trouble with the largest source countries is that fishes may travel many miles and through many hands before they reach an export facility. Because the exporters often buy from middlemen, who operate as intermediaries between the fishers and the exporters, provenance is quickly lost. Without traceability, even the exporters often don’t know which of their fishes were harvested sustainably, which were harvested unsustainably (e.g., overfishing) and which were harvested illegally (e.g., cyanide). That means the aquarist at the local fish store doesn’t know either.

Local versus Roving Fishers

In many of the smaller developing island nations data-based fisheries management and formal traceability remain rare, but there are systems in place that help insure sustainability and aid in traceability. For example, in some countries the amount of available freight leaving the country each week is the limiting factor to how many aquarium fishes can be exported. In addition to limited freight, many smaller island nations have strong customary resource use or ownership rights in place. In these situations, coastal fishing villages fish their own reefs or establish agreements that benefit the village for others to fish their reef. Because it is their reef, they tend to know it better and fish it more sustainably over time.

In larger source countries, so-called roving fishers are common. These roving fishers may go out on a collecting expedition for a couple of weeks, moving from one reef to the next. Because they don’t have a direct stake in many of the reefs they are fishing, they may be less attuned to fishing that reef sustainably. In the worst cases, they overfish—or “fish out”—a reef before moving on to the next one.

In addition to how sustainably a local fisher versus a roving fisher may fish a reef, traceability is generally a lot better in the case of local fishers harvesting fishes from their own reef and selling those animals directly to the exporter without a middleman.


A fisher from a remote village in the Florida Islands, Solomon Islands harvesting an aquarium fish on the reef adjacent to his village.

Hawaii & Australia

Fishes originating from developed nations like Australia or Hawaii are often the most sustainable choices. While certainly not without their challenges, these aquarium fisheries have both national and regional oversight. There also tend to be more fishery data available owing to more marine scientists working over a longer duration in these places.

The aquarium fishery in Hawaii, for example, has arguably more data than any other aquarium fishery in the world. While not without its problems, it is under constant scrutiny, and fisheries management is far more adaptive (able to respond) to issues than many of the aquarium fisheries in developing island nations. Australia is frequently considered to have the best-managed aquarium fishery.

Cultured Fishes – The Most Sustainable Choice?

One seemingly obvious solution for the sustainably minded aquarist not wanting to support unsustainable fisheries and illegal activity is to buy cultured fishes. After all, captive bred fishes do not have anywhere near the same effect on reefs as wild harvested fishes do, right? That is true, but the sustainably minded aquarist realizes this is a two way street.

While cultured fishes do not require more than broodstock to be taken from the wild, they also often lack the ability to actively help protect reefs and support fishing communities. A sustainable aquarium fishery can be one of the best extractive industries in many developing island nations. It can provide real economic incentive to conserve reefs and to fish sustainably, and it can drive much needed socio-economic development, allowing remote fishing communities to remain connected to the resource. After the closure on an aquarium fishery, too often unsustainable activity fills the void.

In separating the aquarium hobby from wild reefs, aquarists miss an opportunity to promote environmental and socio-economic sustainability in a part of the world where it is most needed. Still, in many situations, cultured fishes are a great choice. They provide an alternative to unsustainably harvested or untraceable animals, and they tend to be hardier and easier to keep for the novice aquarist. Nonetheless, most sustainably minded aquarists will want to keep wild harvested fishes at some point. Maybe keeping wild fishes is about how few captive bred marine fishes are currently available, or maybe it’s about a connection to wild reefs and supporting local fishing communities and economically driven conservation initiatives. In short, a truly sustainable and robust marine aquarium trade relies on both cultured fishes and traceable, sustainably harvested wild fishes.

The sustainable marine aquarist thinks we need more of both.

Up until this point in the series, we have only looked at aquarium fishes. What about corals? In Part III, we will look at how the sustainably minded aquarist approaches the trade in corals and other invertebrates.


Editor's Note: We encourage all aquarists to stay up to date with important aquarium fishery information by following Ret's blog,

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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