By Rebecca Kessler
An estimated 30 million fish and other creatures are caught annually to supply the home aquarium market, taking a toll on some reef ecosystems. Now conservationists are working to improve the industry by ending destructive practices and encouraging aquaculture.
To bring a kaleidoscopic glimpse of tropical marine life into their living rooms, aquarium hobbyists depend on a steady supply of live fish and invertebrates from the world’s imperiled coral reefs. Bagged and boxed, the animals are flown in from biodiversity hotspots like Indonesia and the Philippines in the so-called Coral Triangle. But poor handling and long supply chains have raised concerns that too many creatures die in transit or soon after arrival. Some marine populations have taken a hit, and destructive collection practices — including the use of cyanide — have damaged precious reef habitat.
In Hawaii the issue has ignited into full controversy, though scientists say the trade there is better managed than in many other regions. For several years, activists have sought to get aquarium collection banned through lawsuits, legislation, and public pressure. In May, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, best known for its confrontational anti-whaling crusades, launched a new campaign to end the trade in Hawaii — and eventually elsewhere — for good.
That effort comes on the heels of several failed attempts to introduce sustainable practices by more mainstream conservation groups, scientists, and industry representatives. Meanwhile, other new efforts are raising hope in some quarters that the trade might be able both to satisfy first-world hobbyists and support sustainable livelihoods for people in developing nations. These initiatives include raising fish and coral in aquaculture facilities specifically for the aquarium trade, as well as a promising new method for detecting fish caught after cyanide has been used to stun them.
“[In\ Indonesia and the Philippines there are serious concerns about reef damage and fish mortality from the trade,” Brian Tissot, a marine ecologist at Washington State University, said in an email. A 2010 paper in the journal Marine Policy, on which Tissot was the lead author, called on the U.S. to take the lead in reforming the aquarium trade and its bigger siblings — the jewelry, home décor, and curio trades in dried corals, shells, seahorses, and the like.
“It’s very scary, and of course the impacts on those ecosystems are largely unknown,” he says of the magnitude of marine life that those trades are removing from reefs. “That’s what we worry about.” More....