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April/May 2007
Saving Nemo
By Monica Engebretson

Who could forget the 2003 film Finding Nemo? With a plot centered around a clown fish named Nemo and his efforts to escape an aquarium tank and find his way back to his ocean home. However, the moral of this story was apparently lost on thousands. In the months following its release, interest in keeping marine fish, especially clown fish, skyrocketed. Exotic fish sellers also reported an increase in demand for blue tang (the species depicted as the character “Dory” in the film).

While the film certainly was a boon to the hobby aquarium industry, the U.S. has always been a top marine fish importer. According to the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) the U.S. imports nearly half of the global marine trade—worth $200 million to $300 million annually. But at what cost to the environment, locals and, of course, the fish?

Fish Out of Water
Nearly all marine fish used in the aquarium trade are wild-caught. While 90 percent of freshwater fish are supplied by fish farms, 98 percent of marine fish and invertebrates are captured in the wild, according to the MAC.

Not surprisingly, many exploited species are on the decline. For example, global seahorse populations have declined dramatically in recent years. While their collection for Chinese medicine and habitat loss probably represent the largest threat to seahorses, thousands are collected from the wild for the aquarium trade.

It is a common misconception that buying seahorses for home aquaria or attempting to rear them in captivity will help conservation efforts. In fact, buying seahorses contributes to the decline of wild populations. Almost all seahorses sold by marine retailers are wild-caught rather than captive-bred, because raising seahorses to maturity is difficult and, therefore, less profitable. Despite numerous claims of successful breeding and rearing in some species of seahorses, there is a lack of rigorous scientific publications to substantiate the claims. The few “captive-reared” seahorses are usually the young of wild-caught pregnant males. Seahorses are extremely difficult to maintain in home aquariums and most hobbyists end up replacing their lost seahorses frequently, thus perpetuating the trade.

West Fishes East
Most marine fish destined for American living rooms come from developing countries. Indonesia and the Philippines supply more than half of the global marine aquarium fish trade.

The demand for tropical fish to fill aquariums has fueled the trade in illegal fish collection in which divers squirt cyanide into reefs to stun fish making them easier to catch, meanwhile polluting the environment and killing smaller fish and coral. According to Vaughan Pratt, President of the International Marinelife Alliance, two of the biggest exporters, Indonesia and the Philippines, collect more than half of their aquarium fish with cyanide despite local laws prohibiting the practice.

Indonesia’s coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse in the world with more than 1,650 species in eastern Indonesia alone. However, cyanide and blast fishing—using explosives to stun or kill fish for easy collection—are widespread throughout the archipelago even in protected areas. So rampant are these destructive collection techniques, surveys indicate that about 65 percent of reefs in the Maluku islands have evidence of bomb damage. Having personally traveled in Maluku and eastern Indonesia, I can attest to the staggering beauty and diversity of the reefs, as well as the abundance of underwater deserts created by destructive fishing.

With rising concern about sustainability and environmental impacts, the Marine Aquarium Council has developed a certification program whose requirements include, “monitoring of reefs and stocks for compliance with sustainability standards; documentation of compliance with standards; submission of trade data to an international information system; and management plans and conservation areas for harvested reefs.”

However, the effectiveness of such certification programs is questionable. For example, data collected from legal fish trappers and traders likely underestimates the actual number of fish extracted from the wild for the pet trade. The mortality that takes place during capture and transportation is likely excluded. In addition, such data tracks only the legal trade and therefore does not take into account the number of fish traded illegally.

Fish poaching is pervasive and difficult to control. Presently there is no marking system that can reliably distinguish legal from illegally captured fish. Furthermore, with wild species, legal trade typically provides a smoke screen behind which poachers operate. As a result, import and export bans are perhaps the single most effective measure for protecting marine ornamental fish.

Finally, the lack of comprehensive information on the biology and population status for most traded species make it impossible to reliably set scientifically determinable “harvest quotas,” i.e. the number of fish that can ostensibly be removed without negatively impacting the population. In fact, many reefs in eastern Indonesia have yet to even be surveyed.

A common assertion by marine dealers and hobbyists is that the trade in aquarium fish helps impoverished people of developing countries earn a living. According to the Marine Aquarium Council, “Collecting and exporting marine aquarium organisms in developing countries creates jobs and income in rural low-income coastal areas that have limited resources and economic options, e.g. an estimated 7,000 collectors in the Philippines.” However, if you take that number and contrast it with the population of 89,468,677, only 0.00782 percent of the people are involved in the ornamental fish trade—about one person in every 12,780 people. Yet all Philippians benefit from healthy, thriving coastal ecosystems. These ecosystems are put at risk by the relatively few people who work in the marine fish trade.

It is also important to note that the bulk of profits from the marine fish trade do not go to the local people but rather to the importers, wholesalers and retailers. Alas, like many resources exported out of developing countries, it is individuals in the developed countries that make the vast majority of the profits. Given this, one could argue that locals are exploited by the American marine aquarium industry almost as much as the fish.

The Wishes of Fishes
If we place environmental concerns aside, are there other ethical implications of keeping fish in aquariums? Are aquarium fish aware of their captivity? Do they suffer from being deprived of their natural environment or ability to express behaviors? Like Nemo, do marine fish held in home aquariums long for their ocean home?

It’s hard to know for sure, but when one considers that the physical and behavioral attributes of marine fish have evolved over millions of years to fill specialized niches in the marine ecosystems, it seems reasonable to assume that removing them from these ecosystems and placing them inside tanks not only interrupts their biological imperative but likely frustrates their natural behavior.

In the January 2007 edition of Pet Product News—a pet industry magazine—it was noted the specialized needs of reef fish are often ignored by hobbyists: “Social needs may frequently be overlooked. For example, some reef fish live in large groups. In many of these species, a single individual, deprived of the security of its shoal, may spend its time cowering behind a rock, fail to get enough to eat and eventually succumb to infection. Conversely, many reef fish are intolerant of their own kind, and in the confines of the aquarium may fight to the death with another member of the species.”

The difficulty of breeding marine fish in captivity also suggests that the welfare of aquarium fish is not optimal. While successful breeding alone does not indicate whether welfare is good, as many animals are successfully bred under captive conditions that are found to have severe welfare problems, it is an indication that the behavior of marine fish is stymied by their captive environment.

Further, studies on pain in fish confirm that indeed fish have conscious, cognizant pain experiences similar to higher vertebrates such as mammals. If fish are similar to other animals in their ability to feel pain then it is not unreasonable to assume that they share other sensations such as fear, joy and sadness.

In lieu of definitive answers to the emotional lives of fish and in consideration of the negative impacts the aquarium trade is having on wild fish populations and the environment, it would be best if we would learn to appreciate these beautiful animals in their natural habitats, not in our homes.

Monica Engebretson is Project Director for the Animal Protection Institute and a Satya contributing writer. For more information contact


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