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
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
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
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
a Satya contributing writer. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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