There’s something fishy about the aquarium trade…

This last week has seen me really starting to get into the divemaster course, which is great! Sadly, it does mean a little bit less diving in the ocean (though not by much), and then when I do dive, I’m doing coursework. I know…woe is me! I’m doing an incredibly interesting dive certification on an island that boasts incredible dive sites no matter which way you turn!

There is one common thought that goes through my mind almost every time I descend to a new dive site out here; “Wow! It’s like the biggest aquarium ever!”

Coral Reef at Tulamben, Bali

That might seem a bit strange…but all the animals here are ones that I’ve only ever seen in aquaria back home; some have been large and public, such as those This last week has seen me really starting to get into the divemaster course, which is great! Sadly, it does mean a little bit less diving in the ocean (though not by much), and then when I do dive, I’m doing coursework. I know…woe is me! I’m doing an incredibly interesting dive certification on an island that boasts incredible dive sites no matter which way you turn!found in the galleries at the Vancouver Aquarium. Other species I’ve seen for sale in pet stores, as well as in small aquaria that I’ve had to maintain for some of the various jobs I’ve had over the years. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly realize that this HUGE anemone I’m looking at is actually the same species as the little wee ones I’ve looked after in a pet store. People want to buy them because clown fish really like them…the one I found in the wild was easily large enough to accommodate the five clownfish that were wriggling around in its tentacles. The one at the pet store was a midget by comparison.

Based on that last paragraph, you might think that I’m about to go on a rant about how these animals shouldn’t be in tiny little fish tanks. Well…close guess, but not quite right. Realistically the capture of these fish for private aquariums is just another fishery…and I’m all for making use (in a sustainable way!) of our natural resources.

The problem is that in many regions the capture of live fish and invertebrates for the aquarium trade is not sustainable. As with many other fisheries, capture limits are either non-existent or too large to be sustainable, and local governments rarely put enough effort/resources into enforcement, meaning that many people openly flaunt the catch limits. Furthermore, in many regions the methods used to capture fish are pretty awful.

In Indonesia one method that has been used to capture fish for aquariums is known as ‘Cyanide fishing’. A harvester swims down to the reef with a squirt bottle bull of Cyanide, and then shoots a little jet of poison into cracks and crevices in the reef. The poison will often paralyze a targeted fish, which then floats out of its hiding place and is scooped up to be sold at a later date. Although many of these fish die from the cyanide, enough of them recover from the poison to make the method economically sound. Even then, if they survive the harvest method, many of these fish are now too weak to survive the journey to the pet store.

Despite the high death toll, the aquarium trade is so lucrative that it’s still an incredibly profitable industry. The truly sad thing is that the people that make the most money are the wealthy ‘middle-men’…the harvesters themselves are often in pretty rough shape economically, and they see the least return for their efforts. Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the damage done to the reef itself…as you can imagine, the small living animals that make up coral reefs can’t handle a poison like Cyanide, and areas of the reef where Cyanide fishing takes place can be irreparably damaged, which makes it difficult (if not impossible) for heavily fished areas to recover.

There an important fact to bear in mind here; the aquarium trade is incredibly lucrative. Some estimates actually place its overall value as equivalent to the trafficking of illegal drugs such as cocaine. With profit margins like that, there are always going to be unscrupulous characters that will do whatever it takes to make a quick buck; the bigger tragedy is that said unscrupulous characters make their money off of people that have no more nefarious designs than making a pretty fish tank.

Despite this doom and gloom, there’s some hope to be had here.  As with many problems we face in the marine world, this is an issue that could potentially be addressed without full cessation of the harvest (although I would argue that in many coral reefs around the world, an absolute cessation of harvest may be the only way they will ever recover from damage already done).

Here are some suggestions I have if you’re interested in having your own aquarium at home, without doing needless damage to the beautiful ecosystems that we strive so hard to re-create:

1) When purchasing animals from a pet store, ask where they came from and how they were harvested. There are a lot of companies out there that use harvest techniques that do far less damage to reefs than Cyanide fishing. By buying from those companies you’re making your money do the talking for you, and demonstrating that environmentally sustainable harvest methods are important to you as a consumer. Please bear in mind; animals sustainably harvested will probably cost more than those that aren’t. I argue that monetary difference is absolutely worth maintaining healthy ecosystems halfway around the world from whence your new little beastie came.

2) If the manager/owner of the pet store can’t tell you where/how the critters were collected DO NOT make a purchase at that store, as it is likely that the critters were collected in an unsustainable manner. Again, this is a case of making your money talk; don’t be afraid to let the proprietor know (tactfully please! Putting people on the defensive over their business practices is unlikely to win many sustainability ‘converts’) why you’re not going to purchase your critters from them. If said proprietor realizes that people are more likely to purchase sustainably harvested critters then that will put pressure on the suppliers to alter their collection methods, and the wild reefs will benefit.

3) If you are not ready for a salt water aquarium, don’t get one! This might sound a bit snarky, but it’s critical that people understand that maintaining a salt water aquarium (to say nothing of a ‘reef aquarium’ with live corals) is a huge investment of time and money, and that aquarium maintenance is a skill that takes time to fully cultivate. If this is your first aquarium, consider starting with an easier set up, and do your homework! Read up about proper aquarium maintenance, and talk to people that have some experience with aquariums about the best way to maintain them. Sadly, many people suffer from an excess of exuberance, and try to build an aquarium that is beyond their ability to maintain. Ultimately this results in the death of all the critters inside the tank, not to mention a lot of wasted money! When you consider the environmental cost involved with simply getting a critter into your tank, it’s pretty sad to think that so many of them die simply because the chemical balance of the tank was incorrect when they were placed inside.

Well, that’s all for me until next week! If you have any further suggestions as to how we can make positive change in this industry I’d love to hear from you. Until next time!


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